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Opinion

Fifth column

April 7, 2018
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A lifetime of mourning

Opinion

Fifth column

April 7, 2018

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The new cycle of death and destruction has renewed our sense of insecurity – and that too, so unceremoniously. With the internet blocked and towns and villages filled with army personnel, it was like a siege. There was little movement except for the buzzing military convoys or ambulances ferrying victims of state brutality.

Such scenes are not strange to Kashmir’s milieu. My generation has spent two-thirds of our life negotiating such afflictions. Having worked as a journalist during this period, I have filled scores of columns by counting the dead by the dozens; collecting the pain and suffering in lifeless idioms; and watching Kashmir burn into a wasteland of sadness through perpetual and brutal violence.

Our life has been punctuated by bomb blasts and the cries of loss by wailing mothers and children whose sons and fathers have either been tortured to death or have gone missing after being taken into custody. In my immediate neighbourhood, I fondly remember Nisar Sonaullah, a senior government teacher, who was seized by the army in April 1994 as soon as he finished his Isha prayers at a local mosque.

No one knows what happened to him. His wife recently told me that she continues to feel his presence to this day. Another widow lives three houses down the road. Her husband was seized by Ikhwan, an army-supported group, in 1995. The next day, his body was found in the fields nearby.

In 1983, I was barely twelve years old when I heard a volley of gunfire shots for the first time. If memory serves me well, we were listening to our teacher when the air was suddenly ruptured with loud sounds. Half an hour later, we learned that the police had opened fire on an agitated mob on the other side of the town and killed a young man. Although I never saw the gruesome act, I remained scared for a long time and any sight of a khaki-clad policeman would trigger a panicked reaction.

The following year, we heard that Maqbool Bhat, the founding father of Kashmir’s pro-freedom resistance, was hanged. Although people were too scared to protest, everyone was stricken with sorrow and afraid. My late father, who knew Bhat personally, cried bitterly when he heard the news. This was the first time I saw him cry. It destroyed his invincible persona in my imagination, which was restored a little less than a decade later when I would regularly cry over the deaths of my friends, family, acquaintances or even unknown strangers.

My first encounter with violence was in 1988 when a bomb that was planted by militants to announce the rebellion went off and killed an old man inside Anantnag Bus Stand. I was yards away from where he fell. My memory is etched with the massive dust plumes, followed by a loud bang and the image of people running wildly in every direction. In the distance, I still see an old man in traditional Kashmiri attire – pheran – curling up, perhaps as his last stand against a death that was announced later through an official news bulletin. Sadly, nobody remembers him or the many others who fell to the militant violence – including an acquaintance, Mushtaq Ahmed Mushtaq, who was over a decade older than me and was part of a literary movement where we would gather occasionally over a mushaira or mehfil-e-afsana.

These gatherings were therapeutic for budding writers like myself and reintroduced some sanity into life as violence had started to ravage everything around us, including ourselves. In mid-1991, Mushtaq was shot and critically injured for being an alleged police informer. He was taken to the local hospital where militants forced doctors to abandon him, condemning him to a slow and painful death.

A year later, on July 2, 1992, I was walking in Amira Kadal, Srinagar when a tyre-burst provoked the paramilitary Border Security Force (BSF) to kill six civilians and injure dozens of others. This was the first time I had witnessed death and gore being played out in front of me. The BSF personnel tried to target me as well and ended up killing two people in front of me. Such a close encounter with death affected me deeply for a long time.

On 22 October 1993, the BSF massacred over 50 civilians in my hometown, Bijbehara. Hundreds of people were injured – some of whom are still battling life-changing injuries and trauma. I witnessed scores of people dying in the alleyways as roads were painted in scarlet red. A few months later, on December 3, my friend and a local human rights activist Farooq Ahmed Dar, who was collecting data on this massacre, was picked up by the Indian Army in broad daylight. After some time, the army claimed that he had fled their custody. But no one ever heard from him again.

Three weeks later, on December 26, 1993, the Indian army killed my cousin, Noorul Amin, who had just turned 20. He was walking in an alley not far from his home when an army man suddenly appeared on the scene and without any provocation shot him repeatedly in his chest. Noor Sahab, as we fondly called him, died on the spot.

In 2016, there were several deaths in my vicinity, including that of 23-year-old Aamir Nazir Latoo who was killed by the local police for no justifiable reason. This time, the trauma would affect me permanently as I developed a heart condition that has compelled me to go on multiple medications.

In mid-September last year, militants killed a 19-year-old Ishtiyaq after he ‘confessed’ to being an army informer. I knew him as I would often buy roasted corn on the cob from him during the 2016 strife. After his death, it took me several weeks to muster the courage to offer condolences to his father. After much hesitation, when I asked Ishtiyaq’s father how he was coping, he said curtly: “everyone has to die, including those who killed my son”. I was just dumfounded.

The display of gore and death has continued over time. I have lost count of the coffins I have shouldered and the burials that I have witnessed. Our local graveyard has various corners dedicated to those slain by the state apparatus of vicious violence. In addition, like every locality in Kashmir, we have a graveyard designated for martyrs that is filled with more than 70 people – young and old; the tombstones continue to grow like trophies of dispossessed honour.

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli

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