In Conflict Theatre

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South Kashmir is boiling since 2016. It tops the lists of gun-battles that took place in 2018. The frequent encounters and a mounted vigil has caught a huge population in-between, Aaqib Hyder reports

A broken window glass.

On October 15, as a dusky autumn day melted into a chilly evening, Tariq Ahmad was gleefully playing with his kids in his modest home at Newa (Pulwama). As the wall clock struck 7:50 PM, a loud bang was heard outside. Located barely 100-meters away, it was CRPF’s 183 battalion that came under attack by suspected militants using rifle grenade. Although the neighbourhood wasn’t surprised because the garrison was attacked several times in the recent past, this proved different. Shortly, the dead silence of the night was again rattled, with gunshots now.

While the family was still assessing what was happening outside, a volley of bullets fired from the camp tore through Traiq’s living room window and hit the wall. Crackling sounds of smashing windowpanes mixed with the raging sound of gunfire ruled the air. The joyful aura of baby chuckles gradually dissolved into a dreadful silence. The soldiers were returning the militant gunfire but the locals say that their homes were deliberately targeted as the militants had carried the hit-and-run attack.

“I got hold of my kids, and within a minute, we were all crawling around the room,” Ahmad said in a low tone. “The windowpanes were shattering one after another. My kids started crying in fear. I have never felt such helplessness in my whole life.”

When the firing stopped, everybody thought it was over for good lest they knew there was more in store for them. “The soldiers barged in and started beating us,” Ahmad said while directing this reporter towards a broken door that was dangling from a single hinge. “My married sister, who had come to visit me was beaten so much that she went back to her in-laws home with a broken shoulder and a bruised arm. Then they went to every house in the locality and beat the inmates.”

The scenes at the neighbouring houses were no different. Right next to Ahmad’s house, a 3-storey structure with shattered window panes and bullet holes scattered all over its front side is a telling testimony of the happenings. A car with no window intact is parked on one side of the courtyard. Following a trail of bullet holes on the living room wall of the house, the daughter of the owner, Raziya, almost had an emotional breakdown. She counted the bullet marks with her left index finger and whispered to herself – “Eight”!

“It was like hell here,” she said, fighting back her tears. “I thought they were going to kill us all. Look how low the bullet marks are! What if I was sitting there at that moment? When they came in here to beat us, I literally begged them for mercy but they were not in a mood to listen.”

In the aftermath, around a dozen families, including the above two, packed their household belongings and left the locality a few days later. The families say they have been forced to live like migrants in their own land and Government is totally tight-lipped about the issue.

“Look at our houses! People have their living rooms adorned with choicest of paints while as ours are marked with bullet holes and shards of glass,” Irshad Ahmad, another resident said. “We approached district administration but got nothing in return except hollow promises and a blatant admission of their own helplessness. Where from are we supposed to get help now?”

The locality bears a desolated look with most of the homes locked and streets deserted. The residents occasionally return to their homes during the day and leave as soon as evening darkness starts to creep in. Some of them are still so terrified that they haven’t dared to come back even once.

Happy neighbours just a month before, the families are now scattered in and around the village, most of them living a life of penury. Some families are living with their relatives who were kind enough to offer them shelter while as some have rented rooms away from the area. With harsh winter just around the corner, the destitute families see no end to their miseries in immediate future.

This reporter met few of the affected family heads on a street who were initially reluctant to talk. After a little bit of insisting, the duo revealed the reason behind not opening up to the media. “Last week, we talked to some media persons about our issues and the next day we were summoned to the CRPF camp,” one ‘migrant’ said. “Turns out they don’t want us to even complain about what they have done to us. Our identity cards are still with them. One of the soldiers gave us his phone number and asked to report any anti-state activity to him. When we refused, he tried to lure us by saying that we will be paid a hefty amount of money.”

The only demand the displaced families are making is to either provide them land somewhere else or to shift the army camp to another place.

“It is impossible to live in a place where a threat of getting hit by a bullet inside your own home is looming large,” a woman said while lifting her hands up as if praying. “If not a bullet, a thorough beating by forces personnel is expected for sure whenever militants attack them. We are just asking them to leave us alone and let us live a peaceful life. Is it too much to ask?”

This situation is fuelling the already mounting anger and alienation. With ever encounters between militants and the counter-insurgent forces, civilians are finding themselves caught in a deadly quagmire. Somewhere in the complexities and nuances of this war, the line between combatants and non-combatants is vanishing slowly.

A torched car.

“We hold no weapons or stones for that matter, then why are we their target? Through these kinds of tactics, they are pushing us towards the gun. If things remain like this, we have no other option left. They are going to kill us either way,” an elderly resident sitting on the edge of his paddy field said angrily.

Trichal is a small village surrounded by vast paddy fields, almost 10 km from Newa. While driving to the village, a cab driver who was humming to a Mohammad Rafi melody playing on his old dusty stereo needed just a prick to reveal many things: How is the situation here nowadays? After throwing away his half-smoked cigarette, he pointed towards the badly broken windshield of his cab and retorted, “Yemmi sheesh khoat badh tar!”(Worse than this shattered glass)

In Trichal, only 3 days after the Newa incident, a dozen people including two women were badly injured after the army allegedly went berserk when seven soldiers were injured in an IED blast. The residents said that the army beat civilians and vandalized public property worth lakhs.

“They thrashed everything and everyone who came in their way. Even elderly persons and women were not spared,” Khurshid Ahmad, a resident, said. “They dragged everyone outside and thrashed us ad if we were animals.”

After the incident, some of the residents started contemplating the option of migrating from the area but one hurdle or the other kept changing their mind. While some say that they cannot leave the earnings of their life behind, others are financially unsound for a shift.

“If every now and then, we are made to suffer for something we haven’t done then what is the point of living here!” Ahmad rued while nervously cracking his knuckles. “If it wasn’t for the agricultural land we have here, we would have migrated the next day only. We are caught between the devil and the deep sea.”

(Some names were changed on request to protect identities)

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