THE DEAD WILL SPEAK

The government has acknowledged for the first time in 20 years that there may be a connection between thousands of unmarked graves and those disappeared in the Kashmir conflict. Demands for an impartial international probe are gaining pitch. Izhar Ali reports

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The acknowledgement shocked the government as much it did to those monitoring Kashmir from the outside world. But perhaps not those 10,000 families whose members have disappeared in the conflict and have consistently been asking questions about the existence of these graveyards and possible connection with their loved ones.

The government investigation initiated by the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) and conducted by ten police officers over three years also shockingly suggested a string possibility that many of the disappeared may lie interred in the nameless graveyards. It, for the first time raised hopes that finally the fate of the disappeared of Kashmir may finally be possible to be ascertained. But amid doubts and sharp calls for an investigation by an impartial and specifically competent international agency, doubts remain.

The SHRC report, yet to be formally submitted to the government, confirmed the presence of 2730 bodies buried in 38 sites across the three districts. This vindicating the allegations human rights groups have been making since March 2008 when a research report about the existence of unmarked graveyards “Facts under ground” was released.

The SHRC investigation report also states 574 bodies buried as unidentified foreign militants were identified as locals, 17 exhumed and shifted to their native graveyards by families after establishing their identity as locals.

The report, besides recommending an end to misuse of special powers by the armed forces, also suggested DNA profiling of the remaining 2156 people interred as unidentified persons (almost always suggesting they were foreign militants) in the nameless graves.

“There is every probability that these unidentified bodies buried in various unmarked graves at 38 places of north Kashmir may contain bodies of enforced disappearances because 574 have been already identified as bodies of the locals out of 2730 unidentified bodies,” says the report prepared by a team headed by Bashir Ahmad Yatoo, Senior Superintendent of Police.

The report observed that the scope for DNA extraction from remains of these unidentified bodies was very bright. However, at the same time it added that “as the time will go on to elapse, chances will be more and more reduced”.

Interestingly, so far police have officially accepted the existence of only 464 unidentified bodies interred in north Kashmir graveyards. But even for these bodies no identification profiles have been maintained.

Police have also ignored two reminders from SHRC seeking details about the DNA profile of the 464 unidentified bodies in the police records.

“The commission should pass an order with directions … so that the identity of the disappeared persons and those unidentified bodies buried in nameless graves may be established or negated. The DNA sampling techniques can be supplemented by other techniques like dental examination, distinctive medical characteristic, finger prints and physical description,” the investigation report recommended.

More questions are being asked now. What does the report and the recommendations mean to the families of the disappeared persons? Will DNA profiling solve the mystery of unmarked graves in Kashmir? Will it bring out the truth that successive governments tried to shove under the carpet?

“DNA sampling can help a lot to identify the persons lying in the unidentified graves. It will also end the trauma of the families who are unaware of the fate of their missing. However, the investigation has to be carried out by International agency like, International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) or Argentina’s Forensic Anthropology team,” says leading human rights activist Advocate Parvez Imroz, one of the founding members of Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP).

To support his argument, Imroz said that in past the DNA samples were fudged by the police to shield the guilty referring to five civilians who were killed in a faked encounter in Pathribal area of south Kashmir’s Islamabad district and later dubbed as foreign militants.

“The samples sent by police turned out to be of women at the FSL laboratory. Police is a party to fake encounters and custodial killings. How can they investigate the unmarked graves,” Imroz said.

The disclosure by the SHRC, the official human rights body of the state government, created ripples in India and abroad intensifying voices for an independent probe.

The London-based human right watchdog, Amnesty International asked the Government of India to widen the scope of investigation to initiate a thorough probe into the mass graves throughout Jammu and Kashmir.

The first report about the presence of mass graves in Kashmir ‘Facts Underground’ was made public on March, 28, 2009 by APDP. The 23-page report prepared after two year survey identified over 1000 nameless graves in Baramulla district alone.

However, for the victims of the enforced disappearance, the SHRC report comes too little. The government’s silence over the years exasperated the already existing hopelessness in families who have been asking questions about their loves ones disappeared after being taken away by the government forces.

The sensational disclosure was also debated in the European Parliament three months after the report was out. The EU passed a resolution calling Indian government “to urgently ensure independent and impartial investigations into all suspected sites of mass graves in Jammu and Kashmir and as an immediate first step to secure the grave sites in order to preserve the evidence”.

It also called on the European Commission to offer financial and technical assistance to the Indian government for a thorough inquiry.

The report and the subsequent outcry in India and abroad, however, left the government unmoved.

On December 2, 2009, the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice for Kashmir, led by Professor, Anthropology, California Institute of Integral Studies, Dr. Angana P. Chatterji came out with a strong 108-page report titled ‘Buried Evidence – Unknown, Unmarked, and Mass Graves in Kashmir. The report documented 2,700 unknown, unmarked, and mass graves, containing over 2,943 bodies, across 55 villages in Bandipore, Baramulla, and Kupwara districts of north Kashmir.

“Of the 2700 graves, 2,373 (87.9 percent) were unnamed. 154 graves contained two bodies each and 23 contained more than two cadavers. Within these 23 graves, the number of bodies ranged from 3 to 17.” Angana told newsmen while releasing the report.

The families of the disappeared have been facing horror with bodies in the nameless graveyards getting slowly identified. Of the thousands of disappeared 574, initially dubbed either as foreign or local militants,were later identified by their families from the nameless.

Between Disappearance and Identification

In a congested alley near Kailashpora Shrine in old Srinagar city, neighbors of Bhat household saw their son Riyaz Ahmad storming out in the spring of 2007. That was last anyone in the locality saw of him. Riyaz had left his house in a rush after he along with his brother had a tiff with their brother-in-law.

Seven months later his family found his body interred in a grave that he shared with an unknown man, both dubbed as unidentified foreign militants.

“A week after my brother left, we received two phone calls from an unknown caller who informed us Riyaz has been killed in Kandi, Kupwara. We didn’t trust the caller. We thought it was just a hoax,” says Javed.

He said instead of paying heed to the phone calls, he focused his attention on his father who was suffering from Cancer.

“One day I decided to visit Kupwara. I went to the police station and sought the details of an encounter that had taken place two days after my brother had gone missing. At police station I was told that four Pakistani militants were killed on that day. When I saw their pictures, one of the slain ‘militants’ turned out to be my innocent brother,” says Javed.“It was unbelievable. I was in a state of shock. With unconscious mind, I returned home and narrated the tragedy to my family.”

After a few days, Javed along with family elders visited the Martyrs graveyard where body of his brother was buried. They were told by the locals that two of the four bodies were identified by their families hailing from Shopian and Pulwama and later exhumed.

“Initially, we thought to exhume the body and bury it at our ancestral graveyard. However, the locals advised us to drop the idea saying the body was in a very bad shape,” he said.“More tragic is the fact that my brother and the fourth unidentified person had been buried in one grave.”

Like thousands of families, Bhat’s ask one simple question?

Why was my innocent brother arrested, killed in a faked encounter and passed off as a Pakistani militant?” asks Javed.

Similar stories are spread across Kashmir. The search to know the fate of his missing son took Wali Mohammad Khan of the frontier Kupwara district to nook and corner of the valley. However, the search and the mystery shrouding his son’s disappearance ended on a day when a picture of a ‘Pakistani militant’ appeared in a vernacular daily.

“When I saw the picture it stunned me. It was my son. It was not any top Pakistani militant Farooq Ahmad Khan, which BSF had claimed to have killed in a gun-battle,” says Khan.

Khan’s son, Imtiyaz Ahmad, then 27, was picked up by Army’s 50 RR and local counterinsurgents (Ikhwanis) from Kanikachi interiors of the Dal Lake on the night of August, 19, 2003. A baker, Imtiyaz was handed over to BSF by the army. The BSF labeled Imtiyaz as a Pakistani militant and killed him in a fake encounter at Nishat on September, 3 that year. His body was handed over to a gravedigger, Sheikh Kabir by police who later laid it to rest at a graveyard in Batmaloo.

Khan said after the shocking discovery, he rushed to the Nishat police station, where he was shown different photographs and was told that the slain youth was not his son but a ‘Pakistani militant’.

“Police tried to mislead me. I approached the court and filed a case against the killers of my son. The court asked the police to file a case and during the process of investigation my son’s body was exhumed on April, 11, 2005,” he said.“When the grave was opened, I identified my son. His remains will haunt me on the deathbed.”  He said that the police had also taken blood samples from him and his wife Heemala Begum for DNA tests. However, the police, he said, closed the case saying the samples didn’t match with the body of their son.

“The killers can’t deliver justice. They conveniently hushed up the case by saying samples didn’t match,” Khan said. “The victims of fake encounters are not just in hundreds. Without any doubt, I say thousands are buried in unmarked graves.”

For Saja Begum, Ramzan brings alive extremely painful memories. In year 2000 during the month of blessing her partially crippled husband HabibullahNaikoo, then 50, was arrested by soldiers of 18 RR and later subjected to enforced disappearance.

“Years after he was subjected to enforced disappearance, I came to know through someone that my husband was killed in a fake encounter and his body buried at a graveyard in Dangiwacha village of the neighboring district. By the time we reached there, the body was already taken by another family,” she said.

Recalling the fateful day, Saja said that her husband was at home when soldiers from the nearby Anderbug camp barged in and took away her husband on the pretext of questioning him promising that he would be released by that evening.

“Next day I along with my elder brother-in-law, Mohammad Munawar and some villager elders visited the army camp to secure the release of my husband. I pleaded before the troopers to release my husband but they denied of having arrested him,” she says.

Disappointed, Saja approached the concerned police station and filed a report. “My husband was not able to walk properly. With difficulty he made both the ends meet. Ten years have passed and there is no clue about him. No action was taken against the perpetrators even as we filed a report with police”, saysSaja.

The cases of enforced disappearances is an unending saga of pain and uncertainty. Manzoor Ahmad of Delina was living a happy married life. Father off our kids, he ran a provisional store in his locality to feed his family. However reporting robbery of his shop by pro-government gunmen cost him life.
The trouble began in September 2003 when Manzoor’s shop was looted by a group of burglars following which police arrested many people, including the son of an Ikhwani named Mohammad Yusuf.

“Yusuf’s renegade father got my brother arrested by army to take revenge. Later, my brother was killed by army in custody and his body was buried near the camp,” said Bashir Ahmad, Manzoor’s brother.

Bashir said that the body of his brother and another unknown person was found when a bulldozer was removing soil from a roadside where an army camp was situated years earlier. The discovery of skeletons, he said triggered panic in the village.

“I identified my brother’s skeleton with two marks. He had a fracture on his skull and one of his teeth was stitched. Moreover, the place where the skeletons were found was very close to the army camp where my brother was detained,” he said.

Bashir said the recovery of his brother’s skeleton have made him hopeless about the return of the people who have been subjected to enforced disappearance by the armed forces.

“We’re living with false hopes. Those whom we believe are missing have in fact been killed by the forces for money and rewards, their bodies buried along roadsides, inside camps and forests,” he added.

Recalling the night of September, 7, 2003, Bashir says an army patrol led by an officer Captain Atul Sharma and joined by two counterinsurgents- Muhammad Yousuf Mir and Manzoor Ahmad barged into their house and carried out searches. Unable to find anything, he said, Sharma caught hold of Manzoor and took him away.

“Next day, we went to the army camp to seek the well being of our brother. There, we were assured that Manzoor will be released soon. Days passed, so passed months, but he was not released. Finally, Army denied his arrest,” Bashir said.

The family then pinned hopes on the police and filed a case against the arrest of Manzoor. The family also approached a court and the SHRC seeking a probe into the case.

“After the court orders, police arrested the two accused renegades, but the army Captain was left untouched. Years have passed but the killers of my brother have not been punished,” he said.

The Indian army has so far claimed that those found buried were armed rebels and “foreign militants” killed “lawfully” in gun battles with government forces. However, the latest SHRC report based on governments own investigation and testimonies by local villagers and gravediggers establish prima facie that most buried were local residents.

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