Friends and eyewitnesses insist the young men killed by the police in Kashmir during an encounter last week had not in fact been obstructing army operations in any way but were mere bystanders.
Chadoora (Jammu and Kashmir): On the morning of March 28, the town of Chadoora in Budgam district teemed with young men, many in their teens, crossing backyards and wading through paddy fields with stones in their hands.
The alleys nearby were filled with government forces. Army trucks blocked the roads leading to the place the boys were trying to reach – the scene of a fierce encounter. From adjoining houses, women and girls peeked out of windows, trying to watch what was happening outside. Tear gas hung heavy in the air. Occasional gunfire and the sound of mortar shells rang through the locality.
A Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Tawseef Magray, was holed up inside the home of a family in the village. As security forces pounded the house to flush Magray out, young men from Chadoora and other villages nearby were trying to help him escape by pelting stones at the forces. As the situation escalated, the police opened fire on the crowd. Three young men were killed.
Last month, army chief General Bipin Rawat had warned of tough action against those who “obstruct our operations during encounters.” While his words triggered a debate about the wisdom of opening fire on civilians – even those who may be pelting stones – friends and eyewitnesses insist the boys killed that day had not in fact been obstructing army operations in any way but were mere bystanders.
On March 31 – three days after Zahid, Amir and Ishfaq died in the firing – the roads leading to their homes wore a deserted look. A palpable air of mourning hung over Chadoora.
Amidst the cavernous chants of the crowds in Nagam, Wathoora and Rangreth, the areas from where the three hailed, people remembered the boys who were killed.
Zahid, the camera buff
“He was the best boy in our locality,” said an elderly man who distributed orange juice to the people visiting the family of Zahid Rashid Ganaie.
Zahid, 22, was shot dead on the morning of March 28. His friends say he was watching the protests from a distance and was not pelting stones. The only brother among six siblings, Zahid was his father’s hope to keep the family’s jewelry business running.
Zahid’s multi-storey house, one of the grandest in the locality in Chadoora, is built on almost three acres of land. Two huge tents were pitched out front – one for women visitors and the other for men. Occasional cries from the women’s tent shattered the uneasy quiet. His mother, Saja Begum, was calling out her son’s name.
The other tent was filled with men, young and old. Inside, a man was speaking about the virtues of martyrdom. “We are grateful that Zahid died as a martyr. We should be proud,” he told the gathering. Others nodded in agreement.
In the front yard, a group of Zahid’s friends sat in a circle. With them was Zahid’s grandfather Ghulam Nabi, a man in his late seventies. For the every line the boys spoke about his only grandson, Nabi nodded and sighed.
“He was a just a boy and they killed him in cold blood,” he told me. “They have the authority to kill anybody. They can kill me as well tomorrow and nobody will say a thing. This is what occupation is.”
Iqbal, 22, said he was witness to his friend’s last moments.
“Zahid was recording the protests with his mobile phone,” he said. “I told him to stop as the policeman was constantly pointing his gun at us. Within seconds I heard a gunshot and he [Zahid] fell down.” Iqbal broke into tears, and other friends tried to console him.
Zahid’s friends describe him as a bold and outgoing person. Days before his death, Zahid had told Iqbal that he meant to ask his father to help a neighbouring kid who had broken his legs after falling from a height. “He always wanted to help others,” Iqbal said. “We don’t have anybody like him in our circle now.”
“He loved buying news clothes. He was crazy about cars and bikes. That one there, he rode it only once after buying it from Delhi,” one friend said, pointing at a Yamaha bike in a corner. They showed me photographs on their phones of Zahid posing while he was skiiing.
In Zahid’s bedroom, on the second floor of the house, were his Nikon DSLR, new clothes from Delhi, and a neat pile of books on medicine, physics and chemistry. The box of a new smartphone sat on a shelf.
Zahid’s own phone, with which he was filming the crowds when he was shot, remains missing.
Iqbal took me to the place where he said his friend was shot. It was a paddy field, a few feet from a narrow road. The anger building inside him was apparent. “We have to make sure his death is not in vain,” he said. “That’s all. Nothing less, nothing more.”
Amir the student
Amir is his village’s first “martyr”.
He was buried in a graveyard next to his home in Wathoora, some two kilometres from the spot where he was shot. A green flag with a star and crescent flew over the tin roof covering the grave. Two names are inscribed on the gravestone: Amir Fayaz Waza, his real name, and Ghazi Amir, a sort of nom de guerre for the 16-year-old.
I met a young man, Umar, sitting by his grave. Amir had been his classmate and a close friend. I asked if he would talk to me.
“Mye chu dil dazaan vekyanas. Be kyah wany,” he said. “My heart is burning right now. What should I speak of?”
On the day Amir was shot, a video appeared online in which a group of boys can be seen carrying someone on their shoulders through the Doodh Ganga stream. It was Amir.
“Amir and I were watching the clashes from a distance,” said a friend, who did not wish to be named. “That’s when we saw the police firing at us. I asked Amir to lie flat on the ground and when he tried to do so, he was shot.”
Amir couldn’t be taken down the road, as the army and the police had blocked it. Instead, he was carried away by a route that happened to be a flowing stream. “If they would have let us pass on the road, maybe he would have survived,” said Amir’s friend.
Amir’s family lives in a single-story house, with just two rooms and a kitchen. The family of five – father, mother, their two daughters, and Amir – used to sleep in the same room. The other one was kept for the occasional guest.
His father, Fayaz Ahmad Waza, looked more than his age of 38. He works as a sand digger and is the only wage-earner in the family. On the afternoon of March 28, he got a call from his brother telling him of his son’s death. “I was working in a nearby village,” Fayaz said looking out from the window. “On my way home all I wanted was to see him alive.”
He pointed to a corner where his son used to sleep. Fayaz moved his hands over the spot and then kissed his hands.
Amir’s uncle, grandfather and other relatives started to enter the room. With them was Amir’s mother, Shameema. “Tell Mehbooba [the state chief minister] that she has blood on her hands. She has killed my only son,” she cried.
I was shown Amir’s school bag. I opened one of the notebooks inside. The last signed homework was dated back to June 2016. On its first page was written in English: “Say something about me.”
When I left, Fayaz pointed out to his house. “We don’t have anything. This is all my earning,” he said. “But I don’t want anything from the government. Not even justice, because there has never been any in Kashmir.”
Outside the house, I met Umar again. He was tending to the mourners. I asked him if he could let me take his picture. He obliged.
Later on, a boy told me that for the past three days, Umar has been spending most of his time at Amir’s grave.
Ishfaq Ahmad Wani, the mechanic
The road that led to Ishfaq Ahmad Wani’s house was blocked with huge cement pipes. Protesters, chanting slogans about Kashmir’s independence, were marching towards the market square in Rangreth, where the police were waiting. A young man in a red jacket was leading the protests. He was Mehraj, Ishfaq’s brother.
Holding a large banner with the words ‘Shaheed Ishfaq Ahmad’ written across it, Mehraj shouted, “Hum kya chahte?” The crowd, as is the routine in Kashmir, responded with “Azadi.”
Afterwards, Mehraj led me back to his house. Inside Ishfaq’s bedroom, a sweater, a black leather jacket, a wall clock, a calendar, and some bags hung on the bare cement wall. There was a steel bed too, which Mehraj sometimes used.
On the evening on March 28, Mehraj, 20, received a call from an unknown number. “Are you Mehraj?” the caller said. “A boy has been shot in the chest in Chadoora. He’s tall and bearded. There are rumours that he’s your brother.” Before Mehraj could respond, the caller hung up.
At his home, he found people had already assembled outside, chanting slogans.
Hundreds more were moving towards the house, bearing a dead body on their shoulders. It was Ishfaq.
At lunch that day, Mehraj said Ishfaq, who was 23, had joked with him that he wouldn’t trouble him anymore and he could have the bed to himself now. “Had I known those will be his last words to me, I wouldn’t have let him go,” said Mehraj.
People who claim to have seen Ishfaq getting shot said he was simply standing on the side watching the forces leave the encounter site after they had killed the Hizbul militant. By then, Zahid and Amir were already dead.
Ishfaq, like many others, had reasons to live. He was known as the-guy-who-could-fix-any-car, and for the past two years, had taken care of his family of six after his father was diagnosed with asthma. The family planned to sell some of their land so he could open his own mechanic shop in Batamaloo.
Ishfaq’s father, Abdul Rashid Wani, in his late fifties, is a mechanic like his son was. That morning, Wani had seen his son laying on the bed watching videos from the encounter site. By the afternoon, his son had already left for Chadoora.
Wani heard about his son’s death on the phone. He was told to rush to SMHS hospital in Srinagar. “When I reached the hospital ward, doctors in white aprons were taking out a body on a stretcher. The face was covered in a white shroud. I knew he was my son.”
By the time I left Rangreth, intense clashes had started in the area. Young men, some of them with their faces covered, were engaging the security force in a pitched battles of stones and tear-gas shells. Further away, a banner tied to an electric pole showed Ishfaq, his eyes closed, being carried on a stretcher.
Under the banner was a child trying to capture a selfie with the banner in the background.
Sheikh Saaliq is a Srinagar-based freelance journalist