Requiem for Rehti

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Since 1998 when her fingers were broken by the soldier who took her son, Rehti did not leave even a single garrison across Kashmir to locate her son. She lost her husband and worked as a labourer to marry her six of the seven daughters. Barely a month before the broken lady died of diabetes and high blood pressure last week, she spent hours with Faheem Mir at her Chak-e-Kawoosa home, perhaps her last long talk with a reporter

At around 8:30 am, Tasleema Jan, 21, was preparing tea in the kitchen for the family of two, her bed-ridden mother Rehti Begum, 60, resting in another room. In the middle of it, she, almost robotically, get up and started opening the lids of big tin boxes that usually are used to store flour, rice and beans in the kitchen stores. It took her few minutes and then she left the kitchen. A few minutes later, she came with some breakfast bread. She was actually searching for some coins to fetch some bakery.

To a person who knows Kashmir’s household systems and culture, it was a clear indicator that the family lives in dire straits. If a person has to open so many boxes and then hunt a few coins, it means there is no money. There are hardly ten utensils in the kitchen, in addition to the LPG stove, a few boxes of spices and two jars for water.

With the tea ready and the bread waiting, it took Rehti a few minutes to get in. Wearing a new pheran, she is suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure. After the routine exchange of pleasantries, she asked a straight question: “Who are you? Who sent you here? Did you talk to Baji?”

Baji is Parveena Ahanger, who heads her faction of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). “Baji is more than a sister, she cares like a mother and she visits us ones a month,” the lady went on uninterrupted, even without waiting for my answers to her initial questions. “She has gifted me this pheran.”

After a brief pause, Rehti asked her daughter to call Baji. She rang up Ahanger and sought my identity. It took a few minutes and the mother-daughter was satisfied with the antecedents of the reporter. It marked the beginning of the talk.

Sheikh family, Rehti said, was living peacefully in Chak-e-Kawoosa on the Srinagar-Gulmarg road near Magam. But a fateful evening shattered everything for her almost 20 years back. The family members had barely started their return back home after planting paddy in their fields. They were busy, washing their clothes near the four-way in the village where a brook flows.

“All of a sudden some army vehicles came roaring on the road, stopped and took my son along,” Rehti said. “They also ruthlessly beat his friend to the pulp. When I tried to intervene, they broke my fingers with gun butts.”

It was in June 1998 and the time was 6:00 pm. The family does not know the day or the actual date when he was picked up. But what they remember is that Mohammad Ramzan Sheikh was 20, and was picked by Army unit that was then stationed in Mirgund.

Sheikh was the only son of Rehti and she had seven daughters. Sheikh was a professional artisan, a shawl-weaver, who would also work as a labourer as well to add to the meagre income of his large family.

That day marked the beginning of Rehti’s struggle. “I went to almost all the jails and army camps in the valley but didn’t found him anywhere,” Rehti recalls.

That was the era dominated by “foreigner kill”. Police would routinely issue an evening statement listing “encounters” and the sketchy details of the foreigners getting killed. No questions were asked, ever. It was many years later that a chain of fake encounters was detected and investigated.

One day, Rehti heard that Ramzan was being held in an interrogation centre in Yadipora, near Pattan. She did not waste even a bit of time in reaching the place. She does not remember much about how she was permitted in but said she somehow managed to get into the garrison and she did saw some 30 boys being held there.

“I saw some 30 young boys and most of them were unconscious. One of them was from Wanigam who told me: “O mother, please pray for our death, it is unbearable now’,” Rehti said. “They (who were managing the centre) were talking with each other and I overheard one of them saying that they have thrown some of their mates into the river.”

Rehti said she melted with what the young boy said. “I told them that he is my son but they didn’t allow him to move out,” Rehti said. “I cried for him (as) I saw my son in him. I don’t know where he is now”.

Rehti said she had been weaving dreams as Ramzan was weaving shawls: about the marriage of her only son. Ramzan was supposed to marry one of his relatives and all the shopping was done and the dates for the wedding were fixed. “The day he was arrested, we had 40 days left for his marriage,” Rehti said.

Rehti and her husband literally did not stay at home for these 40 days. They were moving from one camp to another garrison. “I am still waiting for him,” she said.

Those days, rumours were minted by mongers. People would craft stories and get them walk. One such story was that Ramzan was set free by the army and later he joined a band of thieves. “Police did arrest the group of thieves but Ramzan was not among them,” Rehti said. She had gone to the police and confirmed it.

Ramzan’s disappearance in custody pushed Rehti and her daughters to a sort of roller coaster. Soon, Ramzan’s father Abdul Rahman started getting chest pain that eventually was established a cardiac problem. A year later, he suffered a severe heart attack and was shifted to Srinagar where he died. “He used to advise me to be patient but he himself lost the battle,” Rehti said.

Abdul Rahman used to earn bread by driving a horse cart in the area. After Ramzan lost his son, he sold the cart. After Ramzan’s disappearance, Rehman would either sit at home or simply be walking to garrison destinations to trace his son.

Many years later, Rehti joined the APDP. She was the sole decision-maker and the only bread-winner. In last many years, she married off her six daughters with the help of some NGO’s and the APDP.

“I asked (one of) my sons-in-law to stay here at my place but I was not so fortunate to see a happy family again,” Rehti recalls. “But I took everything as part of my destiny and moved on.”

The disappearance of her son and death of Rehman were not the only shocks. “I lost my elder daughter Roshan Begum due to electric current at home,” Rehti said. “She was washing clothes in the courtyard and an LT line fell on her and she died on the spot. It was destiny that she left behind her three children and their father took them to his place days after her death.”

Asked if she attempted to send her daughters to school, Rehti said the people who do not understand the destitution cannot appreciate her fate. “It was a matter of survival because we had to struggle to manage two meals a day and where could I think of education,” Rehti said. “I worked as a labourer for years to feed my daughters, I tried to make their education possible but the conditions did not allow me to do so”.

However, her younger daughters Nazia and Tasleema did go to school. Tasleema barely dropped out before completing her matriculation and Nazia was fortunate enough to reach up to twelfth standard. “I received education from Yateem Trust, Gopalpora in Chadoora but due to health issues I left education midway,” Tasleema said.

With almost all settled: two in Bandipore, one each in Beerwa and Kunzar (who died) and two in neighbouring villages, the family was eventually reduced to the two: Rehti and Tasleema. With no sources of income, they sold their land to build a residential house. It has two rooms and a kitchen with no washroom facilities available. “There was no other option other than selling our land,” Tasleema said. “Baji helped us a lot throughout our struggle to trace out my son,” Rahat said

Now Rehti is gone. Tasleema will have to take care of the two rooms and her own life, apparently hollowed by the situation in last twenty years. Rest in peace, Rehti.

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