Tral, (Pulwama): The forces hunted for militants during the night, but they had to retreat without any success. On the morning of December 21, they knocked the door of Jan Mohammad Akhoon in Arampora, a village nestled among the orchards of south Kashmir, and took him along.
Barely 500 meters away from his house, he was asked to climb down a ravine towards a cave-like opening on a vertical slope, which was covered with dead grass and twigs. “There are militants inside the hideout,” Akhoon recalled the forces telling him. “Ask them to surrender.” He followed the diktat.
“We know what we have to do,” a voice from inside the hideout responded, asking the man in his 50s to leave the spot.
In no time, Akhoon, who said he didn’t know that his militant son, Sauliha Muhammad alias Rehan, was among the trapped rebels, was taken away from the scene. While being removed, he saw militants coming out, chanting “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is great).
A brief exchange of fire followed. In the next 15 minutes, the operation was over. All six hiding militants were killed. “That is when I saw Sauliha,” Akhoon told The Wire at his house in Arimpora.
Sauliha was the right-hand man of one of the most-wanted militants, Zakir Musa, head of Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, the al Qaeda cell operating in Kashmir. “I saw Sauliha getting hit by bullets. I saw them (the militants) falling on the ground, one by one,” said a teary-eyed Akhoon.
A deadly blow
This was one of the biggest operations in the one-and-a-half years of Ansar’s existence – one that dealt a body blow to the outfit as all six slain militants were affiliated with it. The operation was the second strike by forces against the Musa-led group in less than a month.
On November 27, another wanted militant and close associate of Musa, Shakir Hassan Dar, was killed in a gunfight with forces in another Tral village. Both Sauliha and Shakir had joined militancy in 2015 and were close associates of slain rebel commander Burhan Wani. When Musa, who was pictured with Burhan in Tral jungles, decided to part ways with Hizb in 2017 after Wani’s killings, the duo followed him.
A senior police officer described the killing of Sauliha as the “biggest catch”. “He was running the outfit on the ground and was the brain behind recruiting youth,” said the officer.
In four operations so far against Ansar, the forces have killed 12 rebels of the outfit which has mostly drawn its cadre from Awantipora police district in south Kashmir. Today, the group-led by Musa is left with only four rebels.
Militarily, the police official said, the outfit hasn’t created any impact, though Musa succeeded in grabbing international headlines for his anti-Pakistan and pan-Islamic stand.
A village of ‘martyrs’
Aged between 23 and 26, four of the six slain militants were from Dadsara – a village in Tral that has so far buried 39 militants in its “martyr’s graveyard”.
All the four rebels lived in the same mohalla. One of them was Rasik Ahmad Mir who secured a job in the Srinagar campus of Maulana Azad National Urdu University soon after completing his graduation in 2016 – when Kashmir was in the midst of a deadly uprising.
That time Mir’s friend Suhail Ahmad Khan was an active militant. “Forces would often detain my brother and harass him to seek the whereabouts of Suhail. On August 23, he left home never to return again,” recalled Shabnum Ahmad, Mir’s elder brother.
Three of Mir’s cousins, including Shakeel Ahmad and Zahid Ahmad, were also militants at different points of time since the 90s when an armed struggle broke out in Kashmir. They too were killed in separate gunfights.
“Burhan was our distant cousin,” a relative of the slain militant said, sitting in the room at Mir’s house. Then he talked proudly about the “bravery” of Mir. “He had breached the outer cordon at the encounter spot before getting killed,” he said.
While Wani was the top commander of Hizb and three of his slain cousins were also associated with the same outfit, Mir had chosen Ansar, the outfit that advocates implementation of Sharia (Islamic rule) in Kashmir. This has brought it into a collision course with Hizb that advocates political resolution of Kashmir.
But slain Mir’s relative tried to play it down. “At the end of the day, they all are fighting one enemy,” he responded to a question.
Across the small stream that divides the mohalla is the house of Mir Abdul Gani, grandfather of Nadeem Muzaffar, another slain militant – 21-year -old Muzaffar who was brought up by his grandparents after his father left him and his younger brother following their mother’s death some 19 years ago.
Muzaffar had been active since April 18. Gani remembered how he had brought up his grandson with difficulties. “Days before leaving home, he (Muzaffar) told me that he had chosen his path and I shouldn’t be worried about his future,” recalled Gani, a retired government employee.
A few lanes ahead are the residences of slain militants Umar Ramzaan and Rouf Ahmad Mir. “They (Umar and Rouf) were buddies,” said Umar’s father Mohammad Ramzaan, a former Hizb militant. “They would eat, sleep and play together.”
In the end, they left home to join militancy together on November 7 and less than two months later, both returned home, dead, their bodies riddled with bullets. Their names had figured in Jalandhar’s Maqsudan police station grenade blast case of September 14.
“My son had never gone beyond Jawahar tunnel (that connects Srinagar with Jammu). How could he have reached Punjab? They falsely implicated him in the case and he was left with no choice but to pick up gun,” said Ramzaan at his modest one-story house.
The Friday gunfight was the third such operation in less than two months where rebels were cornered by forces inside their hideouts in orchards. But unlike the other two hideouts, the one in Arimpora had been meticulously built. Dug deep inside a vertical slope, it had two room-like spaces, almost 7X5X5 feet.
Since Friday late morning, when the operation ended, the spot has been witnessing a continuous rush of people. Two local youth stood at its entrance to regulate the movement inside.
“The militants must have been using it for a long time. Is it possible that Zakir Musa stayed here too?” a youth in his 20s turned towards his friend as they waited anxiously in a queue to go inside.
There is little known about Musa, the civil engineering student-turned militant, except for some reports that the A+++ category militant, who unlike other top rebel commanders has maintained a low profile, was seen in Punjab recently.
In his last audio message in August, Musa had talked about having chosen the path of famous Sufi saint Mir Syed Ali Hamdani from Iran, who is credited with spreading Islam in Kashmir. The message was described by many as a shift in the rebel commander who was seen as a hardcore militant and had talked, in May 2017, about chopping off heads of those standing in the way of implementation of Sharia in Kashmir.
The head-chopping statement had, in turn, evoked a strong reaction from Hizb that had warned of taking “any step in favour of Kashmir struggle”. The rift finally saw Musa parting ways with Hizb, only to become the head of Ansar in July that year.
Many among those visiting the busted hideout knew about the split that had grabbed headlines. One among them was an elderly Muhammad Subhan from Noorpora, Musa’s native village. Subhan’s grandson, Raqib, aged six, had been insisting since Sunday morning to visit the place and see “what a hideout looks like”.
“That (the split) is past now,” he said with a tinge of sadness on his face. But he seemed more concerned about the humanitarian toll the political uncertainty has taken on Kashmir in the past three decades. “This conflict is now pushing our third generation into graves. And all we could is watch our sons get killed,” sighed Subhan, grabbing the hand of his grandson as they left the place.
All images by Mudasir Ahmad.
Mudasir Ahmad is a Srinagar-based reporter.