Among 130 civilians killed last year in Kashmir, three schoolboys had left homes as a matter of routine, only to return dead, to their inconsolable families.
By Suhail A Shah
After two days of festivity, at a client’s household in Imam Sahib area of Shopian district, 35-year-old Parvez Abdullah Kumar – a Waza (chef) by profession – was loading his tools and belongings back into his vehicle when his phone rang.
“Umar has been injured at Darazpora,” the voice of a friend, at the other end, informed.
Despite being busy cooking at a client’s house, Kumar knew that intense clashes had taken place in the area following a Cordon and Search Operation (CASO) in Turkwanagam village, a kilometer away from Darazpora.
Umar Abdullah Kumar (14), was Kumar’s younger brother.
“Shortly after that call, I don’t know how and why but I had intuitions that Umar was going to die soon,” Kumar said, taking the last drag of his cigarette, at his modest home in Pinjoora village of Shopian.
And, Umar did die.
Killed in crossfire
Since January 2018, Umar is one among over 100 civilians who have fallen to the bullets of government forces near gunfight sites in Kashmir. Most of the fatalities have taken place in the south Kashmir region, comprising of four districts Shopian, Pulwama, Anantnag and Kulgam.
By conservative estimates, at least half a dozen of these civilians have been minors, sixteen years of age or less.
The police have all along maintained the standard, “killed in crossfire,” response to such incidents. However, the locals have always contested the customary state response over the civilian killings in Kashmir.
Amid the din of the claims and counter claims, the families of these civilians have been left devastated, often deprived of their only source of income or the only source of hope in the families.
“We are a family of Wazas, struggling to meet ends. The only bright spot in the family was Umar. The bright spot is no more, it’s a dark wound now,” Kumar said.
Umar wanted to be a doctor and his nine other siblings, four brothers and five sisters, were supporting him in every possible manner they could.
“All of us dropped out of school. But in Umar we saw our dreams rekindled. Our father died with the dream of wanting Umar to serve the people by becoming a doctor,” Muhammad Ashraf, Umar’s elder brothers says, repeating every line multiple times – perhaps in an attempt to make the listener fathom the grief.
“And they called him a terrorist,” Ashraf said. “Can you imagine that? A terrorist? Really?” he kept repeating.
Apple of many eyes
On that fateful day, Kumar had not stopped for even a second after that phone call. He left many of his belongings back, ran the engine of his vehicle and drove like a mad man.
Midway, between Imam Sahib and Darazpora, at Rampora he spotted his younger brother being carried in a private car, legs dangling out of the window.
He signaled, the car stopped, “and what happened after that will keep wrenching my heart. I am going to carry the wound to my grave,” he recounted.
As the cars stopped and Kumar disembarked, Umar, who had not spoken a word after getting shot at, saw his brother coming towards him, opened his almost lifeless eyes, raised his hand, called out his Bhayya and died.
“He had bullet wounds to his heart, neck and abdomen,” Kumar said, tears rolling down his cheeks and disappearing into his long beard.
Kumar knew his brother was dead but he still carried him to the hospital, hoping against hopes. The doctors at the hospital confirmed what Kumar knew all along.
It was later at Umar’s funeral that his elder sister ran out and shrouded his lifeless body with his school shirt. The visuals broke a million hearts, as the video of the act went viral over the virtual space.
Umar was a class 9 student at the local Unique Education Institute, when he was killed.
A brilliant student, a humble soul, always respectful and deeply religious Umar was apple of many eyes in his family and the neighborhood.
But what was a boy, otherwise shy and timid, doing near the site where some of the most wanted militants were trapped and the government forces, in all their might, were trying to trace out the militants?
“We heard from his friends later. Word was that some top militant had been killed and Umar, along with some eight other friends, had gone to attend the funeral,” Kumar said.
Umar was playing cricket with his friends in the neighborhood when the loudspeakers of a local mosque came to life, announcing that some top Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militants had been killed in Turkwangam.
The news was not true. The militants had managed to escape but believing what the kids heard, they boarded a Sumo vehicle and reached Darazpora.
“Soon as they came out of the vehicle near Darazpora, the friends accompanying him told me, the forces opened fire, pumping three bullets into Umar’s fragile body,” Kumar said. Several others were injured as well in the firing.
The family calls it a cold blooded murder and rubbishes the claims of “crossfire” by the police.
Umar was not a part of any stone-throwing youth. He was a Kilometer away from the site of the gunfight, if at all there was one going on, the family maintains.
It was May 2, 2018, when Umar was killed. The family is yet to come to the terms. They however seem to know (or believe) whatever they have been told about the circumstances leading to his killing.
There are other families, though, who are still searching for the answers, still wondering what went wrong, like Dr Abdul Gani Poswal.
On June 29, 2018, it was raining in Pulwama when Poswal tried to wake up his 16 year-old son, Faizan Ahmad Poswal, for school.
“It’s a Friday Papa and it’s raining,” Faizan told Poswal, pleading him to let him skip the half day of his school, the Muslim Educational Institute (MEI), in Pampore area of district Pulwama.
A resident of Laddow village near Pampore, Poswal, along with his family had been living at the doctor’s accommodation inside the premises of Pulwama district hospital for eighteen years now.
It was there at this hospital Faizan was born two years after his elder brother, Usman.
“He was a well behaved, religious boy,” Poswal said, “and I rewarded him by listening to him and agreeing to him on most of the things.”
That, precisely, was the reason Poswal allowed his son to stay back home and skip school for the day. Before leaving for office that day, he advised his wife, Shaheena, to give her son breakfast, when he wakes up.
Faizan never had that breakfast, though. He told his mother he will have lunch when he gets back home after Friday prayers. He did return home, but dead.
Poswal worked at the radiology section of the hospital, where he was entrusted with carrying out Ultra Sound Sonography procedures.
The first half of the day was usual but as the day progressed, a gunfight between militants and government forces was triggered in Thumna, Chatpora, some two Kilometers from the main town Pulwama.
“I offered Friday prayers and soon after I got to know about the gunfight, I tried to call Faizan multiple times, wanted to tell him to stay home but he did not answer,” Poswal said.
However as injured from the gunfight site kept pouring in, keeping Poswal busy, he did not make further calls to his son.
As Poswal worked, announcements were made on local mosque loudspeakers urging people to reach the site of the gunfight and help the militants escape.
Poswal and Shaheena had no clue that Faizan too heeded to the announcements and marched, along with hundreds of other people, towards the site of the gunfight.
“He felt very deeply about whatever is going on in Kashmir. He used to speak about the atrocities committed here at length. It had a deep impact on him. That was perhaps the reason that he marched to the site that day,” a friend of his said, wishing to remain anonymous.
The family on the other hand had no inkling. They believed Faizan did not take any part in protests after he was rebuked for the same in 2017.
“A police officer, who is an acquaintance, told me that Faizan had pelted stones on forces in early 2017. I had discussed it with him and I thought he understood,” Poswal said.
Meanwhile, as the fateful day progressed, Poswal called it a day at 4 PM and returned home, clueless what was about to befall him.
Three militants were killed during the gunfight. The government forces had also opened fire (bullets and pellets) at the site of the gunfight leaving at least eight civilians injured. Faizan was shot as well, in the chest.
At about 5 PM, Poswal received a call from his Medical Superintendent (MS), Dr Abdul Rashid Parra, asking him to visit the hospital for some work.
“What work?” the confused Poswal had reacted, before reluctantly stepping out to attend the untimely ‘work’ call.
But when he reached the hospital, from a distance he saw somebody lying over a bed with all his colleagues standing around, their heads bowed in torment.
As Poswal approached the bed and as the reality started to dawn over him, his vision started to blur, his legs weakened and his mind was in a swirl.
“What I saw lying there was the corpse of my beloved son. The son I had days earlier decided to send to Aligarh for studies after he completed his tenth this year,” Poswal said, his voice trembling.
Poswal collapsed there, his colleagues trying everything, in their power, to console him.
Back home Shaheena still awaited her son to come and have the promised lunch. Instead, she received a phone call from her husband.
Shrieks and wails was all she could hear at the other end and then the world went black for her. It still is.
Later in the evening a funeral was held for Faizan in the premises of the same hospital, he was born at.
He was born on April 29, 2002 at the hospital and on June 29, 2018 he laid dead, thousands mourning around.
The family has still no clues about what happened that day.
How did Faizan reach the site of the gunfight site when he was supposed to have lunch at home, how was he shot, who took him to the hospital? The questions are too many and answers, only a few.
“Yes, he did talk about the atrocities here, often but I never knew he would go to gunfight site. I am baffled,” Poswal said.
The broken father regrets not allowing his son to observe the “Aiteqaaf”, during Ramadhan last year. Deeply religious Faizan had sought his father’s permission to observe the Aitiqaaf, the 10 day stay in the Masjid.
“I promised him that he will do so the next Ramadhan…,” Poswal breaks down, leaving the sentence incomplete.
Faizan, shot in the chest and writhing in pain, had told someone to make sure his shoes are given to his mother. They were given and the family keeps the shoes, blood soaked, as a last memory.
An Unexpected Visitor
But there are parents who have no such memory to keep and no answers to their questions like Poswal. Only a few scattered pictures, here and there, of their sons and their corpses.
Like the parents of 15 year-old Tamsheel Ahmad Khan, a class 9 student.
On July 10, 2018, Tamsheel left his home in Vehil village of Shopian district to attend an examination in main town Shopian.
It was routine at the Khan household, Tamsheel leaving for school early morning. The other members – his parents and his siblings – got busy with the daily routine.
He had left his home at 10:00 AM and only four hours later people carried his body through the narrow by-lanes of Vehil village and right into the courtyard of Khursheed Ahmad Khan’s house.
“We had no clue till then. Only, my father had heard that he has been shot and while my father hurried outside the people carried the body in,” said Uzma, Tamsheel’s elder sister.
Khursheed was not home when this reporter visited the house. Uzma and her brother Nasir Khan were visibly uncomfortable, to the level of being scared of the unexpected visitor, this reporter was.
“Nobody has ever visited us and our parents are not home too,” said Nasir.
Reluctantly, the siblings gave an account of whatever had happened.
“We don’t know much. Only that he was a studious boy and had gone to appear in his exams,” Uzma said. “We don’t know what happened that day. He was killed and that is what matters.”
The siblings say they have not asked any questions to anyone.
A local reporter however gave a different account.
“I met their father that day,” the reporter said, on condition of anonymity. “Khursheed had asked his son to accompany him to their orchard but he had refused and said that an encounter was going on in Kundalan.”
He had argued with his father on the idea of spraying pesticides in their orchard on a day when some militants were fighting government forces, only 3 Kilometers from their home.
“He had not gone to school that day,” said the reporter.
But the actual circumstances of how Tamsheel reached the site of the encounter remain unclear.
Eyewitnesses at the site of the gunfight, the local reporter included, say that Tamsheel was shot at some 600 meters from the site of the gunfight – a place where only sloganeering was going on.
Many youth were standing a little distance from the outer cordon when government forces fired live ammunition- bullets and pellets.
“As the forces trained their guns, I watched him taking shelter behind a tin wall, probably thinking it will save him from bullets. It did not,” an eyewitness said.
Tamsheel died on the way to the hospital.
Like Umar and Faizan, Tamsheel also was very religious. His siblings describe him as a humble soul, religious with a deep inclination towards excelling at his studies.
“He wanted to go to a bigger, better school. It was not to be,” Uzma said, adding that the killing of Tamsheel has left her mother devastated.
The siblings were reluctant to even share a picture of Tamsheel.
On the way back, however, the reporter did manage to find Tamsheel’s grave. Apart from a bunch of dried tree branches, a little Pakistani flag adorned his grave.
This story first appeared in the September 2018 Print Issue of THE INDUS POST.