Unexploded Shells Near Encounter Sites Are Claiming Young Lives in Kashmir

Encounter sites which are not cleared and scanned properly post the incidents are proving to be death traps for locals, especially children.

Darmdoor, Shopian: Musharaf Fayaz Najar, a Class 6 student from Darmdoor village in south Kashmir’s Shopian district, would have turned ten next month, on March 10.

A day after the encounter on January 25 in Shopian’s Chaigund village, in which two local militants and a teenaged civilian were killed, Musharaf picked up a shell from the debris of the house which was destroyed. He took it home and started playing with it, and the shell exploded in his hands, severely injuring his head and arms. He was rushed to a hospital in Pulwama and later referred to the Valley’s tertiary care hospital SKIMS, where he was put out on a ventilator for eight days in the intensive care unit. On February 1, at around 12:55 am, Musharaf lost the battle for life.

“His left hand was severely injured by the impact of the shell and both his eyes and face were badly damaged,” Musharaf’s uncle, Muhammad Altaf Najar, said at their home in Darmdoor, pointing to the open lawn outside the home where the shell exploded.

At his home, his parents are inconsolable, unable to talk about the tragedy, still trying to come to terms with their loss. Musharaf’s younger sister, who was playing with him and somehow survived without injuries, had taken a cap from her brother that day. She’s still not willing to part with it, said Altaf, and she wants to know when her brother will return home so that she can give the cap back.

“He was in the ICU on a ventilator for eight days,” said Altaf, going through some recent photos of his nephew on his mobile phone. In one, he is seen holding his younger cousin on his lap. Another photo shows him in his school uniform among his classmates. In another, more recent photo, he is seen posing with another kid.

Ten-year-old Musharaf was known in his village for being a good orator and an excellent student. Since his death, his family says, no one from the government has visited. There was only one phone call, asking the family to approach the district collectors’ office with his death certificate so as to initiate the release of compensation.

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“We don’t want any relief now. We lost our young boy and they can never bring him back,” said Altaf. “I can even go to their office and tell them we don’t want any money, but we want those responsible for his death brought to the book.”

The family also has some unanswered questions. “If there were shells near the encounter site, why didn’t the army and the police check the encounter site properly, knowing that people are going to visit the spot next day?” asked Altaf. “Why did they leave the rubble unchecked like that and not scan it properly? Had they done that, perhaps our boy would have been alive today.”

Musharaf is buried in a small graveyard on an elevated ground just across the hilly road leading to their house. “He was born on Thursday, injured on a Thursday and he died on a Thursday,” his uncle said as he lifted his hands to offer prayers near Musharaf’s small, freshly-dug grave, which is yet to get a gravestone. “I don’t know how to live without him around.”

Not isolated incidents

Soon after the Shopian encounter in which a local youth lost his life after forces opened fire near the encounter site on January 24, chief minister Mehbooba Mufti urged the youth to “stay away from the encounter sites between security forces and militants”.

Musharaf's grave. Credit: Majid Maqbool

Musharaf’s grave. Credit: Majid Maqbool

Additional director inspector general of police, Munir Khan, now appointed as ADGP security and home guards, told Greater Kashmir that the gunfight sites are regularly cleared by forces. “But when people march towards gunfight sites and attack our forces, the forces in order to avoid civilian casualties leave quickly, therefore the sites are not completely cleared,” he said, adding that “police have repeatedly issued advisory for locals especially parents that they should avoid sending their children to gunfight sites.”

Deaths and injuries caused by unexploded shells near encounter sites, which are not sanitised and cleared in time, have happened before.

In August last year, an explosive left behind at an encounter site in Bamnloo village, Pulwama district, exploded, injuring 17-year-old Danish Ahmad Khanday. In the same month, a labourer was injured after an shell went off inside the Jammu and Kashmir Entrepreneurship Development Institute complex. The shell was reportedly lying on the premises since an October 2016 encounter.

Before that incident, in July 2017, two youth, aged 20 and 22, were critically injured in the Keller area of south Kashmir when an unexploded shell went off as people were clearing the debris of a house which was razed to ground during an encounter in which three Hizbul Mujahideen militants were killed.

Earlier, in August 2015, two brothers, Bilal Ahmed Reshi and Shakir Ahmad Reshi, aged 10 and 12, were killed after an unexploded shell went off at a hillock near Sainik School Mansbal in Ganderbal district. Along with a friend, they were fiddling with a littered shell in Baba Salin village near Sainik School Mansbal in Ganderbal district when it went off, causing severe injuries to the two brothers.

Similarly, in September 2015, 11-year-old student Junaid Ahmad Dar was killed and his mother was injured when the boy fiddled with a live shell in Ladoora village of Handwara. The 11-year-old had picked an explosive device from close to an encounter site in which a local militant associated with the Lashkar-e-Islam and an army man were killed. Junaid had taken the shell home and played with it on his roof, where it went off, causing grievous injuries to the boy. He later succumbed to the injuries in hospital.

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“The government forces, instead of clearing the encounter sites of shells and live grenades, always pose before mobile cameras along with the slain militants. We directly hold the army responsible for the death of this minor boy,” people protesting against the death of the boy told a local daily.

In the summer of 2011, 17-year-old Adil Yusuf and nine-year-old Obaid Yusuf died when a grenade exploded near an encounter site in Rathsuna village of south Kashmir’s Tral area. The duo, as per locals, had picked up “a round shaped object” near Mominabad, Rathusna, where two militants belonging to the Hizbul Mujahideen were killed in a gunfight with forces. Local residents had also accused the police and army of not clearing the site after the gunfight.

Earlier that year, in February 2011, four-year-old Muskaan lost her life in the Maloora area of Srinagar, when an explosive device went off at her residence. Her siblings, Noor Mohammad and sister Bisma, nine, also died in the same explosion.

Majid Maqbool is a journalist and editor based in Srinagar, Kashmir.