Continued turmoil did not trigger massive demographic upheavals and migrations alone. Jibran Nazir located a village in Kupwara that ceased to exist because population was asked to leave
On a calm afternoon in June 1996, a group of militants lost their way and reached Bubernag, a small nondescript village in North Kashmir Kupwara’s Hathmulla belt. The events that followed their arrival changed the lives of residents forever.
Named after a sprouting spring flowing nearby, this sleepy village was very calm and contended; untouched by the wave of turmoil that had engulfed Kashmir during those uncertain days when the governor’s administration was working overnight to ensure a civil government replaces him. Almost everyone in Bubernag remembers those horrific days. These include Ishtiyaq-ul-Hassan Shah, now in his late thirties, who was shot in the back allegedly by police and BSF personnel, during a search and cordon operation.
A year later, Shah became the first resident to migrate, setting off a chain reaction that left entire village empty within a few months. “The circumstances forced us out of our houses,” said Shah. “Those were the days when living there would have meant risking your life.”
Cutting across a steep terrain with dense forest cover, mostly of pine trees, a two kilometre long alley connects Bubernag village with the outside world. The village once housed around five hundred people. Now what remains in Bubernag is a small mosque, built with devotion, sweat and collections from locals, and a few drab and abandoned houses with walnut trees in their courtyards. Rest is all gone. Human life has ceased to exit there.
Nobody visits Bubernag now except Ghulam Ahmad Shah, who lived next to the village mosque.
Ahmad, who is in his early seventies, has dedicated his life to look after the mosque, where he spends most of his time. His family now lives almost three miles away.
The mosque was rebuilt in 2002 after it collapsed in the last gunfight that took place in this village. “I have lost the count how many times did we have to vacate our homes when militants and forces were battling in and around this village,” says Ghulam.
It was he who persuaded the villagers, despite they had moved out, to get the masjid rebuilt after that encounter.
“Things are calm since 2002,” he says, “But those who left, they didn’t come back.”
“Only a few villagers occasionally visit here to retrieve the walnuts from their trees,” he says. “No one else comes here anymore.” Seemingly it is a fascinating but a haunted space where nobody wants to go.
Limping on crutches, Ishtiyaq blames himself for the exodus of villagers. He has vivid memories of his home in Bubernag. “It was a small village and everybody knew everyone,” Shah says. “Our friends and relatives would visit us and spend weeks together. They loved the silence and peace of this beautiful and calm hamlet.”
In June 1996, when militants arrived in this village for the first time, it changed the fortune of this village forever. After staying for a night, the militants left. The villagers had reluctantly given them food and shelter.
“Before leaving, they pasted some posters, asking villagers to join Jihad against India,” Shah remembers.
Shah had been back from his maternal home in Czogul, (Chogal) Handwara only a few days earlier. He had joined Sopore College and was pursuing bachelors in science.
“Travelling from Bubernag to Sopore every day would be difficult, thus, I would stay with my maternal uncles in Handwara,” said Shah.
A few hours after the militants left, police and army personnel arrived in the village. “They laid a cordon and started door-to-door search operation,” Shah recalls.
According to Shah’s brother, Feroz, now 33, the forces barged into their house and started beating them ruthlessly.
“They (army) asked about militants who had come to our village earlier,” Feroz says. “We knew nothing about them. Many of the villagers had seen militants for the first time.”
Though many villagers were allegedly beaten by the forces, only Shah was taken along. “After beating Shah ruthlessly, they (army) took him along on charges of writing posters for militant outfits; the same poster that militants had left behind,” Feroz says, insisting, “Just because he was the only literate and well read person in the village.”
However this time, Shah was released soon. But, the militants didn’t stop visiting this village, neither did the forces stop harassing the villagers.
On August 6, 1996, at midnight, the sound of gunshots pierced the sleep of villagers in Bubernag.
“We were terrified inside our houses. Nobody dared to come out till dawn. It was only after the forces announced a crackdown on loudspeakers, asking the villagers to come out,” recalls Feroz. “There had been a gunfight after which militants had apparently given them (forces) a slip.”
Shah was still lying in his bed and suddenly woke up after he heard a loud bang at his door. It was police and BSF men.
This time they demanded arms and ammunitions from Shah. “I didn’t know what to do,” Shah says. “Despite pleading my innocence to them, they eventually shot me in the back.”
Lying in a pool of blood, Shah was not taken for treatment until army arrived. “After almost half-an-hour,” he remembers, “army men arrived and took me to Drugmulla Army Hospital.”
After giving him first-aid treatment, he was referred to SMHS hospital. “I was accompanied by two policemen one of whom was father of my students.”
Before joining college, Shah would teach at a private middle school in Kupwara. “I have taught there for two years.”
Shah had received spine injury and had to undergo an emergency surgery, after which doctors declared him disabled for life. His family, on the other hand, didn’t know what had happened to Shah after army took him while he was injured.
It was only after five days that his brother got to know about Shah and visited him at the Srinagar hospital. It was a Kupwara resident who had informed Shah’s family about his condition. “He was accompanying a patient at SMHS and I had asked him to inform my family,” said Shah.
“Despite making several rounds to police station, army and BSF camps, they wouldn’t give us any information about my brother,” Feroz says. “It was only after five days of his surgery that we could reach the hospital; only after a man from Kupwara came looking for us and told that my brother was at SMSH, where he had come from.”
When Shah returned to his village after two months of treatment, he was again detained. “After I was discharged from the hospital, I thought that I would be taken home, rather, they took me to jail,” Shah says. “I was released after a couple of months.”
By that time, Bubernag had turned into a battle-field where militants and government forces would frequently confront each other. “There was an encounter after every few weeks,” Feroz says.
Soon BSF set up a bunker inside the village, making it difficult for the villagers to venture out. “There could be an attack any time,” says Mohammad Abdullah, a resident of Bubernag.
“Forces would come and allege that we provide shelter and food to the militants. They would constantly beat and harass us. But there was nothing that we could do. We would tell them that we are as helpless before militants as we were before them (forces). Both of them would be heavily armed,” Abdullah explains.
Bubernag had become all the more difficult for women who would feel uncomfortable with the presence of military in the village.
“It felt like we were under their constant graze,” Haleema, now in her early forties, remembers when she was a young girl. “We felt uncomfortable in moving out because whenever they saw us, they would pass lewd comments and make obscene gestures.”
One afternoon, Haleema recalls, when she had gone to woods to collect firewood, she saw a group of militant walking towards the village. “I was worried about the security of my family as our house was located near the bunker,” she gasps. “They (militants) looked very aggressive.”
To ensure her family’s safety, Haleema pleaded with the militants to wait till she gets her family out. “But they didn’t listen,” Haleema says, “So I began running towards the village.”
As soon as she reached her home, a massive gunfight broke out between militants and BSF personnel.
“As soon as people heard the first gunshot, they began vacating their homes,” Ghulam Ahmad, who has witnessed a number of such gunfights, said.Leaving their homes behind, the villagers took shelter down the hillock, praying for the safety of their lives and homes. “We kept waiting in our paddy fields hoping that the fight would end soon. But it didn’t.”
People were waiting to return to their homes. “But the gunfight went on for the entire night,” Ghulam Ahmad says. “It was for the first time that we spent entire night under the open sky.”
In the ensuing gunfight, a militant was killed. When the villagers returned, they saw his corpse lying in the middle of the village. It was there for three days. “BSF men had warned villagers that whoever comes near the body would be shot,” recalls Abdullah, “and nobody dared to do so.”
Many villagers, including Ishtiyaq‘s family didn’t return to Bubernag after they heard about BSF’s dictate. “BSF men in the bunker would constantly keep watch over the dead body,” says Feroz, “It was a mental torture.”
Feroz’s mother, who already suffered from cardiac issues, couldn’t bear to look at the mutilated body of the militant. “And the place wasn’t anymore safe for my brother either,” said Feroz.
On the fourth day after the encounter, before the militants corpse was taken for burial, there was another attack on the bunker. “The militants had probably come to avenge their colleague’s death whose body was kept in open for three days,” Abdullah says. “But in the gun-battle two more militants fell to BSF bullets.”
At last, all the three bodies were taken by the local police.
Yet another gunfight in Bubernag had come to an end. All around the village, there was little evidence left of the damage. The charred debris that littered the junction was promptly shovelled away. But, Shah refused to go back to their home despite a fresh coat of paint was applied to its walls that endured the brunt of the attacks.
In the gunfight, the forces had also suffered a substantial damage. But, they put the blame on residents, instead. “During a crackdown, they announced that all the residents must leave the village or face the consequences,” Abdullah recalls, “They threatened to burn down our homes.”
The village has a distinct position. Located into the forests, it has jungle tracks leading to Handwara, Trehgam and many other places. Though away from LoC, it had emerged sort of a milestone on tracks that militant followed in the belt. “I remember we were in a cordon for seven days,” one resident from a neighbouring village said. “We were told the cordon would be lifted, once the Bubernag is liberated.”
That was when the first family took off from this village, “We had set up a makeshift tent in our paddy fields,” Shah says, “No one from our family had the courage to go back to our village.”
Within less than a week, they were joined by another family, one of Shah’s neighbours – and his father’s friend – who would usually be away for work.
He had pleaded with Shah’s mother to take along his two daughters and wife as he would soon leave to where he was posted. “Bubernag is now not safe for these girls,” Shah remembers his neighbour telling his mother. One among the two girls was Haleema.
The tents could hardly provide shelter to the two families. Shah still remembers the sleepless nights they had to spend under the summer skies. By that time he had dropped out of college.
The paddy field they had cleared to set-up a tent was the main source of income for Shah’s family. “During those days my younger brother would do labour work to feed us,” Shah says. “The circumstances forced me, along with my mother and we shifted to my aunt’s house and stayed there for eight months.”
Soon, Shah’s brother collected some amount and started to lay foundation of their new house in the paddy fields. They had to demolish their house in Bubernag to salvage material for a new house. “It was the most painful thing to do as we demolished our houses,” said Feroz.
“It took us more than six years to construct these four walls and a roof.” After almost a month, when Shah and his mother came to visit his brothers, almost half of the village had emptied. Soon, nobody was left in the village.
“Many of them had gone to stay with their relatives and a few had also pitched tents on their agricultural lands,” says Feroz. “We lived as refugees in our own village.”
Ever since, Shah got injured in forces action, he has been making rounds of courts and SHRC, pleading his case, hoping to get some compensation that could help better his life.
“Despite, High Court’s ordering authorities to provide me the compensation nothing has happened,” says Shah.
“At times I had to face very rude behaviour from the officials when I approached them.”
Shah now lives with his mother and two younger brothers who have gone into depression after what happened to their family. The other Bubernag families seem to convey the same stories of ordeal, followed by official apathy they had to face regarding their rehabilitation. The name Bubernag is still there officially, but the village is gone.