Three Friends, one Fate

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A year after three young friends were killed in cold blood, their families chased the case and finally met the killers in jail, reports Shams Irfan

People carry bodies of three civilians during the funeral procession in Baramulla, on May 1, 2018. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

People carry bodies of three civilians during the funeral procession in Baramulla, on May 1, 2018. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

On April 30, 2018, at around 7 pm, Irfan Ahmad Sheikh, 21, alias Asif, a hawker, who sold unbranded shoes and slippers on an auto-rickshaw, answered his phone, and quickly ran towards the front gate of his modest house. Just before he could cross it, his father Ali Mohammad Sheikh, 60, a retired Military Engineering Services (MES) employee, asked him curiously: where are you going in such a hurry? You are just home.

Without stopping, Irfan said, “I will be back in a while. Don’t worry.”

Within seconds Irfan vanished in the narrow streets of Syed Kareem Mohalla, in dense Old Town locality of Baramulla, around 60 kms north of Srinagar. His destination was nearby Kakar Hamam Mohalla, a small congested neighbourhood, where Irfan’s family used to live till a few years back in their rundown ancestral house. There his childhood friends, Mohammad Asgar Sheikh, 23, also a hawker, and Haseeb Khan, 20, a painter, waited for him near the small market.

After exchanging greetings, they walked towards a line of disused shops, and sat in front of one of them, resting their backs with its shutter, away from any passersby’s gaze, and began smoking and chatting.

At around 8 pm, Sheikh called his son Irfan and asked him about his whereabouts. “I am with friends, will be back in a while,” he told his father. Before he hung up, Sheikh asked him to get his mobile phone recharged with cash.

Almost an hour later, a speeding Alto car crossed a small bridge connecting Baramulla town with Kakar Hamam locality and turned right. As it reached near the shops where Irfan and his friends sat, it stopped abruptly.

Mohammad Asgar Sheikh Haseeb Nabi Khan Irfan Ahmad Sheikh

Mohammad Asgar Sheikh                             Haseeb Nabi Khan                                 Irfan Ahmad Sheikh

Before Irfan, Haseeb or Asgar could have reacted, or asked any questions; three gunmen got down from the car and started firing at them, indiscriminately. Within no time, the three friends, who were chatting and laughing a while ago, were dead in their own pool of blood, while the gunmen boarded the car and sped away.

In a span of few minutes, the three gunmen emptied two AK47 and one pistol magazine – most of the bullets hitting their target. One of the bullets hit Irfan’s breast pocket, piercing his second-hand mobile phone, kept there.

Mahraz Aaw

As the sound of gunshots reverberated in small Kakar Hamam locality, Haseeb’s mother Shameema, a housewife, asked her husband Ghulam Nabi Khan, 45, a driver, ‘Is someone getting married in the locality. There are firecrackers outside’. Quickly Khan fixed his ears towards the source of the sound, trying to figure out what it was. Then after a thoughtful pause, he told his wife, ‘Yes, they are firecrackers. It is the marriage season’.

But as Khan listened keenly, he realised it could be gunshots as well; maybe an attack on the nearby CRPF post, guarding a Mandir (temple), located across the bridge, he thought.

Like an automated reaction, he picked up his phone and dialled his son Haseeb’s number. “His phone rang for a long time but he didn’t answer,” recalls Khan.

Family members of the slain trio at Asgar's house in Baramulla

Family members of the slain trio at Asgar’s house in Baramulla

Ten minutes later, before Khan could have tried again, his phone began to ring, flashing a Srinagar based friend’s number. Without even exchanging greetings, Khan’s friend straightaway asked him, ‘what has happened?’

“He was talking in a sympathetic tone. It puzzled me. So I asked him back, ‘Has anything happened?’” recalls Khan.

Sensing Khan is unaware of the tragedy that had befallen him a while ago, his friend hung-up the phone abruptly. “It was all over news by then,” said Khan’s wife Shameema. “But we didn’t know yet.”

Almost same confusion kept Irfan and Asgar’s parents at ease initially when they heard the gunshots. “I too thought someone is getting married in the neighbourhood,” recalls Irfan’s father Sheikh. “Still I called my son’s phone to know about his whereabouts. But it was switched off this time.”

Little did Sheikh know that one of the bullets had hit his son’s mobile-phone, shattering its screen and SIM-card slot.

Five minutes after the gunshots, Sheikh’s phone rang; it was his eldest son, who lives in a separate house with his wife and kids, not far from Kakar Hamam Mohallah. “Where is Asif (Irfan),” he asked Sheikh straightaway.

When Sheikh told him that Irfan had gone out a few hours back to be with his friends, it enraged him. “Go and look for him immediately. Something bad has happened. I am on my way,” said Sheikh’s eldest son. “And be fast,” he added before dropping the call. Second among three sons and two daughters, Irfan was the pampered one among siblings.

As Sheikh rushed out of his house, crying, cursing his luck for letting Irfan go, his cries caught Asgar’s mother Fahmeed’s attention.

“I was sitting in my kitchen cooking tomatoes for my son when I heard Sheikh’s cries,” recalls Fehmeeda, 45, a frail lady whose tiny frame and wrinkled face bear testimony of a hard life.

A few months before Asgar’s birth, Fehmeeda’s husband sent her back to her brother’s house in Kakar Hamam locality. Two weeks later, he sent her a formal divorce, and married another woman. For last twenty years, Fehmeeda and her son live in a small room, at her brother’s house, trying to survive.

Baramulla killing accused arested.

Baramulla killing accused arrested.

“Asgar was born in this house,” said Fahemeeda sadly. “He was all I had left in life.”

Despite hardships, Fehmeeda made sure that her son gets good education. That is why she sent Asgar to Saint Joseph School, a reputed missionary institution in north Kashmir.

After completing his class 10, he quit his studies to help his mother. He would buy shoes from Srinagar and sell it in Baramulla market on a charpoy.

In 2016, after Burhan Wani’s killing, Asgar was picked by police on charges of stone-pelting. He was kept at Joint Interrogation Centre (JIC), housed inside once famous Matchstick Factory at Kantabal, Baramulla.

In January 2018, Asgar was again picked up by police for “misusing whatsapp and facebook”. That time, he was detained for 40 days at Police Station Baramulla. “Frequent arrests and summons affected his marriage,” said Fahmeeda.

In 2017, after five years of marriage, Asgar’s troubled marriage too ended in divorce. He left behind two kids: Aayat, 4, and two-year-old Momin. “His marriage too couldn’t last,” said Fahmeeda.

The cold blood killing of three young boys shocked people across Kashmir. Everyone wanted to know why they were killed and by whom?

Who killed them?

The next morning when a joint funeral was held for Irfan, Asgar and Haseeb at nearby Dargah-e-Alijah, Haseeb’s grandfather got up and asked emotionally why these kids were killed? “If they were guilty of doing anything against militancy then we will never complain. But if not, then we need to know why they were killed?” he said amid tears.

A few hours later, a message attributed to Lashkar-e-Toiba started making rounds on social media pages denying involvement in the killing. On the other hand, police started looking for three boys who fired at Irfan, Asgar and Haseeb from inside the car.

As police started asking questions in the neighbourhood, Aijaz Ahmad Gojri, 26, a surrendered Lashkar militant who lives in Jamia Mohalla, trimmed his beard. This made people suspicious about him. That evening Aijaz Gojri’s friend, Bilal Najar, a resident of Bunglow Bagh, joined Lashkar.

The first breakthrough came when Aijaz Ahmad Gojri, Bilal Najar and a few over ground workers (OGWs) were arrested on the third day from Drangbal, barely a kilometre from the spot where the trio were killed.

But there was a twist in their arrest. While police said they were arrested during an encounter, army maintained Aijaz Gojri surrendered in front of them. To prove their point, army released a two minute video clip showing Aijaz Gojri asking his militant friends to “leave guns and live a happy life”. It was circulated on May 10, two days after police formally announced the arrest of Aijaz Gojri, Nasir Ahmad Mochi, Bilal Ahmad Najar and Nadeem Kalia alias Ustad. Police also said they have arrested seven OGWs, most of them connected with the killings of trio. Three of them are from a single family: A roadside food vendor (rista wala), for providing vehicle in which gunmen came and attacked. Driver of the vehicle turned (sultani gavah) prosecution witness.

But Lashkar denied that Aijaz was with them.

The involvement of Aijaz in the killings enraged families and relatives of the slain boys, opening old rivalries between natives and outsiders in Baramulla’s old town.

Aijaz Ahmad Gogri.

Aijaz Ahmad Gogri.

It was Aijaz’s father Abdul Rehman Gojri, who came to Kakar Hamam locality from Zainpora and settled there a decade back. He was a hawker selling second-hand clothes on a handcart in Baramulla’s busy market place. According to locals, currently, Aijaz’s father owns over a dozen shops, godowns, and a few houses in the locality. Irfan’s father alleged part of the answers to his son’s killing and many other developments in the town may lie in this rags to riches story.

When Aijaz’s involvement was confirmed, natives of Kakar Hamam locality met and decided to confront his father.

Almost two weeks after the killings, Irfan, Asgar and Haseeb’s families made announcements in the local mosque asking Aijaz’s father to vacate the shop he runs in the locality.

“Aijaz and Bilal were not with any militant outfit. They were plain dacoits. They picked guns just to earn money,” said Haseeb’s father.

A few days later, families of the slain boys got to confront Aijaz and Bilal while in police custody.

Meeting the killer

On May 16, 2018, Haseeb and Irfan’s fathers, along with Asgar’s maternal uncle, were called to Joint Interrogation Centre (JIC), located inside Match Factory, by the local police officer. They were asked to wait inside the large lawn in front of the main building. Built in 1934, Match Factory lost its glory after decades of government’s neglect. After staying shut for a few years, it was occupied by BSF when militancy erupted in early 1990s. They turned the installation into a garrison and an interrogation centre.

After waiting for fifteen minutes, Ajaz Gojri and Bilal Najar, were brought to the lawn. Before facilitating the meeting, SHO took promise from parents of the slain trio: “you will not get emotional and try to harm them in any way. Don’t try to beat them. Else I will not let you meet them”.

They all agreed to control their emotions.

Surrounded by over a dozen policemen, Irfan, Asgar and Haseeb’s family members were finally face-to-face with killers of their sons. “They stood in front of us with their faces down,” recalls Haseeb’s father Ghulam Nabi Khan. “Then I asked them if they had killed our sons.”

After a brief pause, Aijaz and Bilal accepted that they have killed Irfan, Asgar and Haseeb. Their reply turned the otherwise busy Match Factory silent for a while.

Then Haseeb’s father asked Aijaz if he was saying that under pressure? Had anyone pressured him to accept the crime?

“No, I am telling you the truth without any pressure,” Aijaz replied keeping his head down.

But to make sure that they were telling the truth, Irfan’s father Sheikh and Asgar’s uncle asked Aijaz if he was tortured to say this, or was he really involved. “We almost pleaded with him to tell us the truth. We wanted to know who did it and why,” said Irfan’s father. “It will at least give us some solace that we have found our kids’ killers.”

Aijaz stood still, with his head down, said plainly that he was under no pressure from anyone. “I am telling you the truth. Nobody has forced us to say so,” he told them plainly.

When asked why they killed them, both Aijaz and Bilal began looking at his feet as if trying to find right words. “I was sent their pictures by Lashkar’s Shuaib Akhoon and Mohisn Mushtaq. They said these boys are working with army and need to be eliminated,” said Aijaz without a hint of emotions or remorse in his voice.

Posters and Forgiveness

In 2016, after the protests following Burhan Wani’s killing intensified, and so did the arrests, a video clip was doing rounds on social media sites in which Haseeb, Asgar and another person from Baramulla were warned for working with army. The next day, posters also surfaced in a few local mosques in old town locality alleging them of being army’s informers. This made Haseeb and his two friends’ instant targets of angry youngsters in Baramulla.

“This was a serious allegation given the emotions in the wake of Burhan Wani’s killing,” recalls Haseeb’s father Khan. “I was very worried about his safety.”

The following Friday, Khan made his son Haseeb seek forgiveness for any activity that might have hurt people from the mosque’s pulpit. “I told him even if it is wrong allegation but you must apologise as situation was not right,” recalls Khan. After he apologised, Haseeb kept a low profile for a few months.

Second among four siblings, including younger twin brothers, Haseeb was arrested in September 2017, a few days before he was due to sit in his Class 12 exams. Next three months, he spent at Police Station Baramulla, from where he was sent to Koth Bhalwal. At Koth Bhalwal jail, he spent almost four months.

Irfan, Asgar and Haseeb lived in the same neighbourhood and were friends since childhood. A painter by profession, Haseeb, at times, used to go with Asgar and Irfan to sell shoes.

After his release, Haseeb worked for five days earning Rs 1500. He told his mother that he will keep this money to himself. His father had told him to spend everything he would earn, but he had told him to earn. He was killed on the 13th day of this release.

One year on

Asgar’s two years old son looks out of the first floor window whenever a bike passes by. His father used to ride a bike. “They miss their father,” said Fahmeeda, who is now assisted by one of Asgar’s cousins.

“I am living with the family since his killing so that his mother doesn’t feel lonely,” said Shakir, Asgar’s cousin.

“If he had been killed in an accident, I would have been content with Allah’s will, but it is murder,” said Asgar’s his mother. “I will never forgive his killers.”

The families have stopped following the case after the confession of Aijaz last year. “We don’t know what has happened,” said Haseeb’s father.

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