Mehand Murders

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Homes and properties getting up in smoke are not so uncommon in Kashmir. But blasting a home along with its inmates is something that people may not believe until they read Muhammad Younis’s report from a distant south Kashmir village about a carnage that followed the Eid of 1994

“Now you came?” a weary voice laboriously leaves the dark coloured lips of Rashid. “8544 days and a half have passed since then. Where were you?” it seems time has taken a heavy toll on him. He is older than his age.

In a comparatively quiet village, far away from the hustle and bustle of Srinagar, Rashid lives in Mahend. To reach there, one has to take the macadamized boulevard from Bijbehara to Pahalgam. Near boys college Bijbehara, the route that branches off left ushers you directly to Rashid’s home. 

A bewitching beauty all along the potholed and extremely dusty track, the belt is a grand mix of Kashir and Kashmir. Still co-existing here are the modern concrete houses and the fully mud and timber structures with traditional thatched roofs. The remoteness from the “exposed world” is, according to Rashid, one of the major reasons why many “heinous” stories have remained untold over the years.

One day, Rashid lost his entire family. He does not know yet that the carnage at his home didn’t go unreported. “Mahend Bijbahada Mein Eak Kunbay Ka Safaya,” then mass circulated al-Safa News reported on page 1. “The blasts were heard in a radius of 10 kms.” Caption of the photograph of the charred bodies read: “Insani Hakook Kay davaydaround Kay Liya Lamhi Fikriya”.

Jammu based Kashmir Times, then the most effective voice, ran a front page item: “5 of a family roasted alive in Bejbehara”. The newspaper said though officials claimed it to be the handiwork of insurgents, the residents said it was done by the army to avenge Satkipora blast. The report said various households were ransacked, inmates beaten and some arrests were also made.

After opening the outer gate, Showkat, my classmate and a resident of the same village, who narrated to me this story many a time in the college, calls out, “Rashid uncle… you there?”

A muffled response allows us in. Leaning against a wall inside is a man dressed in a light-brown Khan Dress. His beard trimmed a little closer to his face. Introduction over and the question follows: “Now you came?”

“I am a newcomer to the media, I belong to a different generation,” I respond, avoiding his sunken black eyes, and start looking at the arched insteps of my feet.The room gets quieter and uncertain. He sighs for a while. Long heaves are audible. Then he opens up.

“March 18, 1994. It was Friday,” Rashid breaks the ice eventually. “A day ago or two, it was Eid.”

As is the norm on Eid, Rashid, then 26, had invited his maternal aunt Rahti, in her forties, over to his home. To cook a delicious dinner for her and her two little children Javaid, 7, and Jameela, 12, she had brought along, Rashid’s little brother Abdul Salaam, 17, went to Bijbehara market to fetch lamb chops and a chicken. On way back home, Salaam, learning that an army patrol had been attacked by militants at Satkipora Sirgufwara, a couple of kilometres away, paced up to eschew any crisis.

With almost entire family together, the celebrations were visible. All the three generations were together: Rashid’s parents, Ghulam Qadir Wani and Azeexa, both in their fifties; his sister and her two children; his brothers Ghulam Muhammad, and Abdul Salaam; and his daughter and niece, Imtiyaza and Shugufta, aged 7 years and 9.

“The kids had met after months. They were playing. Dressed in ceremonial overalls, they were running here and there through the corridor. Laughing out of court… I still hear those voices,” Rashid remembers.

But the two brothers had to leave. Rashid and Qadir are married locally, and both were invited to a dinner party by their respective in-laws.“When I was about to leave to my in-laws, the children clung to the hem of my shirt. “Laala” they would call me with “give us Eidyaan… we won’t let you go as such. They were adamant. I gave aRs 10 note to each. And they planted kisses on my face,” he touches the spots of the kisses on his face.“Their lips were too delicate against my face. And their fluffy little hands….” he seems to fall into a sort of trance, thus forgets finishing his sentence. Nobody knew this was an eternal disconnect.

The front page of al-Safa newspaper that reported the family massacre.

It was around 3:30 am when a deafening blast awoke almost everyone in the area. It seemed very close. Once Rashid dashed out to know the location, he saw confetti of dust going up in the air, almost near his abode. Although he was desperate to go check his family, his in-laws didn’t allow him to risk his life. A quarter of an hour later, the sound of another blast ripped the frightening silence; dust rose again near the same place as before. Then there was a third blast. This time, Rashid couldn’t hold himself. He started towards his home.

Through the dead darkness, when he was coming back from his in-laws, the unkempt lanes were deserted. It was frightening quiet as no word could be heard from houses. “People were for sure awake, but too terrified to come out. Those days, normally after the dusk, no one would dare to step out of his house, let alone when a blast would have occurred outside.” He found two houses, believed to be of two militants, allegedly involved in Satkipora attack, razed to the ground. “Fortunately there was no one in there. Sensing danger, the dwellers had evacuated the last evening only.”

Talking in Hindi, as Rashid heard voices of people approaching, he expeditiously hid behind a wall. All soaked up with perspiration. Started moving past him was a long line of army men. “They were leaving,” he says in such a way as though he is watching them leave, more than two decades later.

Rashid said he could also hear the voice of an army officer, known by the name of Aslam Khan. “Everybody  from our area knew Aslam Khan − It wasn’t his real name by the way…he only liked to be called by it.”

As soldiers moved afar, Rashid rushed towards his home. Now each step he headed thither was full of foreboding. Would his family be safe? His family had no militants, but still. When his eyes met asmouldering structure at the place of his house, he turned restive.

Like a “mad man”, he started calling out to his mother… his father… his little brother… his aunt. There was no response from inside. He knocked at the doors of the neighbouring houses to see if they were there. After denying about the arrival of any of his family member, his neighbours accompanied him to his courtyard. Everyone frantically started looking around his house. All of a sudden, someone stumbled at the body of his father who was lying flat on the ground, a little distance away from the house. He wasn’t able to talk. Not strong enough to stand by himself: his spine had broken.

Qadir, the eldest Wani, had been sleeping on the first floor when, like others, he was awoken by the first two blasts. Behind the glassed window of his room, he was scanning the semi-dark surroundings, when he found the army men proceeding towards his house. He watched them sprinkling his premises including his house and a cowshed with gunpowder. Before they would shoot bullets into the gunfire, he jumped out. “Father had wanted to save the others who were sleeping in the front room of our house,” Rashid says;  his father had briefed him about the details of the incident.

Before the people attended Qadir, he signalled them towards his house. He faintly told his son that every one of their family was still in there and wanted him to save them. “I tried to jump inside the house, but I was held back by others around.”

When people succeeded in dousing the fire, nothing more than the charred bodies of all the seven members were found inside. “From the entire house, what I found wasn’t touched by the fire was the ten rupee note in the tightly clenched hands of my niece Shagufta that I had given her as Eidyaan,” Rashid remembers. Somehow Shagufta along with Rashid’s mother were still breathing, but unconscious.

Seeing everything “collapsing” before him, Rashid also lost his consciousness. The rest of his night elapsed in oblivion. During that time, his neighbours ferried his mother and niece to the hospital at Srinagar.

Abdul Rashid

The next morning, when Rashid retrieved his senses, the five white shrouded corpses were laying before him, next to each other. A little distance away were the charred carcases of his two horses and a cow, their key source of income. His neighbours had performed all the rituals. “I was just to bid them a final adieu.”

While Rashid was laying the five to rest, in the meantime, he received the dead bodies of the other two from Srinagar hospital. “We knew they weren’t going to make it… they weren’t conscious…puffs of smoke were coming out of their bodies… but still we wanted to satisfy ourselves,” says Rashid’s neighbour, who is witness to the mayhem.

When Rashid was done burying his seven family members, the army men had again swarmed Mehand. From a distance, they oversaw the curtains fall on the grim theatre they were accused of enacting in the night.

After the killings, Rashid and his elder brother and their remaining families lived in a rented room in the same village for half a year. “We had nothing. Our cattle which used to be the bread earner for our family were dead. We also were in a deep shock to start something new that early.”

A  year after, the family finally decided to begin a new life. With the help of his neighbours, Rashid’s elder brother laid a foundation of his new house, away from the prior one, in another village. “My elder brother wasn’t ready to walk ever again through the courtyard we had spent our childhood in. He was of the belief that it would haunt him.”

Unable to say no to the desire of his father, Rashid had had to construct a new house at the same place ripped apart by the gunpowder. “In our new house, father remained bedridden till his end,” Rashid remembers. “He would not speak much. He just dully looked out of the window, seemed waiting for his death.” After two “long” decades, Qadir, attaining the age of 70, the wait ended in 2015 eventually. “May he rests in peace.”

Rashid claims that he is well aware about the reason behind the attack on his house. “Father said, they (army men) before setting our house to fire were talking about my involvements with Jammat–e-Islami. And that I along with my family shouldn’t be allowed to live.”

The inhumanity that Wani’s survived did not meet any humanity in follow up. The government gave him a Class-IV job in a local hospital but denied him justice. “The FIR that was lodged in the Bijbehara police station against those army men never witnessed a hearing.”

He would routinely go to the police station to inquire about the process. Even that stopped after 2014 floods when Rashid was told by the local court at Bijbehara that all the documents related to the case were wrecked by the deluge. “I travelled from every pillar to post, desperate that my case is heard, but nothing. Now after all these years, I finally get to understand that it was never meant to be decided,” Rashid claims. “They were only waiting for a reason to put a veil over the case. The floods gave them the exit.”

Rashid’s wait for justice “will go” to the life hereafter.

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