Seven civilians were killed after an encounter in Pulwama saw the killing of three militants and an army man in an apple orchard hideout. This triggered anger and tensions across Kashmir forcing the governor to order an inquiry. Javid Sofi offers a narrative of the incident that pushed Kashmir to an edge for a week
Cutting across the party affiliations and the ideological beliefs, Kashmir’s entire political class reacted in anger against the killing of seven civilians after an encounter in Sirnoo (Pulwama). Kashmir was paralysed for three days. Some of the leaders in Delhi also reacted to the situation that turned uglier by the recent spate of killings. On these killings, Pakistan Prime Minister, Imran Khan, rang up United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
The operation started during the wee hours on Saturday, December 15, 2018, when Ummar Mukhtar Lone, 18, was deep in his slumber in his single storey modest house in Sirnoo village. Multiple bangs on his windows broke his sleep. Before he could make any sense of what was going around, he was ordered to come out. Without wasting any time in comprehending what it could be or how he was supposed to react, he came out of his quilt.
“Three of them were speaking chaste Kashmiri. I think they were Special Operatives Group (SOG) men, who usually lead the encounters.” Ummar, a clean shaved teen, recalled, “They asked me to lead them to locate a neighbour’s house.”
Sensing trouble, Ummar’s parents also rushed out of the house and pleaded the counter-insurgent group to let him off. His mother resisted stiffly and put her arms around her son but all went in vain. She gave up once the personnel assured her that their son would not be harmed and would be set free soon.
But Ummar could figure it out that it was not going to end so soon. He started fearing for his life. Eventually, with his trembling feet, Ummar crossed the recently macadamised Pradhan Mantri Gram Saddak Yojna (PMGSY) road that sets Sirnoo and Monghama villages almost half a kilometre apart.
Ummar was taken to a single storey small house in Chan Mohallah in Monghama that is surrounded by apple orchards. Once there, he knocked at the main door of the house, belonging to his neighbour Bilal Ahmad Najar. Najar, 37, a father of two kids, was called out in the courtyard by Ummar, and he was informed that army had laid a siege around and they suspect militants holed up in his house.
At around 3 am, Ummar says he was sent into the house of Najars’. Ummar said he was asked to go inside the house and if he suspected the movement of militants he should signal their presence immediately to the forces.
The trend of using the civilians as human shields is in vogue since militancy erupted in Kashmir in 1989. Ummar knew it. But becoming the one turned his charming face pale and he started shivering..“I was only praying for my life,” he said while shivering again.
Once inside, he searched the house completely. He said he cannot detail the hour-long ordeal. “You never know who could be inside and if you would be shot at,” he said. But that was not the end of it.
Once out to report that there was none, another ordeal started for him: “How to convince the forces that he did not notice any suspected militant movement inside?” Again, he said, he was praying for his life. Somehow, the prayers were answered and he was let free.
But, for Bilal worse was yet to come. He was taken to the courtyard of a nearby house where the counter-insurgent forces had parked their vehicles. An army officer quizzed him about the presence of militants in his house and warned him of ‘dire’ consequences if the information turned to be true.
“I was asked if Zahoor Thoker was hiding in my house,” Bilal said. When he refused to confirm their claims, he said he was made to duck and given a few gun butts on his thighs. And then he was asked to go inside his own house to search the militants.
“The army men had installed high-intensity lights on apple trees which were beaming on my house,” Bilal said. “Even the small dust particles appeared quite visible.”
Knowing that no militant was inside, he still searched his own house and then reassured the forces that no militant was hiding inside. Later, his younger sister and aged parents were asked to come out in the courtyard.
After the Najar family was in the courtyard, the forces went inside the house and searched it room by room. No militant was found. He says the searches ended at 7:15 am after which Bilal was allowed to go. He says only his house was searched for militants.
By that time, Monghama villagers witnessed a massive build-up of forces personnel around apple orchards, initially towards the rear end of the village facing Barpora and Karimabad villages and later towards the far end.
An eyewitness recalled that the personnel walked down a few yards behind the Najar’s house where they started looking for a cave on one corner of an orchard along the PMGSY road. That area was already under a multi-ringed fence of forces.
The Economic Times reported that at least three residents of Kharpora were dragged out of their homes and used as human shields. The Army then took them to the orchard, where the forces had already laid multilevel cordon.
“We were ordered to remove stacks of logs scattered in different parts of the orchard and forced to enter into a non-functional poultry farm, which they suspected to be the hideout of militants,” the newspaper reported. Later, he was pushed to remove another stack of logs near a canal in the middle of the orchard. “I removed the logs and saw two tactical boots. The army man beside me immediately fired bullets, without bothering for our lives. They fired at the hideout from 15 to 20 feet distance and then took the positions around the spot. All four of us were kept hostages, as we laid in the orchard on abdomen till the firing was over. Then they left us there.”
The three persons were let free later. Later, one of the human shield’s cousin’s was killed in the subsequent shooting by the army. Witnesses told the newspaper that there were not many stones around because the spot of the encounter and around it are paddy fields and orchards.
Finally at 7:43 am, a fierce gunfight started. With the sounds of gunshots, people in the twin villages started looking for their safety. Bilal rushed out of his house with his one-year-old kid, but his sister, Jamsheeda Akhter, was left stranded along with her old parents. Bilal’s wife and other kid were not home.
Jamsheeda, 27, is also yet to come out of the trauma. Her otherwise beautiful face looks charmless and she breaks into tears on recalling the gory scenes of that day.“It was scary, people were wailing and crying, we didn’t dare to come out,” she said. “We were caught inside and the bullets were raining above us.”
As the gunfight was still going on, youth from many nearby and far off villages assembled in Barpora, Monghama and Sirnoo.
Mohammad Amir Pala, 19, son of Mohammad Yousuf Pala, a resident of neighbouring Ashmander village was spotted by villagers walking on a graveyard few yards from Bilal Najar’s house.
“He was first to be killed. The forces fired at him and he fell on the ground,” one witness said. “Other youth, who were following him, ran away after they saw the forces were firing indiscriminately. Injured Pala was left unattended for half an hour as nobody could dare to go near him.”
Later, a few youths dared to go nearer Pala and managed to shift him to district hospital Pulwama but they were late. Pala was declared by doctors brought dead. He had a bullet wound on the chest.
One of his maternal uncles Jalal-u-Din says that Pala had left home at 6:30 am on a bike for his work. He worked at pollution checking centre in Pulwama outskirts. While quoting an eyewitness, Jalal says once his nephew along with his two more people had reached Monghama, “the trio went off the motorbike after which they came under the fire of forces.”
“The two others had ducked but my nephew was hit. He had asked his associates to look underneath his clothes to see where he had been hit,” Jalaluddin said. Eldest amongst his siblings, Pala belonged to a poor family. He had dropped out of school in class 10 to support his family.
Majority of Monghama and Sirnoo residents accused government forces of using disproportionate force against civilians. “They fired more bullets on civilians than militants,” one villager alleged, adding the militants were killed in a brief gunfight.
Bilal Ahmad Shah, a well built young man of Sirnoo, was injured in forces’ action when he was trying evacuating the injured youth. He had a miraculous escape after a bullet whisked past his head leaving a wound on the temporal side of his head. He received four stitches. “They fired hundreds of bullets at civilians aiming above the waist,” he said.
One of the doctors at the district hospital Pulwama said that most of the slain and injured civilians who were brought to the hospital were mostly shot at above their waists.
Ferrying injured to the hospital at that point of time was also a tough time as the eyewitness claims that police, army and the paramilitary forces had blocked the main road. As the injured remained unattended, local chemists and paramedics geared up and chipped in to help. Attaullah, a chemist, tended four injured, three with bullet wounds and one with pellets. After first aid, the injured were piggybacked to district hospital through apple orchards, avoiding the blocked main road. Critically injured were shifted to district hospital through a lengthy road via Karimabad village.
By 11 am, when the government forces started leaving from the site of the gunfight, some in vehicles and others on foot, hundreds of youth including boys and girls, assembled in the courtyard of aged Ghulam Mohammad Lone in the neighbourhood across the PMGSY road opposite to Bilal Ahmad Najar’s residence. A wall of tin sheets remains erected around Lone’s two storey house.“The youth were pelting stones on the two armoured vehicles. The forces, in turn, were firing indiscriminately,” aged Lone said.
It was in this action that Suhail Ahmad Dar, 16, son of Abdul Rashid Dar of Bellov village, was hit by a bullet and he fell on the ground towards backyard of Lone’s house.
On seeing Suhail falling down, another youth Owais Ahmad Najar, 18, son of Mohammad Yusuf Najar, rushed from his house and ran towards that of Lone’s. He was rushing with a glass of water in his hands for Suhail, residents said. Barely after passing the gate of Lone’s residence, a bullet hit him in his head and he fell down.
“That day, we had no drinking water stored in our house, and that is why, he rushed to neighbour’s house to fetch some water for the injured,” Yousuf said. Both Suhail and Owais succumbed before people could arrange water for them, he added.
Aged Lone says two bullets had pierced through a tin sheet which hit Owais and another youth. Suhail died on the spot while the other youth with a shoulder injury was shifted to the hospital for treatment.
Suhail was a class tenth student at Noor–ul-Islam higher secondary school. Lone brother amongst his two elder unmarried sisters, his both parents are patients and are on medication. “Suhail was detained by police a few months ago on suspicion of harbouring militants in his house and the detention changed his behaviour,” one of his relatives said. “On the bloody Saturday, he had rushed to Monghama despite resistance from his parents and uncle.”
The slain Owais was the second son of his parents and had recently passed his twelfth standard examination with 73 per cent marks. He is survived by a handicapped brother and two unmarried sisters. His father is a carpenter who is struggling to recover from a bone injury that he got after falling from a height during construction work. Owais was working as an automobile repairing mechanic to support his family.
Another youth, Liyaqat Majeed Dar, 17, son of Abdul Majeed Dar, a resident of Jageer Parigama, was an eleventh standard student at government higher secondary school Newa. Son of a milkman, Liyaqat was assisting his father in collecting milk from villagers.
On Saturday Liyaqat left his house for Barpora after rendering a usual helping hand to his father. Hours later, the family was told by someone on the phone that their son was hit with a bullet and was dead at district hospital Pulwama. Apart from parents apart, he is survived by an elder handicapped brother and two sisters.
Tawseef Ahmad Mir, 30, son of Mohammad Ahsan Mir, a resident of Uricherso village was a casual labourer in the power development department. He was the lone son of his parents amongst five sisters. He left behind his widow and two minor kids. He was married six years ago and was living separately from his parents in a single room house. He had left his home at 7am that day and returned home dead in the afternoon.
Abid Hussain Lone, 30, son of late Ghulam Nabi Lone, was the resident of Karimabad village and had left his house after talking to his Indonesian wife, Saima Jan. His uncle Ghulam Mohammad Lone said that he had planned to prune his apple orchards. He ventured towards Barpora village with other youth of the village where he was hit with a bullet. He was an MBA from a Bangalore University and had married with Saima two years ago. He left behind a three-month-old toddler.
Aqib Bashir, 15, son of Bashir Ahmad Bhat, a resident of Prichoo village, was a class ninth student. He had taken salted tea with his family members in the morning and then left his house for a routine walk around the village.
A classmate of slain Aqib came rushing to his uncle, Mohammad Yousuf, to inform that one of the unidentified dead body at the hospital could be that of Aqib. Yousuf was helping injured outside the hospital premises. The uncle rushed inside and found his nephew dead. Aqib also belonged to a poor family and is survived by parents and a younger brother.
It was almost after four days of mourning in Pulwama, two video clips were seen making rounds on the social networking sites. The videos shot from a close distance showed the protesters attacking the forces with sticks in their hands, and in turn, they were shot with bullets.
Police issued a detailed statement on the killings. “While the operation was going on, a crowd who came dangerously close from different parts to the encounter site got injured,” the spokesman said. “The injured were evacuated to the hospital where unfortunately seven persons succumbed to their injuries.”
The “deeply grieved” spokesman renewed the appeals to citizens to avoid encounter sites as these are “prohibited zone which involves significant danger to life because of the nature of the encounter”.
Later that day, the governor Satya Pal Malik presided over a meeting. He expressed his condolences and asked people to avoid encounter sites. “Governor also directed Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, to inquire about the incident that happened in Pulwama today and suggest precautions to minimise civilian casualties in anti-militancy operations,” the state government spokesman added.