In November last year when three men from godforsaken Kupwara’s Dardpora village went missing mysteriously, the memories of 90s came back to haunt residents. Shakir Mir treks to the hamlet to understand the pain of the families
Around 118 kms north of Srinagar city, Sadboyn is pastoral hinterland located several meters above the benighted Dardpora village in the Kupwara district. There are clusters of houses – separated from each other by vast tracts of pasture land. In the intermediate area, herds of goats graze at the dried grass.
Dardpora has an inglorious distinction. It’s often called the village of widows. There are as many as 200 widows in the village. During the tumultuous period of 90’s, the village would seethe with unrest. It’s proximity with the border made it one of popular go-betweens connecting militants intruding from the LOC with the rest of the Kashmir region. Many village men also came into their fold. The latest crises emanated when the news surfaced that two men from the village and one from the neighboring Trehgam had gone mysteriously missing.
Seventeen-year-old Shabnum is leaning against the wall at the porch of her house. Her two sisters Rifat and Ulfat slip out grudgingly, covering their faces, smiling. Their house is a wooden lodge surrounded by red corrugated tin sheets. The structure oversees a vast expanse of jagged terrain. Nearly a kilometer away, the tarmac ends. The rest of the journey requires muscle-straining trek along an inhospitable pathway fraught with mud, boulders and frost.
Shabnum and her five other siblings bask in the glory of warm sun. Their mother is away for treatment at the sub-district hospital. “She hasn’t been keeping well for several days,” she says hoarsely.
The children are alone. In absence of their father, they are increasingly finding it difficult to eke out a living. Just two months ago, everything had been hunky dory. They would spend lively time with their father, Mir Hussain Khatana, a labourer.
“This village has become a fiefdom of sorts for the army,” says Nazir Ahmad, Sarpanch of the village. “There are numerous porters of army here. Often, army bangs at their doors at the dead of night and spends time with them.”
On November 17, 2015, Hussain, a surrendered militant, was at home when he received a phone call.
The caller was Manzoor Ahmad of 160 Battalion of Territorial Army. “He would often visit us,” recalls Shubnam. But that day, he asked Hussain to come along. According to his family, Hussain, a labourer – earning meager 400 rupees a day –listened intently. He left for Kralpora, some five kms away, to meet Manzoor.
Till night when Hussain did not return, the family grew restless. They made frantic calls while trying to inquire his whereabouts. His nephew Altaf had just returned from Chandigarh for vacations. “I tried to look out for him at many places but to no avail,” says Altaf.
Before disappearing, Hussain along with Manzoor had gone to the house of Ghulam Jeelani. “He told our father to come along,” says Shafeeqa, Jeelani’s daughter. Father of seven, Jeelani had been working as an army porter. Two of his children are visually-impaired. He earned lucratively from his career with army, according to one of his neighbors. Police, however, maintains that both Hussain and Jeelani had a dubious track record of frequenting the Pakistan-administered Kashmir to “collect intelligence.”
Following Jeelani’s “questionable” departure, his family tried numerous efforts to search him. “We went place to place to seek out him,” his wife says. Distant relatives, families of Hussain and Jeelani began comforting each other; visiting homes and exchanging condolences. “We just want our men back,” Shafeeqa says, with moist eyes.
Their families fear the army might just do them to the same fate that most disappeared have been since the insurgency first erupted. When the men did not come back after several days, the families decided lodging an FIR. After days of merry-go-round involving interactions with media and police, they were dished out an explanation they found unconvincing.
According to police, the men might have crossed over to the other side of the border. Their claim was lent some heft by the statement of Farooq, a sumo driver who has taken them to the border near Karen sector along with accused Manzoor. “Farooq testified he had driven the men to the area close to border,” a source said.
Although Manzoor conceded before police that he was in touch with the trio before they vanished but stopped short of telling what happened to them later. He has been pleading non-guilty but families of disappeared have contested both police version and Manzoor’s denial.
“Our father is illiterate,” Hussain’s daughter says. “He cannot read. How is it possible that he is a spy?”
His wife sounded incredulous in a similar spirit. “He cannot abandon his family this way,” she says. “Both Manzoor and police are lying. He (Manzoor) knows where my husband is.”
Farooq’s testimony, sources alleged, was crucial for police for zeroing on the assumption that they might have crossed over for purpose of spying.
Villagers around Darpora voiced the similar apprehension. Even the Sarpanch cast doubts on the credibility of the missing men. “We have only maintained distance from such double-faced people,” he says cryptically, without explaining much as to why he hurled the slur.
At Gojjar Patti in Dardpora, Jeelani’s children assemble outside their home. Most of them are frail; their clothes worn off. A limping figure emerges from the door. He gropes for the threshold while stepping down the stairs. “He cannot see,” Shafeeqa says. “And so can’t Aisha.”
Aisha is their 18 year-old-sister. Both the siblings were born blind. Their mother Saleema increasingly finds it difficult to cope with an extended family in absence of her husband. The family scraped together the entire ration they had. “We are about to run out of the eatables,” she says. Their misery is compounded by the fact that there are barely any shops in Sadboyn. They have to climb down half a kilometer down to Dardpora to purchase ration.
“Presently, our uncles and relatives are helping us to sustain,” says Nasreena, Shafeeqa’s sister. As the conversation lingers, a wiry man approaches. “He is my uncle,” she says.
Noor Hasan lives nearby. He regularly visits his near-adult nieces and guards them in absence of his brother. Hasan routinely gets the necessary ration, fuel and firewood so that family does not starve. “They have been eating little,” Hasan says.
Jeelani’s family has lost hope after police declared that they have crossed over to the other side. For them, police is invariably lying. “Police hasn’t been helpful to us,” he alleges. Hasan unravels his turban before cupping his hands while breaking out into a prayer.
Some 500 meters up the hilly terrain, Hussain’s family is in relatively a better position. When asked about how they had been surviving, they sounded unforthcoming. “Bas guzara kar letay hai” (We just manage it).
One of their relatives, however, wishing anonymity says that Hussain owns Sumo vehicle which he has leased to Showkat, an acquaintance who lives nearby. “Showkat would ferry passengers and earn some money,” he says. “He would give a certain percentage to his family.”
But given the alleged “intimacy” of Hussain and Jeelani with the army, the Sarpanch Nazir could not rule out the possibility that the latter would drop ration at their homes. The family denied these allegations as “baseless.” Curiously, however, a close relative admitted that post disappearance, army pickets frequented Hussain’s house to inquire if they had run out of ration. “They assured that they would offer them whatever they wanted,” he says.
The story involving the disappearance of third person Ali Hussain is shrouded with mystery. He lives in Dolipora in Trehgam. Media reports quoting police sources alleged that Ali had been a former JKLF militant. His “good knowledge of tracks leading to PoK” seems to have lent credence to the theory that the trio has crossed the border.
“But even then it doesn’t not absolve the army,” says a member of Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS). “Whether they are disappeared or sent across the border, their families are in their need.”
Meanwhile, the army spokesperson told Kashmir Life that the “investigations are underway” and that it is early to comment.
On December 23, 2015, the families of the trio had driven down to Srinagar. Grown weary of the agonizing wait, they pleaded before the media as part of a last effort to “pressurize” the government into coming clean over the disappearance of the men.
Where have they gone? The moot questions remains. This case does not require any investigation at all, says a man at Gojjar Patti.
A village elder, Nazir says that army lures porters to act as guides for militants from PaK to cross over to this side along with weapons and these men may be on the same mission. When asked why they would do it, he rolled his eyes. “You yourself know it,” he says. “How else would army function and sustain in Kashmir?”