It was a living ordeal for Wani family in Bandipora who kept on losing its members gradually as arms uprising hit Kashmir. They passed through the torment of labels, assaults, disappearances and killings of their family members and yet they bounce back to life. Bilal Handoo visits the family, whose rendezvous with nightmare started two decades ago.
Before he speaks about his dreadful past, Nazir Wani, 32, of Shakbaba hamlet in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district, sighs heavily. Being the only surviving male member in his family, he has witnessed how one by one four of his family members were silenced forever. The death spree started, when a neighboring villager [driven by “mistaken” sense of vengeance] hacked his brother [class 9th student] to death with an axe. Soon his eldest bother, then brother-in-law and finally his father were first reported disappeared and later declared dead.
Ice-cold waves are flowing over the harvested fields of Shakbaba, where hardly any soul is visible. Some 60 odd families are living in this sleepy hamlet, gifted with planted hills and fast flowing streams. Villagers here say when guns started blazing in Kashmir in the nineties; Shakbaba was calm as compared to other parts of the valley, in spite of being active on armed resistance front.
But when the eldest son of Ghulam Mohammad Wani got disappeared in 1996 and later declared dead, a reminder was given to villagers that death isn’t far away.
Nazir Wani, a dark-complexioned man with greying stubble, is an employee in animal husbandry. He toiled hard to bounce back in his life after losing elders at home as a kid. The ordeal started for his family when his eldest brother decided to cross the line of control for arms training in the early nineties.
After receiving arms training in Pakistan administrative Kashmir, Habib Ullah [aka Ajaz], Nazir’s eldest brother became an active cadre of Hizbul Mujahideen in his hamlet. Then in 1995, he was incarcerated by border security force (BSF). His family members went to the BSF camp to seek his release. He was set free in early 1996 on the condition that he wouldn’t get back to gun again.
“Soon after his release, he was picked up by STF (special task force),” Nazir recalls, lowering his head. “I was studying in class 5 then. We were first told that he has disappeared, but as we persisted with his search, it was known that he has been taken to Srinagar by STF.”
As family continued with their efforts, STF later released him. During the same time, he got married to Yasmina, a girl from an adjacent village. For the time being, everything appeared fine for Wani family till a man from neighbouring village knocked at their door one day. The man was Ghulam Mohammad, who informed the family that some persons at his residence wanted to see Ajaz. Knowing the villager very well, Ajaz’s family let him go, without having an idea that it was the last time they were seeing their son alive.
Later that day, when Ajaz didn’t return, his parents grew uneasy. They went to search their son at the residence of the
man, who had taken their son with himself. “Look, two militants were looking for him. They were discussing something in a room for an hour before they took him along with themselves,” the man told the grieving parents. “One militant namely Habibullah of neighboring village told Ajaz to accompany him up to Sumler [the nearby village].”
Yasmina, a newlywed bride of Ajaz, who was visiting her parents, came back later that day, only to find her groom missing. Everybody waited in anticipation that Ajaz would turn up, but there was no clue of him. The family abstained themselves from lodging a missing report with police fearing that it might irk militants. And when his absence prolonged, his father, Ghulam Mohammad Wani, locally known as Gul Wani visited the home of the said militant who was seen with Ajaz one last time. The grieving father pleaded before militant’s brother and told him: “Please ask your brother, whether my son is dead or alive.”
Gul Wani was promised help. After a few days, the brother of said militant told him (Wani): “My brother declined to talk on the matter. And when I persisted, he even trained gun at me.” The denial seemed as the last nail in the coffin in the search of Ajaz, whose parents had no idea what had happened to their son. In between, one year had passed, and Ajaz was still missing.
After one year, another member of Wani family got disappeared. Mumtaz Ahmad Mir, son-in-law of Gul Wani was reported disappeared near Sirandhar Nallah forest in Bandipora. “He remained at the forefront while searching Ajaz,” Nazir says, while sipping tea, “this might have to do with his disappearance. Otherwise, he simply was a forest guard.”
The family couldn’t locate his body till now. After few days of his disappearance, Gul Wani stepped into the woods to search his lost son-in-law. Even he didn’t return till today. In less than 400 days, Wani family had lost three of its members.
With insurgents and counter-insurgents around, the family couldn’t muster the courage to mourn the loss in public. “We pretend as if nothing had happened to us,” Nazir says. “Two of my sisters were young; I myself was a kid and only surviving male in the family, so we chose to endure all loss in silence.”
But even silence adopted by Wani family was presumed as shady. As renegades [Ikhwanis] sprouted on the scene in Bandipora, they took a class 5 student, Nazir, into their custody. They wanted to know from a kid about his disappeared brother’s activities and his whereabouts. He was interrogated. They slammed an assault rifle on his left arm. The pain in his arm is reluctant to die down even after seventeen years have been passed. During the same time, the militant [Habibullah] had issued a shoot at sight orders for a class 5 student [Nazir], as he had seen a reflection of an Indian informer in him. All this labelling and counter-labelling forced Nazir to flee his home and take shelter in Srinagar.
But it wasn’t for the first time Nazir was forced to leave his home. At the beginning of nineties, his family, then living in Arina Bandipora, had fled. They were, in fact, forced to move.
During one late evening in December 1993, somebody knocked at the door of Wani’s residence in Arina. As Nazir’s elder brother, Abdul Rashid [a class 9 student] opened the door, an axe was slammed on his head from the dark cover outside. He was left dead on the spot. The assailant was a masked man, who had come with an intention to hack as many as Gul Wani’s children. As he tried to continue with his assault, Nazir’s elder sister caught hold of his axe and pulled the mask over his face. Much to their surprise, the assailant was known to the family. His name was Sonauallah Mir.
Mir’s son was found dead in Arina village in the autumn of 1993. Someone had spread a word around that Mir’s son was killed by the militant son of Gul Wani, Ajaz. This filled the grieving father with the sense of vengeance. After killing Gul Wani’s son, he was arrested and released very shortly after that.
“Later when Mir learnt that my brother had nothing to do with his son’s killing, he regretted and repented his actions. But it was too little and too late for us, as the damage was already done,” he says.
Soon, Gul Wani left his house in Arina Bandipora along with his wife, two sons and four daughters, and settled down in Shakbaba closer to the residence of his brother. After a few days, the family learnt that their house in Arina has been smoked up by some unknown men.
During his stay in Srinagar, Nazir was informed by his fellow villager that the militant [Habibullah], had surrendered. Sensing an opportunity, he returned home to be with his family.
“I married off two of my sisters after I returned home,” Nazir says. “My sisters were young and with renegades around, anything could have happened to them.”
But mystery over the fate of his three disappeared family members remained persistent until an Afghani militant showed up in Wani residence one day with the message.
The Afghani militant was the only person, who had witnessed the fate of a disappeared trio of Wani family. He only added assurance to what was taken for granted by the family: “All the three members of your family have been killed by some militants belonging to the neighbouring village.”
He went on to reveal that certain militants had sniffed anti-movement activities in Ajaz, which led to his killing. And when the family continued with their search, the two other members met the same fate.
“We owe great to him [Afghani],” says Nazir, “At least, he ended our living ordeal of guessing the fate of our dear ones.”
Like in other parts of the valley, insurgency and counter-insurgency of the nineties have left Shakbaba long back. The said militant, responsible forthe death of three members of Wani family, has abandoned gun and is now living a normal life in his village. The man, who axed Nazir’s brother to death, is too pacing with his life. And those, who torched the house of Wani family in early nineties, are too moving with their lives.
But, somehow Nazir’s mother hasn’t learnt to move on. She is on daily medication to stabilize the troubled murmurs in her heart. The death of her dear ones has left her heart-broken. “Every time, somebody mentions about death of our family members, her condition becomes worst,” Nazir says in between deep sighs.
Apart from her mother, Nazir’s wife also seems troubled. She stands at the door of the room listening to our conservation. Maybe, assuring herself that I am no threat to her family.
The sky is covered with dark clouds and ice-cold waves are still flowing over Shakbaba when I walk back on the potholed roads along with Nazir. A few steps away from his home, a vast stretch of martyr’s graveyard is making its glaring presence. The land once belonged to Wani family, who gave it away to bury martyrs. “I lost the whereabouts of my family members forever, but in this martyrs graveyard, people will at least have an address of their loved ones,” he says, while walking back to his home.