When the first gun battle of last three decades unfolded in a marginalised locality of Mujgund, it pushed eight families to a new level of destitution, reports Omer Fayaz
At 11 am, on December 12, 2018, people in Mujgund area had gathered at the encounter site, working tirelessly to clear the debris of houses destroyed in the gunfight that took place four days ago.
The 18-hour-long gunfight had ended with the killing of three militants, leaving two civilians injured. Of the slain Lashkar trio, one was a Pakistani, Ali. The two were locals and minors – Mudasir Parrey, 14 and Saqib Bilal Sheikh, 17. The latter, interestingly, had played a role as an extra in Vishal Bhradwaj’s Haider. In one scene, Vishal shows him celebrating his survival while he jumps out of a heap of corpses. In another one, he is seen visiting a cemetery where people are busy digging new graves.
Located 15 km from Srinagar, Mujgund, is situated along the banks of river Jhelum on Bandipora-Srinagar highway. Having seen no encounter in last three decades, residents of Fisheries Colony didn’t know how it was to be affected by an encounter.
“I remember only two encounters in my lifetime, one each at Panzinara and Bakshi Pora,” recalls Abdul Rahim Dar, 70, who lives in neighbouring Chak Mujgund area. “But it is for the first time an encounter took place in Mujgund and that too of this intensity.”
Ghulam Mohammad Lami, a 60-year-old labourer carries a withering look on his face. Standing wretchedly on the debris of what used to be his one storied home, Lami is sifting through the rubble as if looking for something. His son Showkat, holding a crowbar, is helping in clearing the debris.
“I am left with nothing. I have lost the home that I had built brick-by-brick by selling vegetables on a handcart,” Lami said while giving directions to his son Showkat. A ninth standard student, Showkat looks terrified and is reluctant to share any details. “Every night since the encounter took place, Showkat goes to his uncle’s home to escape the nightmarish reality of the encounter.”
On the front side of the locality turned into wreckage flows an irrigational canal that is bursting with waste and stinks even in cold December days. But the more pungent smell is that of ammunition that still dominates the village atmosphere. On the highway that runs along the canal, commuters stop by either to have a look at the damaged houses or to contribute for rebuilding them.
On the other side of the highway is a muddy lane leading to the house of Abdul Qayoom who has converted it into transit accommodation for the families affected by the encounter. Qayoom lives in the neighbouring Ghat Mohalla, almost 200 meters away. The two storied building is unfurnished; windows covered with yellow tarpaulin and polythene and inside boulders are visible in mud floor. Six of the eight families have been accommodated in the building.
Ghulam Rasool Kachroo, a well-built man in his sixties works as a sand miner in Jhelum River, flowing on the backside of his lost home. His 25-member family was spread over the three of the eight houses in the locality that were gutted in the encounter. When counter-insurgent forces laid siege in the area and residents were asked to evacuate, terrified Kachroo was concerned about his sons Javaid and Ashiq who as per his wife Raja Begum were beaten by forces during the search operation.
Raja Begum, 55, said she had just started praying when forces came into the premises of their house and asked them to evacuate. “I had left the tea to boil on the heater and I had just begun praying when forces barged in our homes asking us to evacuate,” Raja Begum, narrated her ordeal. “I was not even allowed to turn off the heater.” For her, that was the last memory of her home.
Outside, Mohammad Afroz, 35, is volunteering on behalf of Intizamia Jamia Masjid committee Mujgund to provide affected families with the basic amenities in this harsh winter. He has collected warm clothes to be distributed among the affected families. Names of the affected family heads are written on small pieces of paper and then put randomly on each garment to maintain equal and fair distribution. Mohammad Shafi Kachroo was lucky enough to get a sweater for his wife Shaheena.
Kachroo, 35, is married to Shaheena for the past ten years, and has two children: Arif and Kulsum. Working as a rag-picker, Kachroo had left at 6 am to earn for his family. As soon as he heard the news about the encounter, he rushed to his home only to hear the rattle of gunfire and deafening bangs of mortars. “I had no contact with my family,” Kachroo said. “All night, I was awake and praying for the safety of my children.”
Volunteers of intizamia were busy in collecting funds from the commuters on the highway to help the families rebuild their lost homes. They had already procured construction material from the funds they had collected so far. Manzoor Ahmed Dar, 55, looks after the fundraising process in the absence of Abdul Rashid Lone who is the head of Intizamia Committee. “We have arranged gas cylinders, fire-pots, matting, LED lights and blankets and have already been given to the families,” Manzoor Dar said.
The gun-battle not only destroyed the houses of these eight families but also their possessions were lost to the dreadful encounter.
Shameema, who supports her family by doing embroidery stitching, sits in her makeshift kitchen cum bedroom with her two daughters and a son. Ishrat, a seventh standard student, being elder helps her mother in preparing food. Shameema’s husband Zahoor Ahmed Mattoo sells roadside snacks on handcart at Batamaloo Srinagar.
On the day of the encounter, Mattoo was in Batamaloo while Shameema along with her three children had gone to her maternal home. “I was coming back to home when I saw the forces in large numbers had cordoned off the area and weren’t letting anyone in,” Shameema said.
She left for her maternal home without knowing that the next day she would have to see her house in ruins. Next day, when Ishrat accompanied by her mother Shameema visited their home turned into a pile of rubble, she fainted. “I lost all my books and uniform in the encounter,” escaped the quivering lips of Ishrat.
In 2012, Shameema’s family lost their tin shed house to fire. Now after six years, after rebuilding it in concrete with the help of her parents, she lost it again.
Every affected family has the tragic story of a similar kind with children losing their school bags, mothers losing the gold they have collected over years cutting on the daily expenses for their daughters’ marriages. Amid all this chaos is a woman with a wiry frame carrying the bases of copperware between the hems of her Pheran.
Muzamil, a 40-year-old woman married to Ashraf Mir is crying and cursing her fate. Her husband worked as a tailor in one of the rooms of their destroyed home. He not only lost his home but also his sewing machines and clothes belonging to his customers. “Some of our possessions were seen floating in the river behind our home,” she said.
Her son Jamid was returning home from meeting his friend when the search operation started. Jamid was about to enter his home when the government forces laid the siege. They asked him to accompany them inside for search operation to which he refused bluntly and he was thrashed. “I was thrashed and bundled inside the Bolero vehicle belonging to the forces for the whole night,” Jamid alleged. He was then released next day at 11:30 am only when the encounter was over.
Belonging to a poor fishermen community, all these households relying on donations by local residents are now seeking compensation from the authorities.
“We have not lost our homes only but also the dreams that we had seen for our children got buried also. Now we are left at mercy of others,” old Lami with moist eyes said.