The two boys were neighbours who would play volleyball on two sides of the net. Eventually one landed in police and another in private sector. In 2017, as Shahzad, the cop, dropped his call after informing his village that Nazeer was critically shot in Rangreth, a bullet pierced his chest at Hyderpora. They were driven home dead, the same night, to share the same martyrs’ cemetery, reports Shams Irfan
On June 15, 2017, at around 8:30 pm, Shahzad Dilawar Sofi, 30, a constable in Jammu and Kashmir Police, called his wife Safeena, 28, who was still at her parent’s house in Bandipora’s Ashtengoo village, post delivery of their twin sons.
Married since November 8, 2014, Shahzad first enquired about Safeena’s health, then without wasting time he straightway asked about his twins.
Since they were born eleven months back, Shahzad had just one query for everyone, “When will they start walking?”
Safeena, who first fell in love with Shahzad when they were still in school, could sense her husband’s excitement, and answered teasingly, “I have a surprise for you?”
Shahzad’s face glowed with happiness as he knew what surprise Safeena is talking about. “Which one has started walking,” he asked Safeena in excitement.
Divided by 85 kms, Safeena could almost hear her husband’s heartbeats get faster with joy. “One of them has started to crawl. Now have patience, they will soon walk as well,” she told Shahzad, trying hard to hide her smile over phone.
As expected, Shahzad almost jumped with joy, as Safeena broke the news. Without losing a minute, Shahzad asked Safeena to put her mobile-phone on the speaker mode, so that he could hear his twins giggle.
For next eight minutes Shahzad, who was manning important Hyderpora-Airport road on Srinagar outskirts, lost touch with the surrounding as he “talked” to his twin sons.
Before he hung up, Shahzad promised Safeena, “InshAllah, I will be home tomorrow morning. I am eager to see which one has started to crawl.”
Then, after a brief pause; with a hint of seriousness in his voice, he told Safeena, “I miss them badly.”
After he disconnected the call, Shahzad looked around; his alert eyes scanning the cars moving past him, but his face filled with a father’s pride.
Five minutes later, he called his sister-in-law Nahida, on whose phone he would talk to his widowed mother.
Once on phone, Shahzad’s mother pointed out that he doesn’t sound well. “Is it again cold?” she asked him. “If you were not feeling well, then you should have stayed at the police station. Why did you go out for duty,” she asked.
Shahzad told her that if he would have taken rest today, he will not be able to visit home tomorrow. “But don’t worry, I will be alright. I have covered my face with the scarf you gave,” he assured his mother.
After he hung up the call, Shahzad started surfing the internet on his phone. A die-hard fan of Pakistani cricket team, Shahzad wanted to see updates regarding up-coming India-Pakistan Champions trophy final match.
As he scanned his Facebook, a familiar face, drenched in blood caught his attention. The text below the post read: A welder from Ashtengoo village shot by Shastra Seema Bal (SSB) personnel in Rangreth, rushed to JVC in critical condition.
He recognized the face instantly. It was of his neighbour Naseer-ud-din Sheikh, whom he knew since childhood.
They had grown up together playing volleyball in a vacant piece of land near village school in Ashtengoo.
For a long time, Shahzad stared at the picture of his childhood friend Naseer, who lay in a pool of blood on a stretcher with half-a-dozen doctors around him.
The words ‘rushed to JVC in critical condition’ started dancing in front of his eyes. Immediately, he dialed his sister-in-law Nahida’s number again. “Rush to Naseer’s house and see if his family knows. He got injured in firing today at Srinagar. He was taken to JVC hospital,” he told Nahida, without waiting for her reaction.
With the phone still connected, Nahida rushed out of the door and ran towards Naseer’s house, barely five minute’s walk from her house. But Nahida had no idea this was going to be a longest and painful night for Ashtengoo.
A Mother’s Plea
After he quit his studies in Class 9, Naseer started working as a welder with Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) on their project site in Bandipora. Naseer got the job after his maternal uncle’s land was acquired for the project.
Five years later, once the project was over, Naseer quit his job and stayed at home, but kept his eyes open for an opportunity.
“We have enough land, both agriculture and orchards, so there was no need for him to work, but he wanted to be independent,” said Mehrajuddin Sheikh, 23, his elder brother, who looks after family’s land.
In October 2016, three months after Burhan Wani’s killing, with Kashmir still in mourning, Mehrajuddin managed to get two fresh pair of trousers and shirts for Naseer from Bandipora, which he wore to get his bride from remote Reben village in Sopore town.
“I got a friend’s shop opened at mid-night as situation was still tense everywhere,” recalls Mehraj. “Despite restrictions, we managed a small feast for him.”
Once situation improved, Naseer decided to find some work so that he could sustain himself and his wife.
In May 2017, a contractor from Bandipora, whom Naseer knew from his HCC days, called him with an offer of work in Srinagar. Naseer took the offer. Next day Naseer went to Srinagar, and joined his new job at Rangreth, an industrial area located on the outskirts of Srinagar city.
“And he never came back from Srinagar,” said Rasheeda, 45, his mother. “Will he ever come back?” she asks every visitor.
Donning A Khaki
The day Shahzad got selected as a constable in Jammu and Kashmir Police is etched in his elder sister Maymoona’s memory. It was the same day their brother Azad Ahmad Sofi, 33, got married, and Shahzad was missing since morning.
“He was in Bandipora for final selection,” Shahzad later told Maymoona.
Without knowing anything about his selection, Maymoona started scolding him for his absence. “How can you leave your brother on his wedding day,” she asked him.
Before Shahzad could have answered, his childhood friend Bilal, a constable in the police, intervened with a smile on his face. “Why are you smiling,” asked Maymoona in an irritating voice.
“You should congratulate your brother instead of scolding him. He got selected in the police,” Bilal told a dumbstruck Maymoona.
It took Maymoona and everyone else in Shahzad’s family a while to reconcile with his new job.
Until the moment he got selected, he kept it a secret from everyone, including his childhood sweetheart Safeena.
“I was not happy. I wanted him to study further and find a better job. But he was passionate about joining the police force,” said Maymoona, who lives in Ganderbal with her husband and kids.
When Maymoona realized that Shahzad has made up his mind and will not change his decision, she gave him a nod. His first posting was at Parihaspora, Pattan, the erstwhile capital of Hindu king Laltadatiya.
A few months after joining the police force, he told Maymoona that he wants to marry Safeena, who lived in the same village and was known to their family.
“I will marry only Safeena, else I won’t marry at all,” he told Maymoona in a matter of fact manner.
Within a year of marriage, Shahzad got disinterested with his job, as he hated night shifts, or simply hated staying away from his wife. “He told me to find a 10 am to 4 pm regular job for him so that he could be home every day,” recalls Maymoona. “But then I didn’t want him to quit as he had a wife to feed now.”
As time passed, Shahzad started losing interest in his job completely as he wanted to spend more time at home.
“He would come for two days and stay for seven. I used to ask him, ‘how can they allow you to overstay?’” recalls Maymoona.
But every time he would dodge Maymoona’s queries and her questioning eyes.
“When not on leave, he would come home almost every evening and leave early morning by train,” said Safeena.
Once home, Shahzad would take lunch quickly and then join boys from his neighbourhood at the local government school ground, where he would play volleyball. Shahzad’s athletic built and broad shoulders helped him became an ace server for his team. His equal in entire Ashtengoo village was his friend and neighbour Naseer – a welder with the powerful right arm, who would serve for the opposite team.
Their presence in the opposite teams was a conscious and collective decision; else nobody would have won against them. But on this clear June night, both ace servers failed to keep their promises and win the biggest battle of their life.
Blood and Milk
On June 14, 2017, Rasheeda called Naseer using her brother’s phone. “It has been exactly one month and four days since he left home,” recalls Rasheeda.
She asked him when he will be home as it was already 20th of Ramadan. Naseer assured his mother that he will be home a day before Eid-ul-Fitr. Then Naseer, who stayed at a rented accommodation in Rangreth with three other welders, asked his mother if she needs anything from Srinagar.
“When he insisted, I told him to get a pair of flat shoes for me,” remembers Rasheeda.
However, she told Naseer to get something for himself and his wife as well. “He managed his marriage in just a few clothes his brother got for him,” said Rasheed, trying hard to control her tears. “I wanted him to buy new clothes for Eid at least. He couldn’t celebrate his marriage the way he should have in post-Burhan situation.”
The next day, on June 15, 2017, just before the end of the day’s fasting, Naseer went out to buy milk and semolina (souji) from a nearby shop in Rangreth area, almost 4 kms from Hyderpora where his friend Shahzad was posted.
With his hands full of grocery bags, as Naseer crossed the street to reach his room, where his colleagues were waiting for him, he saw a Shastra Seema Bal (SSB) vehicle coming towards him. All of a sudden, half-a-dozen boys, who were standing on the edge of a narrow street, picked up a few stones and started pelting at the armoured vehicle. Without a warning, a SSB personnel opened the iron-door, located at the back of the armoured vehicle and fired a volley of bullets towards the boys. “One bullet hit Naseer on his chest,” his brother Mehraj was told by eyewitnesses.
Instantly, Naseer fell down, his hands still clutching the shopping bags, his blood turning milk and semolina red, his throat aching with thirst and pain, and then everything around him turned dark.
The first one to rush to Naseer’s help was the shopkeeper from whom he had purchased milk and semolina a while ago.
Within no time a small crowd assembled around him. The SSB vehicle, that had shot Naseer, accelerated quickly and vanished from the sight. A young boy from the crowd took Naseer’s mobile phone, and dialed his maternal uncle’s number, on whose phone Naseer had talked to his mother a day back. “The owner of this phone is hit by a bullet in his leg,” the boy informed his maternal uncle. “Come to Srinagar fast,” he told him and disconnected the call.
Within no time his maternal uncle, who lives in Lawaypora village of Bandipora, called Naseer’s younger brother Aabid, and told him what has happened.
“Aabid then called me and we all rushed towards Srinagar together,” recalls Mehraj.
On way, they called Aamir, their youngest brother, who studies at Islamia College in Srinagar, and told him to rush to JVC. “Before we reached Srinagar, Naseer was shifted to SKIMS as his condition worsened,” recalls Mehraj.
At 11 pm, when Mehraj, Aabid, their father, and other relatives reached Soura hospital, they were surprised to see around hundred boys from Rangreth waiting outside, praying for Naseer. “I don’t know who they were. Probably they were the same guys who brought him to the hospital,” said Mehraj.
Within minutes of Mehraj-u-din’s arrival Naseer was taken to Operation Theater, for one final effort to save his life.
As Mehraj-u-din and his relatives sat outside the Operation Theater, hoping for a miracle, news of a militant attack in Hyderpora, Srinagar, sank their hearts.
On the morning of July 14, 2016, six days after Burhan Wani’s killing, Shahzad’s wife Safeena started having maternity pain. She wanted to call her husband, who was posted in Budgam, but the entire phone network was disconnected by the state.
On the other end, Shahzad was desperately weighing his options for a safe journey to Ashtangoo. He wanted to be with his wife when she goes into the delivery room.
Desperate, Shahzad went out of the police station in his civvies and took a lift from the first motorbike he saw coming in his direction. Then he boarded an auto-rickshaw, then a taxi, and again a motor-bike. Finally, when he was almost near his village, he walked the remaining distance.
By 9 pm, he was finally with Safeena, who was almost withering with labour pain. Seven hours later, after Shahzad’s father-in-law, who works in the Health Department, arranged an ambulance; he left for Srinagar with his wife.
“It was a long and silent journey as nobody was there on the roads,” recalls Safeena. “We were frightened as there were many civilian killings in south Kashmir.”
Once in Srinagar, Safeena gave birth to twin boys in a private nursing home, booked beforehand by Shahzad. “I had never seen him so happy. He was literally on top of the world,” recalls Safeena. “We thought he will quit his job right there and stay with them.”
The next day Shahzad and Safeena drove back to Ashtengoo village with their twins in the same ambulance.
In order to avoid trouble, Shahzad carried an identity card declaring him a businessman, instead of his official police card. “He was not afraid of death, but it would have pained him if caught and beaten by fellow Kashmiris,” said Maymoona.
At 9:30 pm, after Shahzad informed his sister-in-law Nahida about his friend Naseer, who was battling for his life at JVC, he looked into the distance, watching cars move in the darkness as it began to rain.
All of a sudden, a fast-moving car, with its window glasses, rolled down, made a split-second stop near him. Before Shahzad and other policeman posted near the J&K Bank Hyderpora, could have reacted, a volley of bullets was shot at them from inside the car. Shahzad, who was hit in the abdomen, and his colleague, instantly fell down.
Within no time, Shahzad and his colleague were rushed to army’s 92 Base Hospital in Srinagar. But before he could reach the hospital, Shahzad had already died.
In sleepy Ashtengoo village, unaware of the attack, Shahzad’s wife Safeena was busy admiring one of her twin sons crawls.
That night, at around 2:30 am, when Safeena’s family assembled inside the kitchen for Sehri (pre-dawn meals), her father told Safeena that Shahzad is injured in an attack, but it is minor. “I didn’t call him (Shahzad) as my father talked about it very casually,” said Safeena.
Instead, Safeena called one of her husband’s colleagues to know if everything is alright. But his phone was switched off. Thinking there is nothing to worry, Safeena decided to call her husband in the morning.
Almost same time, Shahzad’s neighbour and friend Bilal, also a policeman, who was posted in Police Control Room, Srinagar, and was home on leave, came running towards Shahzad’s house, stopped outside the front gate, and started crying and yelling his friend’s name. Inside, Shahzad’s mother, his sister-in-law Nahida, his old mother, all were hoping for a miracle as the news of his injury had already reached them.
At five minute’s walk, Naseer’s mother Rasheeda too was hoping for a miracle as her son was fighting to stay alive inside Soura’s Operation Theater.
“All the hopes were shattered that night,” said Maymoona.
With the first ray of dawn Naseer’s body reached Ashtengoo village, where a mourning mother, a heartbroken father, and wailing wife waited impatiently for one last glimpse of their beloved.
At 8 am, after Ashtengoo bid farewell to one of its finest volleyball player and cricketer, Naseer’s body was taken for burial at a graveyard reserved for martyrs.
Almost same time, Safeena, who was still unaware of her tragedy, was taken to her husband’s house by her father.
“I thought, I have to visit Naseer’s family for mourning. I had no idea it is about my husband,” said Safeena, amid tears.
But once she reached near the front gate of her husband’s house, around two hundred pairs of moist eyes followed her.
Safeena could hear them whisper to each other, but failed to make any sense till she heard her mother-in-law’s wails from inside the house: Shahzad…myani Shahzado…aaki lyte iyte (come back just once)…Shahzado.
“He was gone,” said Safeena. “He couldn’t see which one…”
Three hours later, Naseer’s friend since childhood, his opponent in volleyball and partner in cricket, Shahzad, was brought for burial in the same martyr’s graveyard.
“Never before a policeman was buried in a martyr’s graveyard, but Shahzad was different. He was loved by everybody,” said Naseer’s brother Mehraj.
Side-by-side, two sons of Ashtengoo, lay buried under the shades of mighty Chinar’s (maple tree), in two unmarked graves, consumed by two different bullets, for two different reasons, but still together in death.