Grave Dreams of a Gravedigger

Atta Mohammad Khan, who has buried more than 230 bodies of unknown people, every evening brings alive gruesome memories of mutilated faces. A first person account by Sameer Yasir shares haunting recollections the old and fragile gravedigger lives with.

The haze had covered the northern edge of Tchahl village. A little away from a cricket ground, three men in their 60s, sat on a nearby rock patiently looking at Atta Mohammad Khan, the gravedigger. A few policemen were watching him dig a grave for a slain ‘unidentified militant’.All of a sudden, Atta shouted at the three men to help him bury the dead man. One of them, Ghulam Mohiudin Dar refused saying he would get nightmares if he looked at the body.

The following day the police summoned Dar, a resident of  Sheeri village. He rushed from his field with his feet still covered with mud and reached the Sheeri police station. The SHO showed him the photograph of a dead boy asking Dar to identify him. The moment he looked at the photograph, he fell on his knees crying like a child. The boy Atta Mohammad Khan had buried and whom Dar had refused to bury a day earlier was Dar’s young son, Bashir.

Atta Mohammad’s cry still haunts Dar when he had asked Dar to help him bury the dead ‘militant’. For Atta, who has buried more than 230 dead bodies like that the silence of dark evenings bring back gruesome memories of all those mutilated faces he put six feet under the ground.

He says all the bodies were delivered to him by the police. After some initial inquiry about the credentials of the dead, he stopped asking questions.

I meet Atta in his crumbling cemented house where he lives with his wife and son. He has difficulty recognizing people easily. After a lot of insistence, he agreed to take me to the graveyard. It has been months since he visited the place. He says, he doesn’t go there often as it reminds him of all the gore he has witnessed.

After climbing a small hillock we reached the graveyard. Khan sat silently on a huge rock looking at these unmarked graves like a defeated and tired man. I felt as if the dead in the graves were talking to him and he understood everything they said. His eyes became moist, his face pale. There is silence that subdues my eagerness to know what and how he felt while burying them without their families and without knowing who they were. I sat silently beside him- watching him patiently.

When the policehad brought the first dead body here, the villagers had questioned them and refused to bury the ‘foreign militant’ as they had doubts about who the dead man was.

“While digging the grave, my entire body was trembling. I couldn’t sleep for the whole night…We couldn’t recognize him. His face had been disfigured and there were severe burn marks on his neck and shoulders. I can never forget that day,” Khan said.

There is no symmetrical order for the graves. It is a coarse unkempt piece of land undone and it doesn’t look like a graveyard, as if everyone was buried in a hurry.

Earlier the dead bodies of unidentified people would be buried at Kitchama graveyard but when there was no more space left another place had to be fixed as the dead came along uninterrupted. The graveyard at Tchahl fitted the paradigm for the police. The village has remained relatively calm even during the militancy years. Perhaps it is close to the army’s brigade headquarters at Boniyar.

The police would come, sometimes in the day or in the dead of the night, handover the bodies to Khan, make him sign the papers and leave. He would go home wash his blood-drenched cloths and dreadfully wait for more mutilated dead bodies.
Most of the dead had multiple bruises and some would even be partly decomposed. Torture marks and the scary looks of the bodies are still afresh in Atta’s mind.

“I hardly remember a night when I had sound sleep. These bodies always haunt me,” he says.

One day when he was working in the field, the police called him and asked to dig graves for nine dead men.

“I dug nine graves on that day but did not know that my own nephew, Saleem, was among them. I couldn’t recognize him because all the faces were disfigured. It looked like they had been dragged down the mountain face down. After two days when Saleem’s (Atta’s nephew) father identified his photograph, I came to know he had been buried within one of those nine graves. I did not know he had become a militant. He was my sister’s only son.”

When Atta Mohammad Khan spoke on the record before the State Human Rights Commission in Srinagar, about burying the bodies from 2002 to 2006. There was silence in the room and every one listening was numbed.

Khan had also told the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice (IPTK) that the bodies have appeared in his nightmares.

“My nights are tormented and I cannot sleep, the bodies and graves appear and reappear in my dreams,” he told the investigators. “I have tried to remember all this … the sound of the earth as I covered the graves … bodies and faces that were mutilated … mothers who would never find their sons. My memory is an obligation. My memory is my contribution. I am tired, I am so very tired,” hesaid.

He says, although his son buried a few bodies here, Atta won’t let him do this work. The worst part, says Atta, was when he had to exhume some of them. When families used to arrive with orders from the District Magistrate he had to disinter them.

The old and fragile gravedigger says that they (police) don’t get bodies here anymore.

“There must be another place they might have found. There must be some poor gravedigger like me doing the job for them. I used to think the cricket ground would be one day full of graves. I thought one day I would be one among them,” Atta said expressing a desire to be buried among the same people whom he has buried there over the years. He wants to join the dead.

As we left the graveyard and parted ways, I kept thinking about Atta’s ordeal and his journey through the turbulent times.

The ‘smell’ of human flesh, the boy with gouged eyes, another with cuts and deep burn marks on his face, a tall Punjabi-looking man who couldn’t fit into the grave. Bashir Ahmad Dar who was recognized, Mohammad Saleem who was never identified. Javid Iqbal Khan of Shopian whom a construction worker recognized and informed his family. Mohammad Altaf Beg, the lone brother among four sisters, who left his home one evening and never returned only to be later found in one of the graves here.

In his powerful novel,The Collaborator, author Waheed Mirza’s nameless narrator contemplates “ I am aware that these bodies, these remains of our ‘disappeared’ boys, might serve as evidence one day…for someone to make a shocking discovery…for someone to write a front-page story…for someone to order a judicial inquiry. But then who actually cares or does anything in the end? No one is ever punished here. It will only ever be a story”.

As I crossed the cement bridge which connects the main highway with Tchahl. The sunset and the yellowish light descend on the hills of Boniyar. It  presented a beautiful picture of the village. We waved towards each other and Atta disappeared in a green field.

His words have been echoingin my ears for the last many nights that these people buried in these graves are waiting for their loved onesto come and at least take their skeletons home and bury them in their own graveyards.
I wondered, the dead Atta has buried may undertake yet another journey – from anonymous to who they were and to their native graveyards.

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