In Kashmir’s troubled history January is drenched in blood, literally. Jibran Nazir revisits the gory memories of Sopore massacre that consumed fifty three civilians changing the apple town’s landscape forever
At 8 am on January 6, 1993, a group of eight heavily armed militants began walking towards Tarzoo village in Sopore, after spending three days in Batpora Mohallah as part of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen vigilantes.
Firdous (name changed), who now lives a civilian life, was part of the group, along with Shafi Curfew, then a 16-year-old daredevil militant. “Rotation of militants was a common practice, those days,” says Firdous.
As they reached near the main bazaar, recalls Firdous, a local resident came rushing towards the group and warned them about BSF’s presence. “But we knew the BSF deployment would stay till 9:30 am only. Thus, we decided to wait.”
The group then moved stealthily towards a safe location to wait. “Fifteen minutes later, Shafi suggested an alternate route to reach Tarzoo, to which we all agreed,” recalls Firdous.
To their surprise, another BSF party was patrolling the said route as well.
“In a flash, Shafi Curfew, who was daredevils of sorts, hurled a grenade at the BSF party,” said Firdous.
In the melee, Shafi managed to snatch an LMG from one of BSF men stationed near Baba Yousuf locality.
“There was an exchange of fire and Shafi received a gunshot on his leg. But we all managed to flee.”
Ishtiyaq Ahmad, who was opening his shop in the main market, was alerted by the sound of gunshots in the distance.
“It (gunshots and blasts) was a routine during the 90s, so I didn’t panic. Instead, I busied myself with the routine,” said Ishtiyaq.
It was 10 am and the market was buzzing with activity. Within minutes Ishtiyaq saw two dozen BSF personnel arrive.
“But I didn’t pay any attention to them. Instead, I started attending my customers,” recalls Ishtiyaq.
Everything was normal until Ishtiyaq heard few more gunshots. Suddenly the customer he was attending fell on the ground. He was hit by a bullet. “As I rushed to help him I saw BSF personnel firing at people,” he recalls. “Everybody began running for his life. It was complete chaos.”
Ishtiyaq tried to hide behind the counter of his shop, but one of the BSF men shouted, ‘Pehle maaro phir jala do (First kill then burn)’.
“I left my shop and run away,” said Ishtiyaq.
On the other end, opposite Mohammad Shafi Untoo’s shop, an SRTC bus was moving slowly towards Bandipora. “There were around twenty-five passengers inside,” recalls Untoo.
“They (BSF men) started firing at the bus. I saw people die. Everyone on the bus was dead,” Untoo recounts.
Untoo, who along with a few other shopkeepers had taken refuge inside Samad Talkies, started to run for their lives once they realized BSF men are sprinkling gunpowder on buildings. “They fired at me too, but I escaped miraculously.”
Bilal, then 15, chokes as he recalls his father Ghulam Nabi Zargar’s death. A photo-studio owner, Zargar was burnt alive inside his shop. “I witnessed the entire event from a friend’s house, but could do nothing to save him,” said Bilal. “They (BSF men) didn’t let him come out.”
Bilal saw BSF men sprinkle gunpowder and then set afire shops one after another including his father’s studio. “At first I thought my father might have run too like everybody else. But when I heard cries from inside the studio, I became restless,” said Bilal. “Then I saw my father run outside. But he was shot down.”
Bilal’s father collapsed in front of his studio, with his body on fire. Later Bilal came to know that there was another person inside the studio when it was set on fire. “It was Javaid Ahmad Sheikh. His charred body was retrieved later along with my father’s,” said Bilal as he breaks down.
For Ali Mohammad, now 70, a resident of Hanjiwara, Pattan, who was driving that fateful SRTC bus (JKY 1899), it was nothing short of a miracle to survive the carnage.
“I was stopped by the BSF men near the main chowk. And before I could not understand anything they started firing at the bus,” recalls Ali.
Ali remembers how an elderly person, who got down from the bus and tried to plead with the BSF men: main buzarg hun, mujhe jane…’
They shot him in the head before he could speak complete the sentence.
Within minutes, the roads wore a deserted look; there was nobody around except the bus and the BSF personnel.
“I was sitting in the driving seat, watching everything, and wait for my turn to get shot,” recalls Ali. “I was preparing to die.”
As Ali turned around, he saw his helper dead on the floor, and the entire bus turned red with blood. “There were dead bodies all around,” recalls Ali.
But the carnage was far from over yet. Ali saw BSF men trying to set the bus on fire along with those still inside. “I quickly jumped out thinking it would be less painful to die by a bullet then fire,” recalls Ali. “I began running towards Shalpora gully and fled. I couldn’t believe I was alive.”
Almost an hour after BSF left, people starting coming out to douse the fire and retrieve the charred dead bodies.
Zahoor, now in his 30s, remembers how his uncle, Gulzar Ahmad Sheikh, along with few other people carried dead bodies in handcarts. “They were taking the bodies in Baghat mohalla to offer funeral prayers,” said Zahoor who was then seven.
“I was told to stay indoors by my uncle. But I saw everything from the upper story of my house in Shahabad, Sopore,” said Zahoor.
When Zahoor’s uncle and a few other volunteers came near the bus, it was still burning. There were dead bodies inside.
“My uncle wrapped himself in a wet blanket and began retrieving dead bodies out of the burning bus and shops,” said Zahoor. “As they were doing so, BSF arrived and killed my uncle and one of his friends.”
Zahoor doesn’t remember the exact number of dead, but at the funeral, there were more than fifty dead bodies lying in front of him.