As the rattling guns broke the early morning slumber inside the sprawling Sunjwan garrison in Jammu on February 10, the action and reaction lasted for many hours and resulted in the killing of six army soldiers and a civilian. Finally, when dust settled, Kashmir from south to north mourned killing of six out of seven slain men, reports Muhammad Younis and Faheem Mir
On Tuesday, February 13, the pall of gloom descended on the Reshipora village in south Kashmir’s Tral when Sheikh family received the bodies of father-son duo from Jammu, the place of posting of their son, Mohammad Iqbal, three days after militants stormed the Sunjwan army garrison.
It was shocking for the family headed by just-widowed Hajra, wife of slain Ghulam Muhammad and mother of Iqbal. Until the bodies were flown home, the family only knew that their men had sustained injuries in an attack and are recuperating.
The entire area, however, knew the reality that the slain civilian and one among six army men are from the Sheikh family. People visiting the family remained tight-lipped, though. The locality sent a delegation to the army “suggesting” them that they will collect the two coffins from the Tral garrison and drive them home for final rites. “This is also possible that some soldiers, as per the army traditions may accompany the coffin,” one village elder spoke to the mourners. “What I am telling you, if they come, we must not get angry.”
Finally, when the coffins arrived, apparently without a tricolor on the coffins, the snow had already started to melt. Braving bitter cold, a few thousand people from the neighbouring areas assembled in the village which, according to one of the mourners, bore testimony to the fact how well human beings the duo were. “They were always helpful. No one had a complaint about them,” the mourner said, walking towards the ground, where the funeral prayers were held. “There can be no bigger tragedy than this. The family has been literally devastated.”
As the two coffins moved to the graveyard, the women of the family Hajira, her two unmarried daughters, and Shabnum (her widowed daughter-in-law now), were inconsolable to see their support gone forever. They attempted throwing themselves on the coffins.
“Before leaving, better you had burned us to ashes,” Hajira cried her heart out. “What will we do without you? Who is going to take care of the family now?” Iqbal, her son, who had joined the Army in 2006, and served as Lance Naik, was the only bread earner as Ghulam Mohammad had become too old and sick to work now.
“The family had seen too much of poverty. It was because of Iqbal the situation had started to improve,” said a neighbouring woman.
A couple of days before the attack took place, Ghulam Mohammad had moved to Jammu for a check-up.
After seeing the doctor, he had gone to stay with his son’s family for a few days before he would have returned. It was only his first night with his son’s family that militants stormed the base.
Far away from Tral, down north in Kupwara four-year-old Shafiya is waiting for her father, Habibullah Quraishi aka Farooq Quraishi, to get her dolls from Jammu. Quraishi, the father of six daughters, has promised his pregnant wife Hameeda that he will visit home in April; the month Hameeda’s delivery is scheduled.
An army man for last 22 years ago, Quraishi called his wife in Kupwara’s Bhatpora village in Hyhama, some 450 kilometers away on Friday, February 9, from Sunjwan army base. Married to Hameeda, his cousin for 25 years, Quraishi, Hameeda said was desperate to visit home because of her pregnancy. “He was eagerly waiting to visit home because of my pregnancy,” Hameeda said.
But the call of the promise of Quraishi to his wife turned out to be the last one.
Next morning on February 10, unaware of the happenings in Jammu, Hameeda and family did not know anything about the attack.
After a neighbour informed Hameeda at 9 am, she picked her phone and called her husband. There was no response. “We repeatedly dialed his number but got no answer,” Hameeda recalls.
When Quraishi didn’t respond at all, his younger brother dialed a local army man’s number who too was posted at Sunjwan camp. “He didn’t tell us what actually happened to my son,” said Amanullah Quraishi, 73. “He knew I am a heart patient that is why he didn’t tell me about Quraishi’s death.”
Quraishi’s neighbour Mir, who too is posted at Sunjwan camp, eventually called his wife and informed her about the tragedy.
“He asked me to visit Quraishi’s house quickly,” Mir’s wife Jabeena recalls.
Jabeena rushed out of the house, walked half-a-kilometer, hiked a hillock, and finally reached Quraishi’s house. “I told his family that he has minor injuries, nothing serious,” said Jabeena.
Quraishi’s daughters met Jabeena on the way to their tuition classes. “I brought them back without telling them the realty,” Jabeena said.
Even when people from the neighbourhood started gathering at Qurashi’s residence, his daughters and other family members were unaware of the tragedy.
Finally, when they came to know, seven-month pregnant Hameeda is in trauma and lies on the bed, almost lifeless.
“It was his duty to shoulder my coffin but I had to shoulder his coffin instead,” said Quraishi’s father Amanullah.
Quraishi was eldest among six siblings: four sisters and a brother. “Killing an innocent father of six daughters, brother of four sisters, and lone bread winner of his ailing parents is not jihad,” said his sister.
Being the last village on the north-east side of Kupwara district, people of Bhatpora have little knowledge about the happenings in Sunjwan, Jammu.
What happened in Sunjwan is giving nightmare to Shabnum, even after a week. Present in the quarter that night, she said, during the wee hours, they were woken up by heavy firing. First, they thought it was a drill going on, usually performed in the base, but then as they were asked to quickly shift upstairs, they got to learn it was an attack. Immediately after taking cover in the quarters upstairs, there was a knock at their door. When they didn’t open the door, the militants on the other side of the door “probably threw a grenade.”
Afterwards, according to Shabnum, she didn’t know what exactly happened. “I was only concerned about my son, and to save him, we slipped under a bed,” Shabnum said sobbingly. After a long period, when the firing eventually stopped, as Shabnum came out, her eyes met the bodies of her husband and her father-in-law lying dead on the floor of the room.
Holding her one-year-old son, she said her second marriage anniversary was only a few months far.
Mahfooza Begum is lost in thoughts of witnessing the killing of husband, Subedar Mohammad Ashraf Mir. The couple for around last 20 years had short-lived union of few hours. As Ashraf was away for a month in West Bengal for official work, he returned at around 9 PM on February 9. Once he reached Jammu railway station, the first thing he did was a call to his wife asking to prepare nun-chai (pink tea) for him as he will join them shortly.
Jubilant, Mahfooza, her sons, Raashid, 18, Salman, 14 and daughter Tamana Ashraf, 10, were eagerly waiting.
Ashraf took an auto and drove straight to Sunjwan army camp.
After joining his family at the residential quarters camp, Ashraf, distributed gifts among his children while sipping Nun Chai. Ashraf had shifted his family to Jammu three months back. He had planned to stay there for a few more years.
Hours after his arrival, Mahfooza recalls the events that led to her husband’s killing in the attack. The worst part she said was the children watched everything.
“At 5:30 am, I heard some noise outside our room. I started wondering what was happening when our door was opened forcefully. Two people entered and dragged my husband from the bed and fired two bullets in his chest,” recalls Maroofa. “They stayed with the dead body for more than thirty minutes. I don’t know what happened after my husband was killed.”
Back home, Ashraf’s parents in Maidanpora, Lolab were unaware that their son was killed. Once they were told, the old and ailing had nothing but to grieve.
His father Ghulam Mohi-ud-Din Mir says his son was innocent. “He joined the army just to earn the livelihood,” he laments, “The conflict between India and Pakistan kills Kashmiris.”
Inconsolable, his mother remembers the last call he made. “He used to talk to his mother over phone daily,” Ashraf’s cousin said but the last one was a video call.
Ashraf’s last visit to home was in November 2017, when he came to take his family to Jammu.
In between killings and cries, Nazir Ahmad took shelter along with his wife in the same room as that of Iqbal and his family. But he had luck on his side to save himself and take out his pregnant wife with a bullet injury and reach the hospital. A day after he fathered a girl child, whom army calls the ‘Queen of Sunjwan’.
Killings are nothing new in Tral’s Rishipora. So are the mournings. A little away from Sheikh’s is the home of Fardeen Ahmad Khanday. Part of a Jaish-e-Mohammad’s Fidayeen squad, he died in the year end attack on CRPF’s Lethpora base.
Home to an SPO Abdul Haleem Kohli who was shot dead by militants at his residence from a point-blank range, there is also the residence of slain militant Auqib Ahmad Bhat’s alias Auqib Moulvi.