Families who lost their homes to gun battles in recent days are shelter-less and vulnerable to the spread of Covid-19, reports Umar Mukhtar

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Firefighters and locals try to douse the flames as several houses caught fire during a gun battle between militants and counterinsurgent forces in Nawakadal, Srinagar on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Beighpora,  a nondescript village of in Pulwama district, saw many of its houses being razed during a gunfight on May 6 that led to the killing of a long-surviving militant commander, Riyaz Naikoo along with his associate Aadil.

Eleven member family of Mohammad Ramzan, 65, who lost his house in the encounter, is now living in a partially damaged room of his neighbour Mohammad Abdullah Sheikh’s house. Sheikh’s family has twelve members.

Nasser Ahmad, 26,  the son of Mohammad Sultan recalls the night when the army knocked at their door. “We were asked to come out of our house by the armed forces personnel. Around 40 boys had already been assembled,” he said.  

For 15 minutes they were instructed by the soldiers about how to search the houses. Any mistake, they were allegedly told,  could even cost them their lives. “We were asked to move ahead and search every nook and cranny of the houses. I lost the count, how many times I searched the houses for the whole night,” Ahmad said.  “We were also asked to video-record the houses from inside while they were standing down positioned behind the walls.”

Following morning when the encounter took place, Mohammad Ramzan’s house was rendered into debris.

With lockdown in place none of the families who lost their houses in the encounter could move out of the village in search of shelter. They are all putting up in the neighbours’ houses.

Few metres away from Ramzan, his brother Sultan Ahmad is putting up in another neighbour’s house – 12 member family of Ahmad live in three rooms and in the other two rooms lives the owner with his five family members.

“We are seventeen people living here. It is very hard to live in such condition during the pandemic,” Ahmad said in a low voice. “We can’t have a proper bath because of the limited water availability.

Ahmad had constructed his house only a year before and to complete its construction, he said he had sold three out of his seven kanals of land.

He has three daughters and after the Ramzan, the Muslim month of fasting, his second daughter Zamrooda Akhter, 26 was to enter into the wedlock. Ahmad had even bought jewellery worth Rs five lakh for her.

“One week before the encounter I called a friend and he brought jewellery for her engagement. I had also stored other items for the ceremony. Nothing could be saved,” he said.

According to the data compiled by the Coalition of Civil Society, since March when the lockdown was implemented around 13 houses were completely damaged in the encounters till mid-May.

Khurram Parvez, the CCS convenor, sees it as the intentional practice by the counterinsurgency grid to make people suffer.

“UN Secretary-General had asked for the ceasefire in conflict zones amidst the Coronavirus pandemic. But you see the opposite is happening,” Parvez said. “Being shelter less makes people vulnerable to the pandemic.”

IGP Kashmir, Vijay Kumar recently said that 89 militants including top commanders were killed since January 2020, after the human intelligence that gone defunct post-August 2019, was revived. Police Chief Dilbagh Singh told a meeting that they killed 14 militants in six days in Shopian district alone.

These gun battles, apparently triggered by operations guided by precise information, have not led to any non-combatant civilian loss. However, homes in most of the cases homes have gone up in flames. Nawakadal in Srinagar city witnessed huge destruction during one such encounter in anticipation of the Eid.

Shakeela Bano, 52, was among those who lost their houses in the encounter. Bano’s husband Irfan Ahmad, 55, a daily wage labourer,  has suffered a haemorrhage some years ago. Bano was managing the family of five on her own. Her only comfort was the family shelter that was lost in the encounter. With their privacy gone, the families are unable to maintain social distancing.

Unlike the families in Srinagar where a strong societal response is expected to help the families in the near future, those in the periphery may have to struggle for a long time to rebuild their homes. The restrictions on movement, non-availability of construction labour and material are the key factors that is coming in between these families efforts in starting the rebuilding of their homes.


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