Shams Irfan spent 24 hours in Tral and was part of the multiple funeral prayers that swelling mourners offered on July 9. Five months later, he drove back to the southern town and traced teenage rebel’s last journey home from the Kokernag police station.
On the evening of July 8, 2016, Muzaffar Wani’s phone began ringing frantically. As he looked blankly at it, a known number began flashing impatiently.
Finally, after what seemed like a long time, Wani answered the call.
“Burhan is martyred,” said the voice on the other end. Wani Sr. knew this call will come, one day. But the father wished it not to come.
Since 2010, when Wani’s younger son Burhan, then 16, vanished from his home into nearby thick forests and joined Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, he lived impatient nights thinking of his reaction to this particular call. But he never reconciled to one.
That evening, before Wani could have reacted, Kashmir started bursting, much faster. All of a sudden, he felt he is not the lone mourner. Instantly, Wani, 54, a teacher heading a government school in nearby Larnoo village, who has lived most of his life teaching additions and subtraction, faced a daunting challenge: how to bring his “fighter son home”.
As the remains of the day melted into night, Wani’s modest courtyard began to fill with mourners, a few hundred instantly, then swelling to thousands in an hour, forcing them to spill over into streets.
Surrounded by mourners, Wani looked at the faces of known and unknown, forgotten and neighbours, friends and relatives – all mourning. But his eyes kept looking for one particular face: Burhan’s.
Confused, Wani struggled, first as an ordinary father, then as a rebel’s dad, thinking: should he mourn or celebrate!
Eventually, he did a bit of both.
However, before any of two emotions could have consumed him completely, Wani summoned his cousin, a free spirited guy in his thirties, known for both stupidity and bravery.
“Go and get him,” Wani told him amidst roars of applauds and sloganeering.
Let us call him Shahid.
Within no time Shahid called a taxi driver, a neighbour, who couldn’t hide his excitement for having been chosen for this “noble work”.
Then Wani informed the police officer, who was in touch with him since that fateful evening, that Shahid is coming to Kokernag to get Burhan’s body. “Tell him to visit Islamabad police line first,” the officer advised him. “Our guy will accompany him from there.”
Without wasting any time, Shahid left Tral, leaving behind smoke, dust, darkness and endless mourners.
As Shahid reached the main road, a group of angry faces stopped him. “Shouldn’t you be mourning as well,” asked an angry face.
Instantly Shahid and his driver friend realized that the journey to Kokernag is going to be a long and hostile one. But there were no options. Burhan had to come home, finally.
“I was told there are people on the streets everywhere,” said Wani. “I realised it is impossible for Shahid to reach his destination.”
The realisation made Wani fear that he won’t be able to see his son even one last time.
As Wani’s patience began to wear off, a divine plan, as he calls it now, was put in place over the mountains that hosted his son for six years. “It began to thunder and then it rained as if never before,” recalls Wani.
The intervention was indeed divine as it forced mourners inside, giving Shahid a window of a few hours to complete his journey. “Allah had destined a father to meet his son that night,” said Wani. “So how could anybody have stopped us?”
As skies opened up, drenching the dry and mournful earth, Shahid and his friend raced through the deserted highway, filling the cabin of their taxi with tears and cigarette smoke.
After picking up a plain clothed policeman from Islamabad police line, Shahid and his taxi driver friend headed towards Kokernag, the tourist town not far from Bemdoora village where Burhan was killed.
The handover was quick and a hush-hush affair at Kokernag.
To his taxi driver friend’s surprise, Shahid did not lay Burhan in the middle seat. He kept his cousin’s body seated, placing his lifeless head over his shoulder, instead.
Later Shahid confessed that he did it on purpose, as keeping Burhan close to him would wash all his sins, and save him from Allah’s wrath on the Day of Judgment.
At 11:35 pm Burhan finally left towards his home though a route suggested by a senior cop.
In Tral, around five thousand people, mostly from outside, were waiting impatiently for a glimpse.
Around 70 kms away, unmindful of the world around them, and the surging tensions, Shahid and his taxi-driver friend, zoomed past small non-descript villages.
This time, the atmosphere inside the taxi was filled with reverence and serenity. Amid the occasional trickle of tears from Shahid’s face, the only sound audible was the deep breathing of two bodies, alive but gloomy.
As they reached near Khanabal Bridge – bypassing thousands of mourners who waited for Burhan’s body to pass through Islamabad town – around two hundred mourners stopped them. “As it was dark nobody knew who was inside the taxi,” Shahid told Wani, recalling the tense moments he witnessed that night.
A young boy from the crowd, waved a large stick, and ordered the driver to turn back or face consequences.
Soon, around two dozen other boys joined him, banging their fists on the bonnet of the taxi, speaking almost in chorus: “Go back. Have you no shame. Our brother is martyred.”
Without wasting any time, as he read the anger on their faces, the driver jumped out of the vehicle and said loudly, “Step aside for godsake. We are taking Burhan bhai home.”
It changed the mood to a level of shock. The crowd went frenzy with hundreds rushing towards the vehicle, begging for just a glimpse; some trying to touch slain rebel’s hands, kissing his face, some touching it, some just watching and letting out a loud cry.
After a lot of convincing and intervention from elders, it took the taxi around an hour to cross a 100 meter bridge.
It was already 1 am. In Tral, more than ten thousand mourners waited with their fingers crossed. Burhan’s family was lost in the crowd.
As the headlights of the taxi hit newly topped highway near Sangam Bridge, around a thousand angry faces became visible.
Also, around two hundred vehicles, mostly trucks owned by non-locals, stood in a line, with their drivers sitting on the edge of the road, looking towards each other in fear, confusion and uncertainty.
As Shahid’s taxi approached near the make-shift blockade, guarded by two dozen masked boys, he was asked to stop at once. “We won’t let you cross. Turn back or stand in queue with them,” said a young boy, waving a large stick towards the two kilometers long line of vehicles.
Without wasting any time, the driver got down quickly, and shouted at the crowd in an angry tone: “Step aside please…We are taking our Burhan bhai home. Step aside…Step aside…show some respect….”
As the boy with stick peeped inside the vehicle to check the driver’s claim, his eyes met Shahid’s who was creasing Burhan’s hair. Shahid was too lost in his own world to notice the boy, who let out a loud cry, “Haa Burhan wondmaya zuv (Oh Burhan let me sacrifice myself for you).”
Nobody saw or bothered to check what happened to that boy as hundreds of others replaced him at the window.
Within minutes, as it seemed, entire Sangam and its adjoining villages, had reached the spot. All they wanted was just one look at his face. And everybody had just one name on their lips: Burhan.
As the crowd swelled around Burhan’s hearse, non-local truck drivers, who were watching from the roadside, slowly came closer and began clicking pictures. Then they asked someone from the crowd: who is this man?
“Burhaaaaaan…our martyr,” they said in chorus.
It took Burhan around 90 minutes to cross a 50 meter bridge this time. The home was just around the corner now.
At 2:30 am, as Burhan reached Awantipora and turned right towards Tral, an Innova vehicle, which was coming from Srinagar side, began following them. As Burhan’s vehicles began ascending the Khankhel Chadhai, the vehicle following them took them over and waved them to stop.
There were around ten boys inside the vehicle who were coming from Palhalan, Barmullah, to get a glimpse of Burhan and join in his funeral.
One of the boys, who got down from his vehicle to ask if the road heads to Tral or not, almost fainted when he saw Burhan resting peacefully on Shahid’s shoulder.
Then after making a special request, all of them came near the window of the taxi and met their “brother”.
At 3 am, slowly, both the vehicles crossed two garrisons to reach Tral town, where a father led thousands to welcome his son home, dead.