The hope of having him alive keeps Jana Begum going. A witness to five deaths in last two decades, the old lady is waiting for her disappeared son’s return for the last 15 years. Muhammad Raafi reports the pain and struggle of a Lolab family that was pushed to destitution by the conflict they had no control over
Since last two decades Jana Begum, in her early 80s, would sit on the porch of her wood-and-mud house in this postcard perfect Dilbagh village in remote Kupwara. The porch overlooks a small courtyard, and beyond that are hills covered with dense pine trees. Invisible to Jana’s eye, on top of that hill, is the place that refused to fade from her memory – a garrison.
Everyday Jana looks towards the treetops trying to find a way inside the garrisoned walls of the camp to fill the blanks of her devastated life. “They took six of my family members,” says Jana while pointing towards the hill.
During early 90s, Lolab Valley was quite contrary to what Allama Iqbal said in his poetry. Many of its villages including Dilbagh and Devar, were more than a tourist attraction. The hills surrounding the valley were marked by footprints of enthusiastic and dreamy young Kashmiris, who would trek through to cross the LoC and get trained in handling arms.
Unmindful of the events unfolding in the hills, Jana and her labourer husband Abdul Karim War were busy raising a large family of twelve kids. “It was a one large happy family,” says Jana painfully. “But the happiness was soon to fade from my life.”
On a calm evening in May 1996, Jana’s son Latief Ahmad War, then 20, was repairing his wrist watch near the window, while others in the family were busy preparing for dinner.
All of a sudden gunshots broke the silence of the otherwise quite Dilbagh village. Before Jana and her family could have reacted, Latief fell down. “He was hit by the bullets,” recalls Jana. “There was blood all over the kitchen.”
Latief’s younger brother Sharief War, then 17, rushed towards a neighbour’s house to arrange a taxi for ferrying his wounded brother to hospital.
“But by the time Sharief returned, Latief was already dead,” said Jana.
Latief was enrolled at a religious seminary in Srinagar and was home for vacations. “Two days later army’s 18 RR claimed they have killed a top militant,” said Jana. “They branded my son a militant, perhaps to claim some reward money.”
Next few months Jana and her family spent in mourning and fear. “But then life had to move on,” said Jana.
Jana’s small house wore a celebratory look when her elder daughter, Khalida got married to a local boy, who works in Srinagar.
A few months after Khalida’s wedding, Jana and her husband started making preparations for Sharief’s nuptial.
A week before Sharief was set to get married; he travelled to Srinagar for some last minute purchases with his younger brother Muhammad Bakkhtiyar, then 17.
Bakhtiyar, who would lead prayers in Fateh Kadal area of Srinagar, was home to oversee arrangements for his brother’s marriage. “Our house was filled with relatives,” recalls Jana. “They had come for Sharief’s marriage.”
To make sure that nothing untoward happens with her sons Jana accompanied them till Kupwara.
Once home Jana learned about an encounter in Bumhama village, 2 kms from Kupwara. “I began to worry,” recalls Jana.
But Jana’s husband calmed her by assuring that both Sharief and Bakhtiyar must be in Srinagar by now. He was wrong.
Even after three days when Jana and her husband didn’t hear from their sons, they began to panic. First they searched in Kupwara; then they visited the mosque in Srinagar where Bakhtiyar lead prayers. “But nobody had seen them,” recalls Jana.
The search went on till the day of marriage.
“On the sixth day of their disappearance, a police inspector named Ghulam Mohiuddin came to our house with pictures of bullet ridden bodies,” recalls Jana. “I couldn’t recognise them. But my husband did at once.”
They were Sharief and Bakhtiyar. Both killed at Bumhama village on the day they left for Srinagar. “Bakhtiyar ko chey gooliyaan mari thi. Sharief ko chaati main brust mara tha (Bakhtiyar had six bullets. And Sharief was shot in the chest),” said Jana. “They were killed in a fake encounter.”
The news of Sharief and Bakhtiyar’s killing instantly turned the festivity into mourning at Jana’s house. “They (police) didn’t even let us have their bodies,” said Jana. “They feared it might trigger protests in the area.”
Instead, the brothers were buried in Rikipora, Kupwara, nearly 30 kilometres from their home village. “Their clothes were found hanging on trees at the encounter site,” said Jana. “They were killed for carrying Islamic books and growing long beard.”
Later Jana was told that Bakhtiyar had a scuffle with a government backed counter insurgent (Ikhwani) of Kupwara, few weeks before his death. “He was threatening my son and demanding Rs 20 thousand,” claims Jana. “And when he refused to pay, he told army that my son is a militant.”
A few days later government announced an ex-gratia relief of Rs 1 lakh for Jana’s family. But the announced bought more trouble than any relief to the family.
“A team of police’s special task force, headed by officers Jasrotiya and Gulbadin, raided our house two days later,” recalls Shabir Wani, Jana’s fifth son who was 9-year-old then. “They demanded Rs 1 lakh that government had announced as relief.”
When Jana and her husband tried to argue that there is just an announcement and no money has been given yet, “They fired at our house indiscriminately. They even threw gunpowder and then tried to set our house on fire,” Shabir said. “There was complete chaos as they fired. One of our relatives was hit in the leg by a bullet.”
However, after the intervention of village elders, they agreed not to set their house on fire. “They rather took my father along for questioning,” said Shabir. “They also asked us to handover the relief money whenever we get it.”
Jana’s husband was accused of receiving money from militants. “Fearing they might harm our father we lodged a complaint in the local police station,” said Shabir.
Once back, elders from Dilbagh village took a procession and marched towards the army camp where Jana’s husband Abdul Karim War was held.
“As we neared the camp we could hear Karim’s cries. He was probably tortured,” claims Hassan, a local who was part of the procession that day. “The army Major promised that Karim will be home in the afternoon.”
As promised by the Major, Karim returned home in the afternoon. “But he was almost a living corpse,” said Shabir. “He could hardly walk. He was bleeding. His body had swelled.”
Jana recalls how, “on the fourth day when relatives have assembled our house to mourn her son’s killing, my husband sat in a corner like a corpse.”
Overcome with emotions Jana’s son helps her fill in the blanks and said: “My father was in immense pain. They had penetrated needles in his private parts. His teeth were broken. He was bleeding.”
Same evening, unable to bear the pain, Karim closed his eyes forever. “He was dead,” said Shabir.
Allegedly Karim was accused of harbouring militants in his house. “Even before this episode my husband was summoned to the camp almost every month,” alleges Jana.
“I too was often called to the camp. I was also tortured using cigarette bits and razor blades,” alleges Jana, while showing the torture marks on her neck, legs and other body parts.
Since then Jana is on regular medication for anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder. “After every round of questioning and torture, they (army) would put a Rs 500 note in our hand and warn us not to open our mouth,” claims Jana.
Four tragedies in less than two years had shattered Jana’s once big happy family forever.
“Nobody could get over the nightmares that followed,” said Shabir.
The responsibility to feed the family fell on Jana’s 18-year-old son Shareef-ud-din, a teacher at a local madrassa. “He would earn Rs 3000 a month,” said Shabir.
The next three years passed in silence for Jana’s family as they rebuild their lives, step by step.
In the meantime, Shareef-ud-Din got married to a local girl from a nearby village. “We had almost restarted a normal life when tragedy stuck us again,” said Jana.
It did on the day when Shareef-ud-Din’s wife gave birth to a baby boy. Excited, Shareef-ud-Din went to his in-laws place. It was 2001.
“On way he was intercepted by army and Ikwanis,” alleges Shabir. “They took him along.”
Sharief-ud-Din, a hafiz-e-Quran (one who memorised entire Quran), had studied Islamic Law from Deoband, UP. “Eyewitnesses told us that he was taken towards the nearby forests,” said Shabir. “Since then he is missing.”
Jana and Shabir went to the said forest to find Sharief-ud-Din, but there was no trace of him. “Three days later a shepherd came to us with his ID card. He has found it there while grazing his cattle,” said Shabir.
With this another chapter in Jana’s life started, this time it was to trace her son. “I visited police stations, army officers, and every single place where I thought I could get some information about my son,” said Jana. “I found nothing but disappointment.”
Then Jana visited State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), Srinagar and filed a complaint about her missing son. “They did nothing except giving false hope,” said Jana.
Then, Jana sold whatever little property she had, and paid the money to a person who was close to Ikwanis. “He promised information about my son,” said Jana. “But he took the money and never showed up.”
With only earning hand in family disappeared, Jana was forced to look for alternatives for survival. “I went to Srinagar hoping to find some work as domestic help, but couldn’t,” said Jana. “But I had to feed my family, so I started to beg on streets there.”
Jana still feels humiliated to think how she had to roam from street to street and beg for sake of her kids. “I had a large family to feed,” said Jana. “What else I could have done.”
In Srinagar, Jana knocked at almost every door, including that of separatists and NGO’s. “I tried to meet all three known separatist leaders but was not allowed,” alleges Jana.
Once Jana got disappointed from almost every side, she finally visited the head of Dar-ul-uloom (Bilaliya), where one of her deceased son was a student. “He would help me with money,” said Jana. “But then I stopped going there as I felt ashamed.”
In 2005, Jana’s second daughter, Saleema, who was suffering from depression since her three brothers were killed and her father died, committed suicide by hanging herself in the kitchen.
Now the family is taken care of by Shabir and his younger brother Bilal War, a Class 12 student, who also works as a labourer. “I work at a local NGO’s office in Srinagar as office boy,” said Shabir. “But still I am being harassed by the army on and off.”
As for Jana, she still waits for her son Shreef-ud-Din.
“Our mother died the day they killed our elder brother Latief. Now what is left is an old lady with lots of tragic memories,” said Shabir.