Tral (Jammu and Kashmir): All that Hajra Begum knows is that her husband and son had suffered injuries in a ‘fidayeen’, or suicide, attack by militants at the Army camp in Sunjuwan, Jammu, and are recuperating at a hospital. Every relative visiting the Sheikh family is strictly instructed not to talk about the death of father-son duo with family members.
But outside their two-storey house in the Reshipora village of south Kashmir’s Tral town, a group of youths, amidst heavy snowfall, is busy finalising preparations for the burial of Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh and his son Mohammad Iqbal, who served as a lance naik in the army. The bodies are yet to reach home from Jammu.
“Even their three daughters haven’t been told about the tragedy,” Begum’s cousin, Abdul Hamid Wani, told The Wire, as he asked a group of journalists not to enter the house lest the family should grow suspicious.
Iqbal and his father were among the six persons killed in the weekend in of the deadliest attacks by heavily armed militants who stormed the Army base in Jammu. Of the five Army men killed, four were from Kashmir.
Sheikh had gone to Jammu only last week to stay with his son for some days, said a villager, Tanveer Ahmad. “There can be no bigger tragedy than this…the family has been devastated.”
The heavy snowfall since Monday morning thwarted attempts to airlift the bodies to Kashmir and, according to Wani, the authorities will make a fresh attempt on Tuesday.
Married for two years, 30-year old Iqbal had joined the army in 2006 and was living with his family, including wife and one-year-old son, inside the camp. Both his wife and son are safe.
Iqbal had last visited home in November after being shifted from Chandigarh to Jammu, recalled Wani, visibly holding back tears as he sat with some youths at Sheikh’s neighbour’s house.
One among them took out his mobile phone and showed a photo of Iqbal. “See how young he is. Is this an age to die?” he asked.
Tral, the native town of the slain militant commander, Burhan Wani, has emerged as the epicentre of new age militancy in Kashmir. More than 20 militants, including some top commanders from the town and its adjoining villages, have been killed by the security forces since the 2016 summer uprising. Less well known is the fact that local men also join the police and army, where they end up being pitted against these new age militants.
The Sheikh family lives less than a kilometre away from the house of Fardeen Ahmad Khanday, who was part of the ‘fidayeen’ squad of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, which launched a pre-dawn attack on CRPF’s Lethpora camp in Pulwama on December 31. Khanday was killed in the attack. The house of another slain militant, Auqib Ahmad Bhat’s alias Auqib Moulvi, is in the adjoining village.
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For villagers, the fact that there are some families in Tral whose sons are in the armed forces reinforces the tragic nature of the conflict. “For them, it is a job and a means of secure livelihood for the families. None of these families have ever faced social discrimination or any other problems,” said an elderly man who identified himself as Subhan.
But, he added: “The conflict seems to claim only Kashmiri blood. Be it militants, policemen, those working with army, or civilians, only Kashmiris are getting killed. The people of Kashmir are paying the ultimate price in this war between India and Pakistan.”
Two others killed in the attack belonged to north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. One of them was Havaladar Habibullah Qurashi from Batpora village. “Only his father knows about the death,” his uncle Aziziullah told The Wire on the phone.
Forty-year old Qurashi, who had joined the army in 1996, is survived by his wife and six daughters – the eldest one is 15 years old while the youngest one is three years old. “His wife is expecting another child and has been advised rest by the doctors. She is at her parent’s home and hasn’t been told anything,” said Azizullah.
While Qurashi’s father Amanuallah is a retired army man, at least 12 of his close relatives are serving in the army. “We first came to know through the media that the camp has been attacked. He (Qurashi) had talked to some family members and relatives on phone …but we never thought we will be struck by this huge tragedy. His death is a huge loss to the family and his young daughters,” said Azizullah.
At Maidanpora village, almost 30 km from Batpora, Ghulam Mohi-ud-Din Mir, father of junior commissioned officer Muhammad Ashraf, who was among those killed, made a passionate appeal to the governments of India and Pakistan to end the bloodshed in Kashmir.
“The Valley has been witnessing killings for the past many decades. Why can’t India and Pakistan sit together and resolve Kashmir to stop this bloodshed once for al? Innocent people are getting killed every day,” Mir says, in a video clip circulated on social media.
Ashraf had joined the army around 18 years ago and had last visited his family in early 2017. He is survived by his wife and three children. His brother is also in the army. “These killings won’t end till the Kashmir problem is resolved. Today it is my son, tomorrow it will be somebody else’s,” Mir says, his eyes welling up with tears.
Mudasir Ahmad is a Srinagar-based reporter.