Lonely Battles

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Every time a militant falls, thousands of people join the funeral prayers. Once he is lowered into the grave, the story ends. In order to understand what happens to their families especially their widows and orphans, Javed Sofi meets a few militant widows in south Kashmir to understand how vulnerable lives they live

Sheikh Rukaya, 5, plays with her cousins in a small courtyard of their modest two-storied house in Shopian’s Nazneenpora village. Daughter of slain Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) militant, Farooq Ahmad Sheikh, Rukaya, looks normal and healthy.

Sitting in the second story room, Shakeela, watches Rukaya, her daughter, from the window. As her mother calls, the girl rushes in towards her. But what is strange, she avoids uttering even a single word. Reason: she routinely suffers from breathlessness and it becomes so intense that she falls into the mother’s lap.

Watch her daughter in such a state, Shakeela caresses her forehead, kisses her face and breaks down. In a bid to prevent the daughter from knowing what exactly is happening to the mother, Shakeela covers her mouth to hide sobs but the tears fail her to hide anything.

In 2014, doctors in Srinagar told her that Rukaya may not survive for long because she is suffering from cystic fibrosis of lungs, a genetic disorder in which lungs get clocked and the patient has difficulty in breathing. “Every morning for past one and half year Rukaya has been shivering with fever and cough,” Shakeela said,

Unconcerned about her health condition, Rukaya pays no attention to what her mother says. Her beautiful eyes gaze at the male visitors as if searching her father. “She wants to see her father. He is dead but she is yet to realize that,” Shakeela said. “Every time she is unwell she talks about him.”

In her mid 30’s, Shakeela herself wears a gloomy face appears clumsy and is looking like an old woman. Her shoulders are sagging and eyes are sinking. She looks like part of the wall of her room that has faded paints. Unlike Rukaya, her son Tabish, 10, is better. Enrolled in class 4th at Government Middle School Nazneenpora, he wants to become a doctor. He knows his father was killed in an encounter in 2016, and he has to put in extra effort to achieve his aim.

Despite facing serious hardships and fighting odds to raise her kids, Shakeela is unwilling to hold Farooq responsible for the mess in her life. “I can face all hardships to bring up my children but I can’t tolerate anyone labeling him disloyal towards his family,” Shakeela said.

After Rukaya was diagnosed with a chronic case of lung disease in 2014 at SKIMS’s Neonatology and Pediatrics department, Farooq, then a fruit merchant, was a worried father. He purchased an oxygen cylinder worth Rs 9000 for his daughter and would take her to SKIMS for checkups without missing any date.

Gulzar Ahmad Bhat, Talangam Pulwama, husband of Zamrooda, LeT commander Irshad Ahmad Ganie and Shakeel Ahmad Wani, Pakherpora, husband of Naseema.

Well before that, he was friendly with Waseem Malla, a local militant from a neighbouring village. He would arrange eatables and other things of daily use. At one point in time, Farooq had promised his wife that he would stop sympathizing with Waseem.

But, fate had other plans for Farooq. Four months after Rukaya’s detection as a serious patient, police seized his SIM card. In quick follow up, he joined militancy on the day Shakeela had gone to see her parents in Shirmal village of Shopian. The news of Farooq’s rebelling was broken to Shakeela by her sister. “I couldn’t believe it. He had promised me to take care of his ill daughter,” Shakeela recalls. “He didn’t want to become a militant. He was a caring father and a loving husband, but circumstances dragged him into militancy.”

The fruit merchant turned militant was killed in an encounter with Army at Pahelipora, in May 2016. Now to keep the family going, Shakeela is cleaning premises of Government Middle School Nazneenpora for Rs 400 a month.

Farooq‘s father Ghulam Qadir Sheikh, 80, explained the crisis better. “He was mature; he should have realized that his decision would prove disastrous for his family,” Qadir said. “Thousands turned to his funeral but nobody came to help his orphans.”

Farooq had been a rebel at home. After marrying Shakeela, he started living separately from his parents and four brothers. After he was killed, Shakeela reunited with her in-laws was given a separate room on the second floor, with a separate staircase. Half of her room’s floor is without matting, the other half is covered with rags. On the matted portion, the three sleeping as the uncovered part is their place for cooking and eating.

Octogenarian Qadir is rearing two milk yielding cows and earns his living hood by selling their milk. “He has the responsibility of an unmarried son and an old wife, still he saves some earnings from his little income to help us with,” Shakeela admitted.

Shakeela is herself an orphan. One of her two brothers is a peon in the municipality and the other one is a shopkeeper. They had proposed Shakeela to remarry but she decided against it, insisting she has the responsibility of raising Farooq’s kids.

In the surging population of the women whose husbands died as militants, Shakeela is not alone. All of them face almost the same situation.

Zamrooda, 40, is the widow of slain Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) militant, Gulzar Ahmad Bhat. She is bed-ridden at her parental house in Koil village, in Pulwama periphery.

Chronic Arthritis, now in the fifteenth year, has taken the sheen and vigour of her beauty and she has turned into a lean and fragile person. A skinny structure, her eyes have sunken deep into their sockets and the face is expressionless, hands crooked and knee joints locked. She is dependent on attendants for each and everything.

The disease was manageable till Gulzar was alive. After him, she failed to adjust with her in-laws. Though they were taking care of her “like their own daughter”, she did not want to be a burden.

Zamrooda is Ali Mohammad Ganie’s second daughter who was widows. Her elder sister, Rafiqa (47) was widowed in 2013. Tragically, her sister in law, with her swelled leg and waiting for a surgery, was lying on another bed close to Zamrooda’s. Ganais’ own a modest two storied house has four large rooms. The sister’s in-law prefer to be bedded in the same room for the ease of attendants.

Zamrooda pretends to be strong but she couldn’t hold it for long. “No doubt my parents and my in-laws take utmost care of mine but they can’t take my husband’s place,” Zamrooda said. “Sere Booj Raweon Cha Sahaal.” (It is not easy to lose one’s secret keeper).

A widow of a militant with her minor orphan.

Gulzar had joined militant ranks two years back at the age of 44. He was killed in an encounter at Lajoora (Pulwama) in August 2015. Khadeeja, Zamrooda’s mother, whose back is bowed, her knee joints aching and wrinkled face swollen, didn’t utter a single word as her daughter cried over the loss.

The family said Khadeeja is traumatized by the widowhood of her two daughters. Now, they want to consult a doctor for her. In comparison, Ali Mohammad Ganie (75), Zamorooda’s father, puts a brave face. A lean and tall bespectacled Ali talks with command and authority. But inside he is growing weak. “We were recovering from the trauma of losing my elder son in law that lightning struck us again and take away my younger son in law,” Ali said. He started crying but immediately consoled himself. “I have to move on, I have to fight till I can.”

After Gulzar’s killing, Ali hires a sumo to take her daughter for consultation with an ayurvedic doctor at Vailio once or twice in a month.

It has become a habit for broken Ali to take some amount from the savings at his son’s shop and fill the pocket of Zamrooda. “I always make it sure that her pocket gets refilled before depletion,” Ali said.

Gulzar, a resident of Talangam, was known to Ganies’. Schooled at Sanik School Manasbal, Gulzar, after graduating in science had settled as a manager of a pharmaceutical company. Locally, he had his reputation. Now an unwell widow is taking care of his two orphans Nazar Jehangir (18) and Tajamul Tahseen (15). Nazar is a class 12th student in science subjects while Tajamul is in class 9th. This year, Nazar plans to sit in NEET examination.

Zamrooda’s brother in law; Naseer Ahmad Bhat is supporting schooling of her children. “It was due to his uncle’s efforts Jehangir secured a position in top twenty students of the valley in board examinations,” she said.

Zainab and Abdullah are twins of five years of age. They miserably miss their father, Shakeel Ahmad Wani after he went missing in July 2014. Naseema, 30, their mother would manufacture stories about their father to clam the twins.

Naseema and her parents left no stone unturned to trace his whereabouts, but their efforts did not come to fruition. Finally, one day in January 2015, Shakeel returned home as a “martyr” and the kids saw the blood-drenched father for the last time. Since then the clam twins rarely ask about him. Unlike the twins, their son Abdullah is school-going and often visits his father’s grave near the shrine of Syed Ali Aali Balkhi in Pakherpora (Budgam) to offer Fateh.

For the entire interview, Naseema was hiding behind her elder sister in presence of her father Ghulam Hassan Mir. Fair complexioned, Naseema is in her prime youth. Naseema breaks down on the mention of her remarriage. “She weeps bitterly each time I insist her to remarry,” Mir said.

“I promised my husband that I would bring up the children if something untoward happens to him and he vowed me to do the same,” a blushing Naseema said. “I will keep that promise.” Her third child was adopted by her brother-in-law. Her kids see their grandparents in Pakherpora and the families maintain an excellent relationship.

In 2009, Mir, a retired government teacher was a jubilant father when he received two proposals for Naseema, one from Pakherpora and the other from Putrigam, each proposal was brought by Naseema’s elder sisters from their respective villages. He accepted Shakeel’s proposal for he belonged to a well-educated family.

Mirs’ celebrated the marriage ceremony with pomp and show. A rich family, Mirs’ live in a splendid house with a high wall around. It has a manicured flower garden that indicates the tastes affluence gets into families. Tragically, however, Naseema was widowed after five years of her marriage. Mir, 73, is restless. Comforts of a luxurious life find no use for him as they failed to calm an anxious father in him.

After locating the single storey house of Abdul Rashid Najar on the banks of river Jhelum at Jawbrara (Awantipore), it looked damaged by the devastating 2014 floods.

People mourn in a militant’s funeral procession.

“Is Showket’s wife home? I want to talk to her,” I asked the girl clad in brown pheran whose bright eyes had peeped through the half-opened door. “It is me. What you want to ask?”

She was Rozy, a girl widowed at 29. She had her five-year-old baby, Muntaha Showket with her. The two showed a Showket’s photograph with Muntaha. A first primary student of Hajjad Public School in Awantipora, Muntaha is unable to make anything out of the portrait. “Will he come to see me in the school,” she keeps asking her mother throughout the interview.

Rozy is the widow of Showket Ahmad Qasb, a slain Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) militant. She doesn’t know what to do next! Should she keep memories of Showket alive or fulfil her father’s wish to remarry? She has no answer right now.

In 2004, Showket Ahmad Qasb, then 18, was hired by Rashid to drive his truck on monthly wages. Within three years Rashid, a carpenter was so impressed with Showket’s behaviour that he proposed to marry his daughter, Rozy with him. She was in the second year of her graduation at government degree college, Tral. Showket belonged to a well to do family in Awantipora which accepted Rashid’s proposal.

Soon celebrations started at Rashid’s house. It was a moment of jubilation for a proud father who was marrying two of his daughters – Rozy’s elder sister was married on the same date to a Srinagar resident.

Soon, Showket started living with the Najars’ as Ghar Damaad, a son-in-law who makes his bride’s home as his home. Within days, Showket took all responsibilities of managing the house and looked after the needs of all family members: his wife, father and mother in laws and two unmarried sisters in law. Rozy continued her studies after marriage and completed her BA.

All was going smoothly. Then the script had a change. Showket left the family and went missing in July 2014. Two months later, he was killed in October in an encounter at Charsoo village. When Showket came home, as a “martyr”, people drove in droves for the massive funeral.

Thousands “celebrated” Showket’s “martyrdom” but Najars’ are still mourning. They are in search of a new groom. “I want her to remarry Rozy because she is young,” Rashid said.

Initially, Muntaha would get gifts from her uncle who would visit her too. One day, he had an argument with her when she asked: “Will Muntaha inherit the share of her father?” Gifts and visits stopped.

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