Srinagar: Every time 11-month-old Azrah cries, mourners in the room struggle to control their tears. She crawls into the lap of a young woman only to return the next moment, perhaps realising that she isn’t her mother.
“How can an infant live without her mother,” an elderly woman moans as a young boy enters the room and takes the child away.
Azrah is one of the newly orphaned children in the Valley. Her mother, Ruby Jan, was allegedly shot at by security forces during an encounter with militants in Batamarun, a remote village in south Kashmir’s Shopian district, on December 19, according to her uncle Ghulam Ahmad Bhat. The 22-year-old woman died instantly.
“She (Azrah) has been crying desperately to see her mother. How can we make her understand the tragedy that has befallen her?,” Bhat said. Azrah’s photograph has been widely circulated on social media in the Valley.
While Jammu and Kashmir police have claimed that Ruby was killed in crossfire, her family and the villagers have termed her death a “cold-blooded murder”.
“They killed my sister and ran away”
Ruby was visiting her parents’ house in Batamarun around 10 days ago. When forces laid siege to the village on December 18, the entire family was inside the single storey house, located around 150 metres away from where two militants including a local from the adjoining village of Wanpora were trapped and killed the next day. The house and the encounter site are divided only by a road.
Parvaiz Ahmad, Ruby’s younger brother, said that as soon as they saw the security forces, the family shifted to a room and didn’t move out as the gun battle raged on for the entire night.
The next morning, Ahmad said, Ruby went inside the kitchen to fetch a glass of water for her ailing uncle. “As she was entering the room, a soldier on the road fired bullets towards our house. One of the bullets hit my sister in the abdomen and she fell down. Azrah was on her lap,” Ahmad recalled.
Remembering her last words, Bhat said, “She kept asking ‘what happened to me’ and after a few minutes, when she realised that she had been hit by bullets, she said in a broken voice, ‘I’m leaving, please take care of my child’.”
Two bullet marks are visible on the wall of the room where the family had spent at least 21 hours after the encounter began. Another bullet mark is visible on the edge of a window.
Seeing her sister collapse, Ahmad said he gathered the courage to open the front door of the house and shouted at the security personnel for killing her sister. “I ran towards them but they fled the spot,” he said.
Ahmad said that he then took Ruby to the hospital from the back door. Despite his efforts, Ruby was declared dead by doctors at the hospital.
The police statement claimed that Ruby died in crossfire. “During cross firing, one lady identified as Ruby @Beauty wife of Manzoor Ahmad Mir got critically injured who later on succumbed to her injuries at district hospital Pulwama,” the statement issued on December 19 read.
“A solider shot my wife dead”
The December 19 police statement is similar to the one issued on December 11 when another young woman, Misra Bano, mother of a nine-month-old girl Maryam, of Unsoo village in Kupwara district was allegedly shot dead by a solider during an encounter in which three militants were killed.
A one-line statement by the police claimed that Bano, 22, died in crossfiring. “During the encounter, one lady got injured in the cross firing and unfortunately, she succumbed to her injuries,” the statement, termed as “a bundle of lies” by Misra’s husband Ishfaq Ahmad, read.
“One of the soldiers shot her dead in front of my eyes and I could do nothing but watch her die,” Ishfaq said. “I wish they had killed me instead. Our daughter has been restlessly waiting for her mother.”
Recalling the events that unfolded on the fateful night, he said that the soldiers ordered them to come out of their house during the encounter. “I was close to my wife and daughter in the yard when suddenly a soldier shot my wife in head. She (Bano) instantly fell on the ground. The baby too fell from her lap,” Ishfaq recalled.
“I lifted my baby and put my wife’s head in my lap. Blood was oozing out from her wound; she was dead in a few moments and I couldn’t do anything till the encounter had ended,” he said.
Like Azrah’s, a photograph of Maryam has been doing rounds on Facebook for the past one week. It underlines the tragedy that Kashmir has been witnessing for close to three decades.
“We owe this beautiful child and all children of this conflict a sense of urgency to resolve this bloody conflict. Our entrenched positions, rhetoric, hartals and seminars won’t resolve this conflict. Time for everyone to work together in search for peace. May Allah bless her,” National Conference’s spokesperson Junaid Azim Mattu had tweeted.
Cab driver killed, army cites ‘cross-firing’
Kupwara was still brewing with anger over the young mother’s killing when a young taxi driver Asif Iqbal Bhat of Thindpura village was allegedly fired at by army soldiers outside his house at around 11 pm on December 16. He died on the spot.
Asif had came out of his house to ferry a family stuck in a nearby village. “Within a few minutes I heard gunshots and came out rushing only to find my son in a pool of blood,” Mohammad Iqbal Bhat, Asif’s father, said.
One of their neighbours said that they heard gunshots after Asif started his vehicle. “We came out rushing and saw a group of army men fleeing the spot in opposite directions. His (Asif) father was desperately crying for help,” said the neighbour, wishing not to be named.
Later in the day, the army issued a statement saying that an ambush party had observed suspicious movement of three persons near a nallah in Thindpura village.
“The individuals were challenged by troops, however, they did not respond. Instead the suspected militants opened fire towards the army ambush party, which was subsequently retaliated. In the crossfire, one person, later identified as Asif Iqbal Bhat was killed due to a gunshot wound,” the statement read.
Rage in the Valley
The recent civilian deaths have led to heightened tension in the Valley. Restrictions were put in place in parts of Srinagar on Friday in the wake of the protest call against civilian killings given by the joint Hurriyat leadership comprising of Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Muhammad Yasin Malik. On Wednesday, Kashmir observed a complete shutdown against the killings.
“The inhuman brutal killings of #Kashmiris including our young women continue and the collaborators who preside over them sing paeans of their masters!,” Mirwaiz tweeted.
Data from the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society shows that at least 30 civilians have been killed near encounter sites in Kashmir in the past two years.
“Killings of civilians has become an ordinary thing for forces as they are enjoying immunity under draconian laws,” Yasin Malik, who visited Ruby’s family in Batamarun, said while addressing a gathering.
As the Centre’s Kashmir interlocutor Dineshwar Sharma is set to arrive in the Valley next week for the third time, these fresh killings could overshadow the initiative by the Centre to hold a “sustained dialogue” with “all stakeholders” in Kashmir.
“They continue to kill our people but at the same time want us to be part of the dialogue process. This is mockery in the name of dialogue,” said independent legislator engineer Rashid.