Kharpora (J&K): At the break of dawn, the army knocked on the door of Abdul Khaliq and took his two sons along with two more civilians from adjacent houses. Their relatives allege that the four civilians were beaten first and asked to search an empty poultry farm 400 meters away for armed militants.
“We searched the poultry farm but found nothing,” says Firdous Ahmad Najar, a government teacher. Ahmad and his brother were asked to search in the orchards.
“The army was behind us and its officers were giving us directions. After two hours of searching, we reached a spot covered by tree branches,” says Najar, adding that, “There was an opening in the ground and army personnel fired at it.”
It was around 8 am then. Najar, along with other civilians, lunged to the ground as it rained bullets all around them. The forces had just busted a militant hideout — an eight-by-six-feet cavity dug in an apple orchard on a sloppy path — in Kharpora area of south Kashmir, 35 km from Srinagar.
The hole in the ground where the militants were hiding.
Najar says he was “used as a human shield” by the army. “I survived miraculously. Bullets were whizzing past my head and body,” he adds.
The distance between militants and the army men was just a few feet, he said. All three militants were killed in 15 minutes.
Seven civilians, including minor boys, were killed and more than 50 people injured in clashes that followed. Civilian deaths after encounters have become a norm in Kashmir. The toll surges with each incident.
How the Civilians Were Killed
Yawar and Aqib, both students of Class 8, left their home soon after they heard gunshots. The duo, along with dozens of other boys from Urichrsoo village, ran towards the encounter site.
“We saw a lot of other boys. They were shouting slogans and heading towards the encounter site,” says Yawar.
A semi-macadamized narrow road runs along the orchard where the militants were killed. On the other side of the road is a patch of paddy fields. This is where the youths, along with Aqib and Yawar, were shouting slogans and pelting stones.
By this time, the militants were already killed.
“We saw forces carrying the bodies of militants and placing them in vehicles,” Yawar recalls. As more youths poured in, he says, the forces retaliated. They fired bullets and Aqib was hit.
“I saw him fall down. Blood was splashed on the ground. The forces fired indiscriminately at us. I survived because I ducked in time,” says Yawar.
In the same field, two more youth were hit by bullets in a similar fashion. Forces continued firing as they left, and a bullet brought down another civilian. In all, four civilians were killed on the spot.
“As the forces left, they fired in a lane and Shahbaz, who was serving water to a youth, was hit in the head,” says an eyewitness. Shahbaz, a Class 9 student, succumbed to his injuries.
The youth who were protesting said that the civilian casualties could have been avoided.
“We were in the paddy field. How could we have thrown stones? How many stones would have been there?” asks Kamran Ahmad, another youth who was protesting and witnessed the death of his classmate Aqib. “We were shouting slogans. The encounter was over. The forces could have left the spot easily. But they fired to kill,” says Kamran.
Shazeb, another classmate of Aqib, is shaken after witnessing the bloodshed. “I was next to Aqib when a bullet hit him. He hadn’t uttered a single word when he was hit by the bullet in the head,” recalls Shazeb.
He also saw another civilian, Tawseef Ahmad Mir, fall down. Mir, who was in his mid-20s and worked as a daily wager in the power development department, is survived by a daughter and a son.
There were over a dozen people who were hit by bullets. They were shifted to different hospitals, where two of them succumbed to their injuries.
The militants killed in the encounter were also locals. One among them was Zahoor Ahmad Thoker, a former armyman. Thoker had decamped with his service rifle in July last year from Baramulla where he was posted.
“When we heard Zahoor Thoker is trapped, we rushed towards the encounter site. He was a local,” says Kamran Ahmad. “When a person you have known for years is being killed, it is difficult to stay at home,” he says, explaining why he rushed towards the encounter site with other youths.
Police said that while the operation was on, the crowd, which had gathered from different parts, came dangerously close to the encounter site, leading to injuries.
Locals, however, say the youths became agitated after witnessing the killing of civilians.
The graves of the civilians in the violence that followed the encounter.
The village has around 200 households. Hundreds of people from surrounding areas visited the village on Sunday. Aqib’s classmates went to the paddy field, repeatedly circling the spot where their friend was killed. Trying to comfort each other, they wish the bloodshed could be undone.
“Watching my friend die in front of my eyes will haunt me forever,” says Shazeb.
Kashmiri Pandits Also in Mourning
Next to the house of slain militant Zahoor Ahmad Thoker is the home of three Pandit families. Around 15 Pandit families live in Sarnoo village.
“He used to work as a labourer in our village before joining the army,” says Pankaj (name changed). “We didn’t see his body. It would have been unbearable for me to see his face.”
Ever since Thoker joined militant ranks, the army regularly searched his house along with that of his neighbours.
“The army came here on more than five occasions and searched our house. They would enquire if we had seen Thoker,” says Pankaj, who studies in Pulwama Degree College. He also recalls the days he spent playing cricket with Thoker.
Among the slain civilians was Abid Nabi Lone, a postgraduate in business studies from Hyderabad. Lone used to work in Indonesia and had married there a year ago.
A relative holds up a photo of Abid Nabi Lone.
His wife is inconsolable and unable to comprehend the tragedy which has befallen her family, three months after the couple welcomed a baby girl. Her daughter Adifa stares at her mother and then at the unknown faces, unable to comprehend the tragedy.
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Abid Nabi Lone's three-month-old daughter Adifa.
(Author is a Kashmir-based freelance journalist)