Narwa, Pulwama: At around 9:45 pm on Sunday, residents in several adjacent villages of Kakapora in Pulwama district of South Kashmir, heard a volley of gunshots. “It looks like there was a brief gunfight. We heard gunshots very loud and clear. It felt like the nearby camp was under attack,” said Rida (name changed), a resident of Kakapora. “I live only 500 meters away from the camp, so it looks like an attack.”
After ten minutes, there was another brief spell of gunfire. This time a little ahead of Kakapora – over two kilometres away from the camp, in village Dogam. Later Rida confirmed it, saying, “After the first gunfire, there was rapid movement of convoy vehicles on the main road, followed by a second set of gunfire that lasted a few minutes.”
At least 4 kilometres far from there, at the Ganie family’s home in Narwa village, Gulzar Ahmad Ganie along with his aged parents and siblings sat worried and hapless, waiting for his brothers Bilal (24) and Mehraj (20) to return home.
The family had sat together for Iftaar to break the 11th fasting day of Ramzan. At around 8:45 pm, the two decided to go out to run some errands on the family-owned poultry farm only a few kilometres away.
At 12 am, the defence spokesperson Colonel Rajesh Kalia issued a brief statement, saying that in an attack on the army camp, one trooper has been killed. “In a cowardly and provocative act of terror, terrorists carried out a stand-off attack on Kakapora Army Camp. One soldier martyred. Retaliatory actions ongoing,” he said. A civilian was also reported to be injured.
Several phone calls and some pictures doing rounds on social media informed the Ganie family that Bilal, a cab driver for last nine-years, was shot dead during the gunfire. It was reported that he came under crossfire.
Speaking to The Kashmir Walla, Superintendent of Police (Pulwama), Mohammad Aslam Choudhary, said that “the incident happened in a way that when militants fired at us, according to the army version, they chased them in a Casper [truck] for a bit, the vehicle they were chasing was a sumo. The army received fire from the Sumo and one soldier got injured in the abdomen, who subsequently succumbed to it.”
The entire night people were swarming into the dusty compound of the house, overlooking the large fields and a family vegetable garden. “He was a driver, not a Mujahid [militant]. Why would they shoot him? Is this what their ceasefire means?” questioned a mourner in the compound.
At least an hour and a half after the gunfire, family members of Bilal, including neighbours and relatives, travelled to the Pulwama District Hospital to get his body. Bilal’s older brother, Gulzar, told The Kashmir Walla that it was around 11:30 pm when they received Bilal’s body from the hospital. But they couldn’t find Mehraj.
“We told the police we won’t leave until we can take Mehraj also. By 1:30 am a posse of police and STF [Special Task Force] personnel arrived at the hospital and shot tear gas shells leading to chaos. They took away Bilal’s body from the ambulance,” he explained.
Gulzar further added that they waited till 4:15 am and by 5 am went to the [District] Police Lines Pulwama. “Police officials told us they didn’t know anything about Mehraj. But I received a call from his number, where someone asked me to speak to him. He told me, ‘I’m Mehraj and will be home in 5-10 minutes’ in a broken voice.”
At home, women were wailing on the balcony, while men were standing in the compound waiting for the two brothers. “You left early, oh! my brother, even before your parents would leave for the Hajj,” a woman wailed, standing on the balcony of a two-storey under-constructed house.
Suddenly, as recalled by the family, cries of a young man could be heard from a distance. Everyone turned towards the gate and saw a young man in pheran struggling to run towards the house. As he reached near, he collapsed.
It was Mehraj, weak and pale. He couldn’t talk, stand properly or keep his eyes open.
“Mehraj entered the house and asked where Bilal was? He didn’t know about his death by that time. He still didn’t recognize it. He is in shock. He is traumatized and won’t recover now,” said Amir, Mehraj’s cousin brother, while keeping Mehraj’s feet warm by rubbing his hands over them. Over the next few hours, Amir was continuously checking Mehraj’s pulse too.
At the police lines, Gulzar and others were finally given Bilal’s body at around 6:30 am.
Gulzar also asks how did only one person die if there were militants in his brother’s vehicle. “It was clear that the army vehicles had crushed their Sumo [cab] from both sides on the street. They were going to our poultry farm – for which they don’t even need to take the route that passes through the camp. They were coming home.”
Police officials confirmed that Bilal’s cab was damaged in the gunfire. Choudhary, the Superintendent of Police, added that “whether the vehicle was carrying the militants or not is a matter of verification. The driver got injured in the same firing. And army says [that] the militants ran away from this Sumo in a village Dogam… Driver’s killing was a result of a retaliatory fire… The family is in trauma. They have just completed the burial, we haven’t talked to them yet on this matter.”
When Bilal’s body arrived at his house, Mehraj almost jumped out of a window to see the last glimpse of his brother but his relatives stopped him.
As the body was brought into the compound, women’s wailing intensified, “Your sisters are waiting. Where are you? We are waiting… We salute to your heroism, Oh! martyr!”
Bilal was about to get married after the coming Eid. Everything was planned, the date of wedding had also been decided, said Amir. “They loved each other. Bilal would always be talking to her [fiancée] over the phone, wearing earphones day and night. Last night, when he was martyred, he must have been wearing the earphones – talking to her.”
– With additional reporting by Yashraj Sharma