Salim Shaikh, the bus driver who risked his life to save the yatris as they came under attack in Kashmir, tells his story.
Salim Shaikh drove the ill-fated bus that came under terrorist fire near Anantnag on July 11. In this first person account, as told to Majid Maqbool, he describes what happened that evening.
The J&K government has announced an award of Rs 3 lakhs for Salim’s exemplary bravery during the attack which left seven dead and over 30 injured
I’ve reached my home here in Gujarat on the evening of July 11. It feels good to return home alive with my family after all that happened with us in Anantnag. But seven of my passengers who were with me that evening couldn’t make it to their homes alive. I feel bad about them and their families. I tried my best that evening to drive away from the spot very quickly so that everyone inside the bus would make it alive in the end. Unfortunately, that was not to be. It makes me sad.
The faces of some of the those people who were travelling with me in the bus that evening – people with whom I had spent a good deal of time – still come in front of me. I’m still thinking of them. I can’t forget them… I remember them all. All along, we had travelled together and in Srinagar I had taken them around for some sightseeing to a few tourist spots which they had enjoyed.
We left Srinagar and drove towards South Kashmir, at about 4 pm. After we had driven about seven kilometres from Srinagar, there was a puncture in one of the tyres of our vehicle. I had to stop midway to change the tyre and get it fixed. I noticed there was a puncture in another tyre as well, so it took some more time. There was a delay of about two to three hours due to this halt. By the time we reached Anantnag, it was about 8 pm.
Suddenly, at around 8:15 pm, I heard some loud shots in the dark, closer to our vehicle. I didn’t know these were bullets fired in our direction. I thought someone had burst some fire crackers. But then I saw the windscreen in front of me break and I quickly ducked. I didn’t leave the steering wheel, though. People inside the vehicle started shouting. I heard them asking me to drive away quickly. Someone bolted the door of the vehicle. When I came back on to my seat, I didn’t check to see if I was hurt. The only thought in my mind was to drive away very quickly, and as fast as I could, before more people inside the vehicle might get hurt. There was a woman, a housewife, who was sitting on the engine bonnet to my left. She received three bullets and unfortunately did not survive her injuries.
I drove away from that spot as fast as I could. There was darkness all around me. I wanted to reach some safe spot quickly where we could all get down and those injured could be taken to hospital. Everyone inside the vehicle was shouting but I didn’t panic and I was determined to drive fast and focus on reaching a safe spot. For about 3 kms, I kept driving till I saw a military camp where I made a halt. Then some of the army men surrounded us and came to our help. They brought us down and took the injured to the nearest hospital. They didn’t allow any other people there to come near us.
The vehicle I was driving was registered with the authorities. You can’t take pilgrims and travel with them without registration. There were security stickers on our vehicle as well. I think you can still find them on the vehicle. You can’t travel to the Jammu camps without registration. We had followed all the rules. It was only that we were late by a few hours due to the tyre punctures on the way while leaving Srinagar. We did not break any rules.
I never thought something like this would ever happen in Kashmir. I have been coming to the Valley for past four years, driving the pilgrims, taking them around without any trouble. There was no problem at all. The pilgrims didn’t fear anything. The local Muslims have always been helpful and kind with the yatris.
Even this year, before coming to the Valley, we didn’t have any security apprehensions. I thought the maximum that can happen is that one can be caught in some stone pelting incident somewhere on the way.
The managers and a few other people travelling with me that day had been coming to the valley for the Amarnath Yatra for the past 10 years. Some of the pilgrims who were travelling with me this time were new yatris. They would ask me about places to go and see in Kashmir before and I would happily take them around for sightseeing. Some of them unfortunately died despite all my efforts and prayers that they survive their bullet injuries. I had developed good relations with some of the people who died.
It’s good that all people have expressed grief over these deaths. I heard people have protested and condemned these deaths there in the valley as well. This is the right thing to do. It is not about Hindus or Muslims. All lives are precious. I could have also died that night.
Whatever happened on Monday evening was wrong. It should not have happened. I can only pray for the departed souls now.
(As told to Majid Maqbool)