“Will our brother return? We won’t complain even if they have tortured him,” ask family members of 20-year-old Manzoor Ahmad, who has been missing in army custody since August 31.
Lolab (Jammu and Kashmir): When Kashmir was celebrating Eid on September 2, the family of elderly Ghulam Qadir, joined by villagers, sat in protest the whole day outside an army camp at Tramukh Top, a vast meadow on a mountain – for his son, Manzoor Ahmad, who has been missing in army custody since August 31.
Twenty-year-old Ahmad and his neighbour Nasrullah Khan from Kakad Pati – a remote village in North Kashmir’s Lolab Valley nestled among conifer trees on the foothills on the forested mountain – had gone to graze their cattle in the meadow when they were taken into the custody by the army’s 27 Rashtriya Rifles (RR), according to their family members.
While Nasrullah, who bears severe torture marks on his body and is battling for life at a hospital in summer capital Srinagar, was “dumped” by the army in an unconscious state outside his dok (a makeshift house made of logs and mud) in the meadow at 9 pm, the army is silent about Ahmad’s whereabouts, raising the suspicion of family members and villagers that he might have been tortured to death.
Away from the media attention, every day since September 1, hundreds of people from scores of villages assemble outside Nasrullah’s house in Kakad village in garrisoned Kupwara district, around 130 kilometres from the summer capital Srinagar, to protest against Ahmad’s “custodial disappearance”.
“My son is young and physically very weak. The only thought that haunts me is that he can’t withstand the torture. When I looked at Nasrullah and what they did to him, I fear the worst,” a broken Qadir told The Wire, at his single-storey house.
Ahmad’s disappearance has left his mother, Hanifa Begum, distraught. “Has my Manzoor returned? Please somebody tell them (army) that he (Ahmad) is my beloved son,” Begum has been repeatedly asking for the past six days.
‘They took him in front of my eyes’
Cattle rearing is the main occupation of the people of Kakkad and its adjoining Pahari speaking villages. Every year, when winter sets in, more than 200 families, including families from these villages, seasonally migrate to the meadow to graze their cattle for nine months.
The families are however required to get annual ‘permission passes’ from 28 RR, which has its camp in Devar area of Lolab for entry to the meadow. The villagers have their individual dok in the meadow and there are shops and a moving school as well. On one side of the mountain is Lolab and on the other side is Bandipora district. The meadow is used as a shortcut route by people from Lolab villages to go to Bandipora to sell their cattle.
Qadir has five daughters and five sons, of whom Ahmad is the eldest. He looks after the cattle and has a shop in the village as well. On the day he went missing, Ahmad left with a local, Jalal-ud-Din Khan and his sister Parveena for Trumukh Top, a six kilometre trek from Kakad, at 10 am, and Nasrullah had joined them on the way. Nasrullah was on his horse and had soon left the rest of the party behind.
When the trio – Jalal-ud-Din, Parveena and Ahmad – reached the entrance of the meadow, the sentry on duty, according to Jalal-ud-Din, asked them to wait, after checking their passes. “Around 20 minutes later, Ahmad was told that one major sahab wanted him to come inside. They took him and asked us to wait for another 15 minutes. But when he didn’t return for an hour, I asked the sentry why they weren’t releasing our boy. To my utter shock I was told that they haven’t taken him (Ahmad) and don’t know where he has gone,” Jalal-ud-Din said.
In the meantime, Jalal-ud-Din said, Nasrullah’s two brothers, Mohammad Sidiq and Mohammad Shafi, who had come all the way from Kakad, rushed towards the camp saying Nasrullah has also been detained in the camp.
“We raised a hue and cry outside the camp and more than 40 villagers, who were grazing their cattle in the meadow, joined us in the protest. First, the army out-rightly denied that Ahmad and Nasrullah were in their custody but when we refused to leave, they said only Nasrullah is with them,” said Jalal-ud-Din.
Both Ahmad and Nasrullah, who are in the cattle business, are relatives of Jammu and Kashmir Minister, Abdul Haq Khan, of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party.
Qadir said as the protests continued, he was called inside the camp. There, he said, the major asked him why the family had given shelter to two militants in their dok on August 27.
“These were baseless allegations and I told him (the major) to prove them… having no answers, they let me go,” said Qadir, adding that his dok is in clear sight of the camp, barely at seven-minute walk.
Around 8 pm, Jalal-ud-Din said the army took Nasrullah out of the camp through the back gate and dumped him outside his dok. “My brothers and some neighbours rushed to tell us that,” he said.
In an unconscious state, with bruises all over his body and his eyes, Nasrullah was rushed to the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) Hospital hospital late at night. It was already 9 pm and the villagers decided to return to their dok and come for Ahmad the next morning.
“Since then the army has been changing its stand every now and then. Sometimes they deny having him (Ahmad) in their custody and sometimes they say that he will return home. Other times, they ask us to remain patient as it could take days or weeks to trace him,” said Hussain.
‘I was tortured, saw Manzoor inside camp… He screamed for help’
Thirty-four-year-old Nasrullah, whose condition deteriorated at SMHS on September 2, was shifted to tertiary care in Sher-I-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, where doctors said he was suffering from kidney failure.
Nasrullah, father of five, the eldest of whom is his 16-year-old daughter, has bruises all over his body. “He has suffered kidney failure due to severe beating. We have put him on dialysis but his condition is really bad,” said a doctor.
Talking to the Wire, Nasrullah said the army “ruthlessly tortured” him from 12 pm to 9 pm. “We (Ahmad and Nasrullah) were taken inside the camp together and then I was kept in one room and he was taken to another room. Moments later they checked by blood pressure and I got curious. And that is when they came and started beating me with a bat and wickets. They even pushed an iron rod in my anus and put a gunny bag in my mouth and kept asking me to reveal details about militants,” he said, lying on the hospital bed, his eyes swollen.
Nasrullah, who has been complaining of constant body pain, said he truthfully told the interrogators that he had no information about the militants. “I had no idea what they were asking me. But when I couldn’t bear the pain and thought that they will kill me, in order to save my life, I lied to them about the presence of militants in the meadow. I thought once they take me out of the camp, I would raise a hue and cry to ensure that people see me, but they kept beating me and telling me that I was lying. During the torture I fainted many times but they would bring me back to my senses and start the torture again. At one point someone came to check me again and said ‘he is alright’ and then they started beating me again,” said Nasrullah.
When asked if he saw Ahmad after they were taken to separate rooms, Nasrullah said he heard him screaming in the adjacent room. “I screamed too so he could bear witness that they (army) were beating me. He was crying for help and this continued for almost half an hour. Then there was complete silence,” he said. “If he was subjected to the kind of torture that I faced, I fear he might have succumbed.”
An ‘altercation’ that could provide a lead
According to Ahmad’s father, a few days before the incident, his son had an altercation with the army in the meadow, when a group of army men had come to their dok, asking Qadir to arrange two logs of wood for them.
“My son objected to it but they abused us. Ahmad argued with them and Nasrullah was also present. Later that day, Ahmad came home but the army kept asking me about them (Ahmad and Nasrullah) from then onwards. On the morning of August 31, when the army men again asked me about them, I told them that he (Ahmad) would be here by afternoon. Now I understand why they were looking for them,” said Qadir.
The villagers who had assembled in his house alleged that the army compels them to do “all kinds of work” at the camp. “We have no option. They will otherwise stop us from going to the meadow. We are asked to arrange wooden logs, work in the camp as bonded labour and if anybody raises objections, they start harassing the family. They even tease our womenfolk,” the villagers alleged.
The meadow has been notified for cattle grazing decades ago, according to the villagers. But the army, they said, set up their camp there only a decade back.
Army in dock for ‘attempt to murder, abduction, wrongful confinement’
It was only after the intervention of the minister Haq Khan, who hails from the same village, that police started investigation into the case. Under pressure, the police has registered two cases into the whole incident at Lalpora police station in Lolab – the first case under sections 307, 342 and 323 of RPC for attempt to murder, wrong confinement and voluntarily causing harm and the second under sections 342 and 346 for kidnapping and abducting in order to murder, against the camp.
“We are looking into the case but so far haven’t been able to come to any conclusion,” said a senior police official from the district.
The duty officer at SDPO office, Sogam, Mohammad Yaseen, said the deputy superintendent of police in Sogam, station house officer, Lalpora and Tehsildar Lalpora, have been camping at Tramukh top for the last five days in connection with the case.
“So far we haven’t been able to reach any conclusion,” he told The Wire.
The defense spokesperson, Rajesh Kalia, said the army has taken cognisance of the case. “The investigation is on and the action will be taken accordingly,” he said.
‘Will our brother return?’
Ahmad’s disappearance is a grim reminder of cases of custodial disappearances from frontier Kupwara and elsewhere in Kashmir’s yesteryears. When militancy was at its peak in the Valley, scores of men disappeared only to get reduced to statistics in the government records.
On the International Day of Disappearances on August 30, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) said the “practice of enforced disappearances” in Kashmir “seems to have resurfaced” in the Valley.
“Since last year, there has been a significant increase in the abduction of civilians who after forced disappearances are being killed extra-judicially. At least eight such incidents have been reported across Jammu and Kashmir in more than a year now, while one among the victims still remains missing,” the APDP said in a statement, days before Ahmad went missing.
“In our area alone, at least six youths have been subjected to enforced disappearance since the onset of the militancy. We don’t know what happened to those men,” said Hussain, Ahmad’s cousin.
It is this dark chapter of “enforced disappearances” in Kashmir history that has led to fears in the family and among the villagers that Ahmad may get reduced to statistics in the official records.
“Why aren’t they releasing our brother? We won’t complain even if they have tortured him. We are dying to see our brother. Will he return?” Ahmad’s eldest sister said as sobs filled the air in the room.