Gunfights claiming lives in Kashmir is a daily occurrence, however, using civilians as human shield depicts the darker side of the counter-insurgency. Umar Mukhtar met a family in Pinglena to understand the horror of an encounter
Shafakat Ahmad Bhat, 43, wiry-built with grey hair, narrates the story of how his elder brother probably killed in ‘crossfire’, to a gathering of mourners who had visited the family for consolation. “He had clear marks of torture on his face, hands and swollen lips,” he was telling them.
It was around 12 in the intervening night of the February 18 and 19, when Bhat was woken up by knocking of a door, coming from a distance. He got out of his bed and drew the curtains to see where the thumping of the door was coming from.
With the vicinity awash with moonlight, Shafkat who lives just a few yards away from his brother could see some armed men banging the door of his elder Brother Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat’s house while others stood guard outside with their guns pointed towards the house.
In a while, Shafkat saw his elder brother coming out of his house. An exchange of words between his brother and the armed men followed. The only thing that Shafkat could sense was that ‘something was amiss.’
After a brief encounter, Bhat was asked to get back into his house. Soon, the armed men barged into his home. Mustaq was witness to the vandalising search, albeit, from the window of his house. “I saw armed men plundering the house throwing things helter-skelter which lasted for about half an hour,” he said.
Seemingly, the search was a ruse. As soon as they came out along with my brother, they asked Mushtaq to unfasten the tin sheet covering a water tank supplying water to his house.
As Mushtaq got to the job of taking off the tin sheet, the armed men stayed away a little holding positions watching Mushtaq carrying out the orders meticulously. Finding nothing objectionable there, Bhat said his brother was taken to the other side of the house towards the cowshed. “Now the scene was totally out of sight for me. As I was nervous and still trying to figure out as to how to react to the situation, I heard a loud bang with a hail of gunshots,” narrates Shafkat
The intensity of the gunfire was terrible, forcing Bhat to duck and not to get hit. After five minutes of indiscriminate gunfire, there was an uneasy calm. Bhat got worried about the safety of his brother. With his heart in his mouth, Shafkat, held himself together, again stole a look through his window only to see an eerie calm outside. The counter-insurgent forces had left the scene; even civilians were not around.
Bhat, along with other family members came running down to the ground floor. Not knowing what was going on, their fear further intensified when they heard more gunshots in about three minutes.
“I was worried about my brother and was also feeling helpless as I could do nothing,” he said.
Around 6:30 in the morning, Bhat’s front door was knocked upon. He rushed to the door to see if it was his brother. As he opened the door, he found a visibly shaken civilian and army personnel behind him. The civilian asked Shafkat that he had been asked to search the concerned house.
Shafkat opened the doors and let him in to conduct the search, however, in his presence. “With search yielding nothing, they sent for me to see them personally,” Shafkat said. “As I stepped out, the army personnel welcomed me with abuse. I was taken towards a Casper (a mine protected vehicle), that was parked on the main road. Once I boarded the Casper, I was beaten black and blue.”
Bhat recounts the torture he faced inside the Casper for almost a day. “I was asked to shove my hands inside the handles fitted on the side of the Casper. Once I did that they started beating me on my back with the gun butts and bamboo sticks. The only question I was repeatedly being asked was: “where and how many militants are hiding in your house?”
Shafkat was held in the vehicle from morning till evening; the only sense he had of the outside world was that there were gunshots being fired throughout his captivity inside the vehicle. Shafkat was released around 5 pm. “After I was released, I could hardly see any civilian movement around but the military and police were ubiquitous,” he said.
The intensity of the gunfire coming from a nearby distance had accelerated.
Bhat was totally at loss for where he was being taken. It dawned only on him after he realised that he was being taken towards the encounter site.
“I had an army man behind me who was asking me to move forward or else he would shoot me,” Bhat said. “Many things were going through my mind. I was vulnerable and could be shot dead. The only thing I remember now is I was murmuring the prayers.”
It was only then Shafkat realised he was being used as a human shield. However, he got lucky because a timely intervention by a policeman saved his life.
Eventually, after 18 hours of the long gunfight, three militants, including a local militant, and five army personnel were killed, Shafakat was allowed to go. “I could not believe that I was alive. I went home limping and traumatised,” he said.
As soon as Shafkat reached home, another blow was waiting to hit him. His apprehensions came true. He was told that his brother Mushtaq Ahmad was killed in a crossfire the previous night. Hearing about the killing, Shafkat’s heart sank and soon he lost his consciousness. While Mushtaq’s corpse was lying in the police control room Srinagar, Bhat was shifted to hospital for treatment. “I know what this crossfire means now. Tell me how a person who was sleeping in the night could die in a crossfire,” questions Bhat. “My brother was used as a human shield as was I.”
It was a sheer quirk of fate that although, both the brothers were used as human shields, while one lost his life, another escaped alive.
The gun-battle left a trail of destruction after it was declared over. Three houses and three cow sheds were completely burnt and dismantled during the 18-hour long gunfight. A house of one Mohammad Yousuf Hajam was completely gutted.
Among the three militants killed in the encounter, Hilal Ahmad Naik, 24 was a local militant. He was killed some 500 meters away from his home. Naik had joined militancy on May 27.
Naik was an Arts graduate and diploma holder in operation theatre (OT). He had been running a clinical laboratory Midnight Clinical Laboratory in his native village before joining militancy.
Naik’s brother, Bilal Ahmad recounts the last day he left home. As usual, they were at home doing regular household work. At 4 am, Hilal had to go for his night duties to SKIMS. After he reached Lal Chowk, he spoke to Naik for about 23 seconds over the phone. “I had a work to get done at home I told him about that,” he had said.
But around 8 pm the same day, Hilal left for prayers and did not return home till his death. After a month of his disappearance, a photo of Naik holding an AK 47 went viral on the social media clearing the doubts of his disappearance.
Hilal admitted that his brother was routinely discussing the Kashmir situation and the geopolitics. “But I had no inkling that day that he will leave to join the ranks,” he asserted.