Separated by a bullet

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Every single killing in the summer 2016 unrest left behind a story of pain, loss and festering wounds that will take its own time to heal. But there are stories which will be talked about and would be part of folklore. Shams Irfan reports a love story that had a tragic end this past August

Ruksana with her fiance Farooq’s picture at Aripanthan, Budgam. Pic: Bilal Bahadur.

On August 2, 2016, as soon as Farooq Ahmad Kuchay, 25, a truck driver, stepped out of Food Corporation of India (FCI’s) Lethpora godowns , 25 kms south of Srinagar, after unloading rice he had driven from Delhi, his phone rang. It was his fiancé Ruksana.

“I am done with the unloading,” Farooq told her. “I am going home to get some tea.”

In love since early 2010, Farooq and Ruksana got engaged in February 2016 after months of convincing their parents.

“When are you coming to meet me?” asked Ruksana, 22, who lives in Aripanthan, a small improvised village in central Kashmir’s Budgam, around seventy minutes driver from Farooq’s house.

Her question conveyed a mix of emotions: relief and longing. Ruksana had spent last few nights awake, giving company to her trucker fiancé, on phone, while he drove through hostile highway connecting Kashmir with mainland India.

“I will come in a day or two,” promised Farooq. On the other end, Ruksanna couldn’t hide her smile. “And…I have bought something for you,” said Farooq, after a brief pause. She giggled.

Still on phone, Farooq crossed the deserted highway on foot, to reach his house, barely 300 meters from the FCI godown, where he parked his 12-tyre truck, owned by his neighbor.

On their right, towards Jammu side, his paramedic cousin Nazir Ahmad, who met Farooq once he came out of the FCI godown said, they saw around fifty boys assembled on the highway. They were guarding a makeshift road block, erected in hurry by placing two disused electric poles across the road, and some large boulders, taken from a construction site nearby, and half-a-dozen used truck tires.

The blockade was in place since July 9, a day after Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed in south Kashmir’s Bambdoora village, triggering violent protests across the valley.

The boys would stop vehicles, if any plying on the deserted highway, check the identity of the passenger, apparently to single out policemen. However, with strict curfew in place, there was no vehicle to stop since morning.

It was evening and people were offering Mughrib prayers. All of a sudden, as Farooq reached the other end of the road, a speeding white SUV, coming from Srinagar, sped past, almost crushing him to death. He yelled at the driver hidden by tinted black windows.

Unmindful of Farooq, the driver made a quick dash, narrowly missing three boys, who were chit-chatting near the edge of the road. “He almost crushed us too,” recalls Ahmad.

Instinctively, Ahmad and his friends rushed after the vehicle, speeding dangerously towards the blockade. There were three people inside the car: a driver, an Assistant Deputy Commissioner (Ramban district), and his Personal Security Officer (PSO).

Before the driver hit brakes, he made a last moment effort to avoid a stop, by steering around the blockade, but failed.

Ruksana at her house in Aripanthan, Budgam. Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Suddenly, the vehicle came to a grinding halt, leaving behind a trial of black marks on the newly laid highway. Farooq, an agile youngster, sprinted after the vehicle and caught with it. “Within no time the vehicle was surrounded. People wanted the driver to get down,” recalls Ahmad.

Farooq, who was visibly angry, knocked at the tainted glass window, and gestured the driver and other occupants to get down. “He just wanted an explanation from the driver who almost mowed him down,” said Ahmad. “But driver didn’t come out.”

Instead, the PSO rolled down the window, and fired a volley of bullets from his AK47 rifle, aiming directly at Farooq’s face.

Instantly, Farooq fell down, and so did half a dozen other boys, including Suhail. “An entire burst had hit Farooq’s face and head,” recalls Ahmad. “He died on the spot.”

Then, the PSO (later identified as Satish Kumar Manhas), still firing at people, his boss ADC (Babu Ram) and their driver, got down from the vehicle, and ran towards an incoming CRPF vehicle. “They (CRPF) had come out of their camp, after they heard gunshots,” said Ahmad.

The fleeing trio, after yelling at the CRPF men, ‘we are officials’, managed to board the vehicle and take refuge inside the garrison, adjacent to the godown. “They knew they are now untouchable,” said Ahmad angrily.

***

Doomed lovers Ruksana and Farooq. This picture was made by Farooq using a mobile photo editor.

Forty-five kms away, Ruksana was humming a romantic number, while going through her modest wardrobe.

She picked a green dress; it had embroidered neck, a deep one, which Farooq saw a Delhi based wedding special tailor wearing and requested her to make a copy for his fiancé.

But Ruksana tossed it aside remembering Farooq’s reaction. “It has deep neck. It’s immodest. Please don’t wear it again,” Farooq told her during a rendezvous four months back.

Then, Ruksana picked a purple shalwar kameez, the one she had kept for special occasions. After all they were seeing each other first time after Ramadan.

After Burhan’s killing Farooq called Ruksana on a post-paid mobile, the one she had requested from a neighbour, and told her, “no matter what happens, I will come to see you.”

But, once the cycle of killings started, with as many as thirty boys killed in just two days, Farooq decided not to take risk. “I will make him pay for breaking his promise,” thought Ruksana, while trying to fit her small frame and the purple dress in a table sized mirror.

***

Farooq and Ruksana were supposed to get married in September 2016.

In the melee someone picked Farooq’s lifeless body, with half of his brain still on the highway, and tried to rush towards the nearby hospital. But the nearest one was at least 12 kms away in Pampore. “I told that guy it is useless as he is already dead,” recalls Ahmad.

Within minutes news of Farooq’s killing spread in Lethpora and its adjoining village, and people began marching towards the CRPF camp, where ADC and company were hiding.

Known to village boys as Tere Naam for his resemblance to Bollywood actor Salman Khan’s peculiar hairstyle in that movie, Farooq was a go-getter kind of person. “It triggered massive clashes. CRPF men started firing teargas shells. They even fired bullets,” recalls Ahmad.

Instantly, the entire highway got divided in two, with burning SUV marking the boundary between protestors and CRPF camp.

Behind the burning SUV, inside a tractor trolley, Farooq’s blood soaked face shined under flames and smoke.

***

That night Ruksana couldn’t sleep. She kept looking at her mobile phone, a gift from her fiancé, but there were no signal. All of a sudden entire mobile network, including the state-owned BSNL post-paid, was unreachable. With unease, she began recollecting her fiancés words, the last ones, before he hung up: “Will call you in a while, let me reach home first.” Satisfied that he is safe home, and there is nothing unusual if government had withdrawn this last source of communication too, Ruksana fell asleep.

***

The air was heavy with tear-smoke, burning rubber, angry souls, and a dead lover resting uneasily on back of a tractor trolley, placed in the middle of highway.

“There were around two thousand people sitting around Farooq’s body,” recalls Ahmad. “It was the longest night of my life, and the most painful too.”

At 3 am, after trying almost twenty different cellphones, Ahmad could reach Ruksana’s elder brother Ashiq Hussain Mir, a lineman who works with state’s power department. “We told him that Farooq is injured so come as quickly as possible,” recalls Ahmad.

Ahmad’s words were enough to break Ashiq, who, for past fourteen years had singlehandedly raised a large family of twelve: seven sisters, his wife and kids and widowed mother, after their father, also a lineman died in the line of duty while repairing a high-tension wire. Ashiq was appointed in his father’s place on compassionate grounds.

A strong hearted person, Ashiq couldn’t resist but let out a cry, instantly waking his wife sleeping next to him. “Something terrible has happened. Farooq is hurt,” he told his wife and quickly covered her mouth with his hand, fearing she might cry.

Then the husband wife decided to wait till dawn. They began exploring how to tell Ruksana. “The poor soul will die. They are such a lovely couple. I wish, I pray that Farooq is just hurt,” said Ashiq’s wife.

The clock on the wall facing Ashiq began to tickle, but slowly.

***

Fazi holding her son’s photograph at her house in Lethpora village.

Inside a corner of her single story modest house, not far from where Farooq’s body was kept, near a green coloured tin-trunk, a frail woman was shedding tears with one eye. She was Farooq’s mother Fazi. Her skeleton of a frame, which she carried around with a stoop, was heavy with anger, remorse, and helplessness.

As the surface of the tin-trunk soaked with her tears, Fazi, was taken back to an October evening in 1991.

She clearly recalls how her elder son, Riyaz Ahmad Kuchay, then 25, was bought home by BSF men and killed inside a neighbours house after he failed to give them weapons. He was associated with al-Jihad, a militant outfit that fell within a short spell of its rise. Fazi, who looks much older than her actual sixty-five-year, still hears Riyaz’s cries.

Since then, among her remaining four sons, she would confide her secrets with Farooq. The tin-trunk, on which Fazi leaned to cry, was Farooq’s. It held his entire world. His pictures, the gifts Ruksana gave him over last six years, two clean trousers, t-shirts, a pocket sized diary etc.

***

At 5 am, Ashiq finally woke his elder sister Asifa Jan, and told her about Farooq. “Go and get Ruksana ready,” said Ashiq and quickly added, “Tell her your mother-in-law Fazi is serious. We will leave in half an hour.”

Ruksana quickly combed her hair, changed into a pair of ‘good’ shalwar kameez, knowing she has to face him.

Ashiq arranged a spacious vehicle and asked his mother, his two sisters and a few relatives to accompany them.

As he drove through deserted roads, almost every curve was blocked either by stones, burnt tires, or by empty trash bins. There was complete silence inside the vehicle as everyone has his eyes fixed on the road. No one from their village had been this far since July 9.

Ruksana’s heart began to beat faster as they neared Lethpora, her would-be-home, she thought.

***

With first ray of light hitting the cold tractor trolley, a new wave of protests started in Lethpora. Almost every road, other than the highway, that reached Lethpora was filled with people. A few young boys, armed with brooms and dusters, began cleaning the lane leading to Farooq’s house. One group quickly arranged rose petals. Another group, a bigger one, was busy arranging refreshment for the mourners. The word was spread that a special guest will visit Farooq soon. At 7 am, Burhan Wani’s mother visited Farooq’s mother and offered her condolences. “Your son was a noble soul. I am sorry for your loss. I can understand your pain,” she told Fazi.

Around half-a-mile away Farooq was waiting for a special guest too, his beloved Ruksana.

***

Nazir Ahmad going through his cousin Farooq’s belongings.

As Ruksana’s and her family got out of their vehicle, a sea of sunken faces, raising slogans, hailing Farooq’s martyrdom, circled them. “There were around ten thousand people,” recalls Asifa, Ruksana’s elder sister.

Instantly, Ruksana’s hope of meeting her lover crushed, and she cried out loud and said: “This is wrong…”

For a moment Ruksana’s thoughts wandered to a June afternoon when she met Farooq for the last time. It was at a small restaurant on Srinagar-Gulmarg highway, where the lovers, engrossed in each other, planned their upcoming marriage. Both the families had agreed upon on September 10 and 11, as their wedding date, just a month away, she thought.

Ruksana recalled how Farooq was keen to take her on a trip to Delhi, and how they fought over her bridal dress and its colour. It was all flashing in front of her eyes, while the chorus of sloganeering around her intensified.

Escorted by ‘volunteers’ Ruksana was taken to meet her lover, who lie wrapped inside a thick blanket, with half of his face hidden by layers of bandage, done by his medic cousin Ahmad.

The chorus of cries, slogans and wails notwithstanding, Ruksana touched her lovers face, and had a long mournful look at his lifeless body. “Why did you break your promise…” she murmured.  And then Ruksana collapsed.

She does not remember what happened later. She stayed in Lethpora for four days with the family, she would have been part of, had Farooq not died. She left in pain and is still in shock. Ahmad says the tragedy has left indelible impressions on him. “It was heartbreaking to see a beautiful love story end like this.”

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