When a journalist fell

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The sequence of events that led to the broad day-light killing of prominent journalist Syed Shujaat Bukhari outside his office in Srinagar’s Press Enclave left an indelible mark on the entire fraternity. Shams Irfan narrates eye-witness account of the chaos and its aftermath 

A journalist shifting the slain security guard of Shujaat Bukhari to a police car. KL Image

On June 14, 2018, at 6:25 pm, the market around Srinagar’s Fleet Street, the Press Enclave was abuzz with shoppers as people made last minute purchase, thinking it would be Eid tomorrow.

Amid the bustle, after spending hot-summer day at the office, where I gave finishing touches to a story about Ramazan ceasefire, announced by Home Minister Rajnath Singh a month back, I packed my stuff and headed straight towards my car with a new photographer.  As a routine, my car remains parked inside the Press Enclave, one of the most secure locations in Srinagar, I believed.

Once downstairs, I went straight to my car, unlocked it, and then placed my working bag inside the boot. Then I asked my friend, who was carrying two cameras in his back-pack, “Why don’t you leave your bag in the car as well.”

Mehraj, my friend, looked at me thoughtfully for a few seconds, as if reflecting on choice between life and death, and said, “I think I will carry it along. You never know…”

Before he could finish his sentence, I seconded him in the same tone: “Yes you never know what happens next in Kashmir.”

Within a few minutes, we began walking towards Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower), from where I had to collect a kameez-shalwar, ordered specially for Eid prayers.

On our way to tailors shop, I recall stopping by a kiosk selling colourful toys. What caught our attention was an AK47 replica, which my friend wanted to buy for his three-year-old son. As we asked the price, the shopkeeper started to show how it functions like a real one. “See these round balls are bullets and it has a detachable magazine just like the real one,” he said in an impressing tone. Then to add an element of urgency, and fix the deal, he came closer and whispered: “You won’t get these one in Kashmir anymore. They are now banned. I managed to get the last shipment.”

As Iftar (fast breaking) time was nearing, and Mehraj seemed least impressed by the bandook (gun), we walked on towards our destination. We quickly crossed Partap Park, then the busy M A Road. Within no time we were at our tailors shop, located at the first floor of a row of shops, overlooking historic Ghanta Ghar.

After waiting for the shop-owner for over 15 minutes we were told that my clothes would be ready either at 11:30 pm, or the 7 am the next morning. “What if it is Eid tomorrow?” I asked curiously. “Then come at 11:30 pm tonight,” he said plainly.

With a bit of disappointment we started walked back towards Press Enclave, where my car was parked. “Let’s go home,” said Mehraj.

Crackers not Fire

At around 7 pm, we slowly made our way through make-shift kiosks selling a wide range of products including clothes, toys, watches, shoes, scarves, cheap China made gadgets,  chosen carefully by eagle-eyed shopkeepers, keeping in view Eid taste, situation and purchasing power. As we walked towards Press Enclave, I saw our Marketing Manager standing outside talking to an eatery owner. He too lives in Pampore, and mostly travels home with me.  With an intention to go home, we all started walking quickly towards my car in Press Enclave.

At 7:05 pm, less than hundred yards from Press Enclave, I quickly stopped near an electronic showroom, located in shops below our office. “Look at the colour of this refrigerator,” I almost shouted at our Marketing Manager. “Yes it is good. But let’s keep walking. It is almost iftar time,” he replied dryly.

But as fate had it, I literally dragged him inside the shop, and before he could have reacted, I began asking the owner price of the said product. Within two minutes I stepped out of the shop with a promise that I will be back after Eid.

But as we began walking towards Press Enclave, there was a burst-fire of gunshots; intense, quick and frightening.

The bustling market which a few moments ago was filled with Eid shoppers was now chaotic. Everyone started running for his life. I and my friends quickly took shelter inside the same shop we had left a few seconds back.

While we looked at each other in confusion, another round of burst-fire pierced Srinagar’s festive air. It terrified everyone. There was chaos all over. Then a long silence followed. The silence was broken by a young boy, who wore a white kameez shalwar, and jumped towards us from inside Partap Park. To everyone’s surprise he laughed and shouted mockingly: Yim ha khochan taasan…Yi ha travekh patter (You are afraid of fire-crackers. This was a garland type fire-cracker). He kept shouting continuously till he vanished among the crowd of terrified faces. One among them was ours. However, his quick assumption helped people relax a bit and the word “firecracker” quickly got circulated.

Emboldened by his firecracker talk, we jumped out of the shop and started running towards the safest spot we had in our minds all along: Press Enclave.

Get a Car

As I reached near the Press Enclave entrance I almost froze with fear; there was a known vehicle standing in the middle with all its glasses shattered.

From less than fifteen feet distance I could see inside the car, where two people in the front lay unconscious. Confused how to react, the journalist inside me quickly came to life and I took my phone out and clicked three pictures. As the air around me was still heavy with the smell of gun-powder, I could see Mehraj near the rear window, with his camera out. I asked him, “kus chuh? (Who is there?)”.

With pain visible in his voice, and his eyes almost moist, he replied, “Shujaat (Bukhari) Sahab.”

Then I took a proper look at the SUV, which had both unique colour and number, and shouted again, “bacheovah?”

This time he took a bit longer to answer as a small crowd of journalists, shopkeepers, shoppers etc. had assembled around him as he clicked pictures. Then finally he looked at me, moved his head in negative and said, “Muskil (Least likely)”.

Before I could rush near the SUV, inside which Shujaat Bukhari and his two security guards, including his driver lay in a pool of blood, there was some sound, and everybody began running to safety. Instead of getting inside the Press Enclave, I ran in the opposite direction, towards the Abi Guzar side. Then within seconds there was calm again. Instantly, I took my phone out and called a senior journalist close to Shujaat Bukhari. Then as I quickly walked towards my office from an alternative entrance, I called a few more journalists.

By the time I reached near Greater Kashmir office, almost everyone who worked in the Press Enclave was out. So was my editor Masood Hussain, who knew Bukhari since their cub reporter days at Kashmir Times.

He quickly rushed towards the SUV, inside which three people fought for their lives. Without a word I followed him. As he reached near it, I could see his expressions change and he broke down. Then within seconds, he regained the composure and shouted: koi to inko uthao…hospital le kar jawo (Somebody help them. Take them to the hospital).

But nobody dared to go near the vehicle; instead, everyone had taken his camera out and was clicking pictures.

The like a mad man Hussain began scanning through the crowd, as if looking for a friendly face. His search ended when he saw me in the crowd. He instantly shouted: Shams gaidh kadeh (Shams get the vehicle).

Nervous and visibly shaken, I completely forgot that my vehicle is parked a few meters away. The second time he shouted, I started looking into my pocket if I had the keys with me or not. Luckily I had. With keys in my hand, I and our Marketing Manager ran towards my car. The moment I started the engine, I heard siren in the distance. “It is an ambulance,” said our Marketing Manager.

But instead, it was the local Station Head Officer (SHO), who had come in a bullet-proof vest, but in an unprotected Dial 100 vehicle. After quickly scanning the “crime scene”, the SHO fired few bullets in the air to get rid of the onlookers, who had assembled around the SUV. Then he got the driver, who was still breathing, shifted into the police vehicle. In less than five minutes the SHO drove Bukhari’s SUV towards Police Control Room (PCR) hospital.

Shujaat Bukhari and one of his security guards were declared brought dead there.

Mourning a Friend  

At PCR, hundreds of Bukhari’s well-wishers and friends had assembled, praying and at the same time hoping against the hope that he survives. Within half-an-hour Bukhari was officially declared dead.

Back at Press Enclave, with fear visible on their faces around fifty journalists assembled near the spot where the attack had taken place. Everyone had just one question on their lips: why?

At 9:30 pm, after doing the most painful news item a journalist can do in his career, I left towards my home.

People running for their lives after the attack on Rising Kashmir Editor Shujaat Bukhari’s car on June 15, 2018. KL Image: Shams Irfan

For rest of the night Bukhari’s face and the sound of gunshots kept me awake. I recalled my only interaction with him in 2007, in Delhi. I was a fresh journalism pass-out from Aligarh Muslim University, when someone from home told me about an upcoming daily newspaper in Kashmir. I instantly sent a mail to Bukhari, whose e-mail was attached with the advertisement for recruitment. For next two days, with hope and excitement, I kept checking my mail for a response. It came on the third day, along with apologies for responding late, from Bukhari. He told me that he will be in Delhi in two weeks and asked me to meet him there. I took an early morning train from Aligarh, and travelled to Delhi. We met at Indian Islamic Cultural Centre, Lodhi Road and talked for over an hour about my passion and challenges a journalist faces in Kashmir. For a student like me, it was a life changing experience to interact with Bukhari, who managed to survive the mayhem in Kashmir during 1990s, along with other fearless journalists. That one hour spent with him helped me shape myself as a journalist in coming years.

Bidding Farewell  

The next morning, at 8 am, I along with a group of journalist friends from south Kashmir, started our journey towards Kreeri in Baramulla, the hometown of Bukhari, where his funeral was slated at 11 am. An hour later, as we drove along a vast garrison and started climbing towards Kreeri, we could see hundreds of vehicles lined on both sides of the narrow road, with their occupants in tears. At Kreeri, after we parked our vehicles outside the village limits, when we began to walk towards Bukhari’s house, it started to rain.

At Burhari’s house thousands of well-wishers, friends, colleagues, journalists, government officials, ministers, and almost everyone who mattered in Kashmir, were waiting to bid him farewell. I stayed with one of Bukhari’s relatives, who works in Rising Kashmir, a newspaper Bukhari launched in 2008. He was inconsolable. Amid thousands of angry and painful faces, we found a spot near the narrow drive-way.

At 10:55 am, Bukhari’s mortal remains were taken for burial, leaving behind and wailing son, daughter and wife.

Before I walked along his coffin, I turned around, had a long look at the modest house, where a wife was looking through the glass window, probably hoping to reverse the cruel cycle of time. But her cries dinned amid the sobs of Bukhari’s friends and colleagues. Slowly Bukhari’s coffin vanished out of her sight and towards his final journey. “Zara ahista chalo (Please walk slowly),” one of Bukhari’s friends requested people carrying his coffin. “Aakhri safr ha…zara ahista chalo. (This is his last journey. Please walk slow).

After his burial, we started our journey back home in silence, as everyone inside the car was lost in his own memories.

As journalists we knew, Press Enclave is never going to be the same without Bukhari.

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