Conviction of a Lonely Mother

Sad and lonely but proud Nabza has lost all her four sons to the ongoing conflict in Kashmir. Majid Maqbool tracks the story of the old woman who lives with the conviction that her sons’ sacrifices will never go in vain.

Photographs of the slain sons of Lassa Khan and Nabza

Imagine an old woman who has lost her four young sons fighting a state. She may be living a miserable life but is proud of the ‘sacrifice’ she and her sons have made for their convictions. She has made herself a reservoir of hope and lives a belief that while her sons live in her memory others who may have forgotten them are ‘dead’ people.

Nabza Bano, 65, stands near a small cornfield where her three-storey house once stood in Sundbrari village, about 85 km from the Srinagar, in Anantnag District. Lost in a melancholic silence, she points at the remains of her old house—a few burnt logs lining the fencing of the cornfield. Years of mourning has dried up her eyes.

Her two houses and two cowsheds were burnt down by the army.  But what pains her most is the absence of her three sons—all of them killed by the army during the last twenty years of the ongoing conflict. The loss has affected her deeply.

In a small, one storey house, Nabza now lives with her terminally ill husband, her only daughter and son-in-law, and two children of her elder son who died of torture. For six months that winter, after their house was set on fire by the army, they lived in a tent adjacent to the burnt remains of their house. Then their neighbors and relatives helped them to build a modest one storey house.

The family lives in poverty with the son-in-law, who moved in after Nabza lost all her own three sons and a stepson, is a laborer and only breadwinner for the family which includes two children of his own.

Nabza’s husband, Las Khan, is suffering from asthma. His treatment costs around fifteen thousand rupees per month. Last month the family had to sell off one of their cows for his treatment.

Following the killing of his sons, Las Khan fell ill. He never recovered from the shock of losing them. Bed-ridden for ten years, he is looked after by his daughter and son-in-la. In his small room, Khan remains confined to his bed and needs help even to walk to the bathroom. A few pictures of his sons hang on the wall side by side. He is not able to hear and speak properly, but he remembers in detail the circumstances in which he lost his sons. Gasping for breath, he prays regularly, five times a day, in a prostrate position.

The only thing locked in his room is a small tin box lying adjacent to his bed. Nabza unlocks it and pulls out all the carefully maintained death certificates and pictures of his sons. Then Nabza spreads them out, one by one, and stares at them. A picture of her youngest son, a 13-year-old boy stands out. Along with the pictures of their burnt down house, there are photos of one of her sons holding an AK-47 rifle and funeral processions of her children. Then she turns to the pictures as if talking to her sons – incoherent lamentations of how much she misses all of them, and how she wishes at least one of them lived.

Suddenly a child of her elder son, who died of torture in army custody, enters the room. He brings in a half-burnt samovar and leaves it in the middle of the room. The samovar was found a few days back in the cornfield where their old house once stood. They stare at the blackened samovar in silence, turning it around. Their silence is filled with memories of their old house.

Nabza says in their old house they used to serve tea to the guests in this samovar, the only thing recovered from the burnt remains of their house.

Las Khan brings out a pocket diary he has maintained over the years. He flips its small pages, showing entries made by him in Urdu. The diary has a detailed record of how and when his sons were killed. It’s a written testimony of the tragedies the family has endured.

When his sons were alive, Khan was himself arrested by the army several times. For failing to convince his sons to surrender, he was tortured and beaten up in custody. His son-in-law shows an old picture, showing Khan’s broken and bandaged arm.

“The army said they would give me Rs 13 Lakh if my son surrenders,” says Khan. “But my son had not picked up the gun for money,” he asserts. “He would not even call me father had I taken even 15 paisa from the army.”

From his first marriage, Khan had only one son, Mukhtar Ahmad. At the age of 40, Mukhtar was killed in an encounter by the army in their village on January 5, 1997. He was a militant, says Khan.

Las Khan’s two sons from his second marriage with Nabza—Ajaz Khan and Ghulam Hassan—picked up the gun in the early 1990s when the armed rebellion broke out in Kashmir. Both of them had joined the indigenous rebel group, Hizbul Mujahideen.

Nabza’s second son Ajaz Khan, 25, was killed in an encounter by the army on April 18, 2002, just after having a glass of milk from his mother. “He had come home that day after more than six months,” recalls Nabza. The army had laid an ambush outside their home. In the encounter that ensued on the street, he died while fighting. He received two bullets in his chest. “The army from seven companies laid an ambush for him that day,” says Nabza, proud that her son did not hide in any of the neighborhood houses. “Some families had offered him their houses to hide in during the encounter but he declined, saying he could not bring harm to any civilian or property.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The encounter began at 4 pm. Ajaz fought, says his mother, till all his ammunition was exhausted. He was killed around 2 pm in the night. After his death, Nabza recalls, the troopers fired in jubilation.

Nabza’s eldest son, Ghulam Hassan, 35, was also a Hizbul Mujahideen rebel. He was one of the first youth from their village to join militant ranks in the early 90s, says his father. “In 2003 he was arrested and tortured in custody for eight days in the RR (Rashtriya Rifles) military camp,” says Nabza.

A few days later, he died of internal and external injuries while offering morning prayers, recalls Nabza. “I held him close to my chest. I would not let him go, then I don’t know… I fainted.”

Hassan was her only married son. He had two children, a daughter, and a son. After his death, his wife remarried. The two children now live with Nabza. “After he died, the army lied and said that he had a heart attack in custody,” says Las Khan. “They even wrote it in his death certificate.”

The youngest of their sons, Mohammad Abbas, was just 13 when he was killed by the army on November 25, 1999, along with six other militants. Nabza says he would sometimes help the militants reach safety. “But he was not a militant and he never had a gun,” she claims. The death certificate issued by the police to the family mentions Abbas as a ‘19-year-old militant’.

“He had taken food for a few mujahids in the mountains and as soon as they finished eating, the army laid an ambush and killed all of them in the encounter including him,” says the mother.

Facing constant harassment from the government agencies, the family was forced to leave their village. They lived in hiding in Srinagar city for about three years.

“One day in 1998 when the army raided our old house, the troopers threatened to burn it if we don’t hand over my son, Ghulam Hassan, to them. One day, when they were away from their village, they received a phone call. “Your house is in flames,” the caller had said.

Looking at her ailing husband, Nabza recalls how he was beaten every time army raided their house, asking for their sons’ whereabouts.

Now, all that Nabza is left with is her unshakable faith in God. She has a firm belief that her sons did not die in vain. She says Allah must have taken note of her sacrifices. “Inshallah, Aeke nate aeke doh maele assi azaedi (We will get freedom one day, Inshallah),” she says with conviction.

Nabza refuses to believe that her sons are dead. For her, they are all alive in her memories. She remembers them every day. She even talks to their pictures as if they are in front of her. “Yeam saere pauter meyaen chhe zindai (All my sons are alive),” she says in Kashmiri, looking at their small pictures spread out in front of her. After a brief pause, she adds, “aes che saere moedmet (We are all dead).”

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