The turmoil has exacted a heavy toll on Kashmir. For each causality reported there is an unreported emptied lap. Shazia Khan meets a few mothers who have lost all their sons to the conflict.
Sitting on the small wooden verandah of her old mud house in Aloosa Bandipora, 67 year old Saida was applying an ointment to her knee. She was whispering something inaudible. The Shalwar on her left leg was folded above the knee revealing an injury that had turned blue.
“Last night at around 2 pm my knee got hurt when I banged into a door of our house,” she says, “I heard my three sons outside the door. They were calling me… When I tried to open the door, I hurt my knee and fell down.”
Sitting by her side her 35 year old daughter Shakeela, who was in the same room last night says, “There was nobody outside.” To console her mother and shake her back into senses she tells her mother, “You dreamt about them again because you don’t take medicines properly these days.”
However, Saida insists that she heard her sons.
But when Shakeela pointed towards a piece of land with rusting barbed wire fencing a few meters from their house and asked her, “They are buried there…… don’t you know that?” Saida nodded and replied, “My sons are resting there. How can I forget that – they are buried under mounds of mud and gravestone.”
While walking towards that graveyard Saida points towards a score of graves, “All of them were killed by army… some in encounters, and…some in custody,” she says and stopped at a grave. “Here lays my elder son Bilal. He was born in 1975, but after only 25 years his father laid him to rest here. A few feet away his younger brother Ayoub lies in another grave. He was killed by army too.”
“I have asked village elders not to bury anyone in between the graves of my two sons. I want my third son Azad who was killed at the border (LoC) but whose body has not been given to us yet, to be buried there. When I receive his body, I will bury him in between them. Azad was only seventeen years old when he got killed; his brothers loved him more than anything.”
From last sixteen years Saida is in a state of “disturbed bereavement – a mental ailment,” says Shakeela. Saida has been on medication for more than a decade.
“Doctors told us that she is physically fit but psychologically depressed with little chances of recovery. She has reached a stage where she is neither ready to forget her past nor accept the reality of her dead sons,” Shakeela explained.
Saida had three sons. The two elder ones Bilal (25) and Ayoub(24), joined militant ranks in 1990 like many young men of their village.
“Both of them were actively involved in militancy for about four years,” Shakeela said. In August of 1994, Ayoub was killed in an encounter at Kursu Bandipora.
“There were more than ten bullets in his chest. Residents of Kursu told us that Ayoub fought bravely for several hours and when his ammunition exhausted, he received army’s bullets on his chest,” she said.
Ayoub’s death left his mother distraught, says Shakeela, who pleaded with another son, Bilal, to quit militancy. “But he did not listen to her and only three months after Ayoub’s death, army arrested and killed him at Qoyil Muqaam Bandipora,” she added.
When her elder brothers were killed Azad her younger brother, who had also joined militants was in Pakistan administered Kashmir. Shakeela says, “My mother after the death of her sons started spending days waiting for his third son’s return.” The wait and the hope of seeing her only surviving son did not last long. Within a year the family got the news of Azad’s death. He was killed while crossing the LoC.
The death of all their sons left the aging Saida and her husband distraught. “There was nobody left in our house to look after and support my parents. On one hand we were facing the wrath of conflict and on the other there was no source of income. Managing a daily meal became hard for us,” says Shakeela.
In 1995, Saida’s husband Abdullah Bhat married off Shakeela to Riyaz Ahmad Lone. “Riyaz was working as a laborer. He became more like a son for my parents and supported them for more than one and a half years. However, in 1996 while I was pregnant he also joined a militant outfit and a year later he was also killed in an encounter near LoC.”
Shakeela bore a daughter soon after, and her father had to take care of all of them.
“My husband’s death added to my parents’ agony – father became a heart patient and mother a mental patient. She lost her capacity of hearing. To feed us, father started working again but only after five years he died due to a heart attack.”
The abject poverty, the mother daughters are living in, is taking away any interest in life for Saida.
She says, “I don’t know if I am a fortunate woman or the most ruined person in world. Almighty Allah bestowed me four sons including my son in law but they all got killed in Jihad. I am waiting for my eyes to close and reunite with my sons in the heaven, forever. I don’t want to lose them again.”
A few kilometer from Aloosa, in another Bandipora village, Wangam, lives 70 year old Hajira. In her kitchen cum living room, Hajira was pressing hard against her stomach due to the pain in her pancreas and liver.
“From past seven years I am suffering from multiple organ problems”, she said “Doctors recommended surgery but last year when they tried, with a heamoglobin of six they found me too weak for an operation.”
Doctors have prescribed Hajira medicines to reduce her pain but she cannot afford those drugs. “I cannot take them regularly. They cost thousands of rupees. I have to struggle hard for a meal how can I afford costly medicines,” she asked.
“If my four sons were alive they would never leave me in such a painful state,” rues Hajira.
Like Saida, Hajira has also lost her three sons to turmoil while her fourth son disappeared in custody in 1995.
“My three sons – Nazir Ahmad, Rafiq Ahmad and Ajaz Ahmad – were killed by army in encounters while my fourth son Bashir Ahmad was picked up in 1995 and till date I don’t know his whereabouts,” says Hajira.
“Bashir was the third one,” she says while pointing towards the photographs of her sons hanging on the mud wall of the room. “Bashir was only 25 when he was taken away. His separation has ruined me and my family.” she continued, “My other three sons Nazir 32, Rafiq 28 and Ajaz 17 sacrificed their lives while searching their brother. But all our efforts to locate him proved ineffective. Few months ago my husband also passed away. He died after a long ailment. Before closing his eyes he told me that he wanted to see his son Bashir for one last time but I was helpless…I could not fulfill his last wish.”
One morning fifteen years ago, Hajira says, army’s Garhwal Rifles in a day long cordon and search operation picked up eight young men including Bashir. For three consecutive days, Hajira and other villagers visited various army camps in whole Bandipora District to seek the whereabouts of these young men. However, she said, at every camp army denied the arrest.
Hajira along with her two elder sons also approached the police and tried to file a report. “Officials refused to entertain our complaint,” she added.
A month later, Hajira says, the family came to know that Bashir was detained at an army camp at Sopore. The family along with some village elders visited the camp, where army officials denied his presence saying they have been shifted to Baramulla jail and later Central Jail Srinagar.
“We went to Baramulla sub-jail and Central Jail Srinagar, but were unable to find him,” says Hajira.
The unending searches of years to know whereabouts of Bashir, the callous approach of authorities left Hajira exhausted and her other sons angry and restless.
“When nobody helped, they sought help of militants in searching him, and later when they also could not provide any relevant information about Bashir my other sons decided to join them and fight against the atrocities of state and army.”
Nazir was first among them to join, he got killed in an encounter near Panzigam, some months later army killed her other son Rafiq, says Hajira. Some two years later she came to know Aijaz was also killed.
They were not given or shown his body. She says, she identified him in a photograph police showed him.
“Despite having four sons once, God has left me to survive on alms at the last stage of my life. Can there be a bigger misery,” she asked.
“I have reached at a point where neither I am able to live nor I want to die without knowing the whereabouts of my missing son. I want to know what they have done with him. If they have killed him let me know where he is buried and if he is alive please set him free. There is no one left to shoulder my coffin.”
In another north Kashmir village of Devar Lolab lives Jana Begum (60). In the past twelve years, her three sons fell to bullets while forth one has been missing for the last six years.
Left with four unwed daughters of marriageable age she says, “It seems life is a long road of grief where there is no place to rest or hope…”
However, twelve years back her house was full of life and hope. “Although poor, I was living happily with my sons and my husband,” says Jana.
She says, “On October 12, 1998, my two elder sons -Muhammad Bakhtiyar and Muhammad Sharief – just left my house and never came back.”
Bakhtiyar was a cleric and Sharief a laborer. Both of them worked in Srinagar.
“Before leaving Bakhtiyar kissed my forehead and told me, ‘Do not worry about sisters, I will work hard and marry them off, and clear all family debts’,” Jana said.
For about a month when she did not receive any information about them, she became anxious. “It was for the first time when they didn’t inform us about their wellbeing.”
Though there was no telephone in their village then, but they would receive information about them through many of their neighbours working in Srinagar.
Jana asked her husband Abdul Karim Mir to go to Srinagar and meet them. “When my husband reached Lal Bazar Mosque where Bakhtiar was working as cleric, he was told that he had not returned from his village.”
The news was more than an alarm and they started searching them in all possible places. When the family could not trace them, Karim and Jana finally approached Police station Kupwara to lodge a missing report.
“Before filing the report a police official asked me to show him their photographs. When they saw them in photograph, they told they have seen them. They took me to another room of police station and put a number of photographs of dead bodies in front of me. First I could not understand why they were showing me these photographs but at a close look, I saw my sons in blood stained cloths,” says Jana and cried inconsolably.
“I could not accept that my sons were dead. But I couldn’t deny photographs shown by police. After a few minutes a cop came and gave their bloodstained cloths and I broke down.”
“I hadn’t only lost my sons but all my dreams and hopes. I cried my heart out there. Many policemen tried to console me but couldn’t. I asked them how they got killed… they said that they received these bodies from Border Security Forces who told them they were militants and were killed in an encounter,” informed Jana.
Jana said she told them that her sons were not militants. They were innocents they worked in Srinagar to earn a living for the family. But cops refused to listen. “They put an FIR in my hand saying that this will help you.”
The FIR reads. “On specific information SOG of police along with the troops of 129 Battalion of BSF laid an ambush in Gulan area Kupwara at 20.00 hrs in December 10, 1998. Some movements of Anti National Elements were spotted in the jungle and were challenged. The ANE’s fired on the party, minutes later a search was conducted and two unidentified dead bodies were found. Arms and ammunition was recovered from spot.”
A month later Jana’s husband Karim passed away. “He died of shock,” says Jana.
Jana was yet to come to terms with the death of her two sons and husband when an unidentified gunman dragged out her 16 year old son Lateef from their home in 2002 and killed him. “Why he was killed is still a mystery for me. Although I have lodged an FIR but police is yet to investigate the murder.”
Her miseries did not end there. In 2004 her other son Sharif-ud- Din disappeared while returning from the mosque. “I searched him everywhere but could not find him. Even I approached the police but as usual nothing happened.”
Six years have passed since and she has no hope of her son being alive. “I am sure he is not alive. They have killed him in the same way like my other sons.”
Jana is torn between keeping the rest of the family from getting completely ruined and a mother’s anxiety to shed a tear on her young sons’ graves.
“I know that they are not going to book the killers of my sons. They cannot go against their own men but at least let me know where my three sons are buried.”
Unlike Jana who has lost all the hope of seeing her missing son Shareif-ud- Din, 60-year-old Raja of Hatmullah of the same district is still waiting the day when “army will release” her son.
Raja had two sons. One of whom was killed by security forces in 2003, while her other son has been subjected to enforced disappearance eleven years ago.
“I am living for the day when army will release my elder son Muhammad Akbar Mir,” says Raja.
“Akbar my beloved son was only 17 when he disappeared. He was studying in class 10. He would be 28 now. I want to see him… listen to him… hug him.”
One morning, in 1999, Akbar along with his friends left home to play a cricket match at Neel Khand in Kupwara. “While playing an army vehicle stopped nearby and picked up three boys including Akbar. However his other friends were released after some days but Akbar was held back,” says Raja.
“When I came to know about his arrest, I rushed to a nearby army camp. But they told me they don’t know anything about it.”
Raja Begum approached Police Station Kupwara. “One of the policeman there told me to search him at Sopore police station. The moment I reached there, he was taken to some unknown place, and after that I didn’t get any information about him.”
Eleven years have passed and she is yet to get any information about her son. During these years, Raja Begum says, she has approached many officers, knocked the door of every police station, detention centers and army camps but was unable to trace her son. She has even filed a case in court, where it has been pending for nine years.
While Raja was trying to cope with Akhbar’s disappearance, destiny brought another tragedy to her life. Her eleven year old younger son Firdous Ahmad Sheikh was killed by security forces. He was class 6th student. One morning in 2003, Firdous while returning from mosque was closing the main gate of our house but a security force personnel fired at him killing him on the spot.
Raja’s daughter could not bear the death and disappearance of her brothers and only after a year she died of a heart attack.
The disappearance of Akbar, untimely death of her son and daughter has crippled Raja and her husband Ghulam Nabi Sheikh, physically and mentally. Sheikh after the death of her children lost his eyesight.
At present the poor old couple is left with a teen granddaughter who was abandoned by her father after her mother’s death.
Raja Begum says, “Almighty wanted to test our patience, I know if we will stand firm he will let our son to be with us.”
Eleven years of backbreaking search for their son proved futile for the old couple but failed to snatch away their hope.
For another mother life after the death of her two sons has become “the curse of a tragedy that has no end.” Fifty-five year old Hafiza of Kotwal in south Kashmir’s Islamabad district lost her sons at the hands of army twenty years back.
She says, “The killers of my sons left scars so deep that even after eighteen years the pain refuses to go away.
“Our teenage sons’ killing turned my husband into a patient and he also left me alone in this insane world.”
Hafeeza says, “In 1990 there was huge influence of Mujahideen in Islamabad district. My elder son Farooq Ahmad Khan, a class 12th student then became enamoured with militancy and left his home to join a militant group.”
“I tried my level best to prevent him from joining the militancy. Even in July 1990 I got him married to my niece but that also didn’t work out,” says Hafiza. Four months after his marriage, on 18th November he was killed in an encounter at KP road Islamabad.
Recalling the fateful day Hafiza says “At around 8 in morning we heard deafening explosions followed by gunfire. Within fifteen minutes, the whole area was cordoned by army. I locked the main gate of my house to prevent army from entering our house.”
The gun battle lasted for about 8 hours. In the evening Hafiza says, she heard people saying that army had set fire to the building in which militants were holed up but they could not recover anything except a half burnt unidentified body.
“Everyone in our locality was praising the bravery of that militant. People rushed towards the spot,” she says. “Police after investigation handed over the body to the residents of that area, who buried him at martyr’s graveyard in the town.”
Hafiza said that next day she came to know that slain militant was his son Farooq. “The news shocked me to an extent that I lost my consciousness and when I regained it I recalled words of my son who used to say that he was born for a cause and he will die as a martyr,” says Hafiza.
“People around me were trying to console me but I was more like in a dilemma whether to celebrate his martyrdom or to mourn his death. On one hand it was restiveness of my son who let him die for his land but on the other hand I was thinking about the uncertain future of my 17 year old daughter in law who was three months pregnant that time.”
Hafiza was yet to recuperate from the death of her militant son when, she says, troopers killed her other son Mushtaq.
“Some one and a half year after that tragic incident they (army) killed my another son Mushtaq,” she says.
“We tried to cope with Farooq’s death but Mushtaq’s killing completely ruined us. It shattered all my dreams and the purpose of my life.”
“Mushtaq was innocent, and had never been associated with any militancy related activity,” but why he was killed is still a mystery for me,” says Hafiza
Two years ago Hafeeza lost her husband. She lives with her 17-year-old grandson and daughter-in-law (34).
She says her life is empty with nothing left in it, except “some of the moments she once shared with her two sons and husband.