Nine years ago, on 29 May 2009, two young women, Asiya (17) and her sister-in-law Neelofar (22), married to Shakeel Ahmad Ahanger, went missing in the evening while returning home from their family orchard in Nagbal area of South Kashmir’s Shopian. On the following morning, they were found dead near the Rambiara Nala by a team of cops along with Shakeel; leaving behind his barely 2-year-old son, Suzain.
After the initial investigation, on the direction of Omar Abdullah led government, Justice Jan Commission was formed to deliver the justice. The report by the commission concluded that the two women have been raped and murdered by ‘men in uniform’. Later on, a number of Indian investigative agencies came into the scene only to spoil the broth.
“It’s been 9 years, and every wound is still burning. We are still suffering the same what we were suffering then,” says Ahanger, sitting in an under-lit room, displaying the timeline of his life through magazine covers since May 2009. As the tired Ahanger narrated, the long struggle for justice has always been a walk on spikes for his family.
Ahanger didn’t fumble for a second while narrating his experience with the tragedy, seemed like he had been telling the same story for last nine years. “I cooperated with everyone who ever walked through my gate; hoping that he might help me to get the justice,” says Ahanger.
He believes that due to harassment, by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and all other institutions involved at various stages of the investigation, his family has suffered like no one else did in the world. Collecting his breath, he says, “Whenever they [investigating agencies] feel that someone is helping my family, they form a case and book them under sections.”
While talking to Ahanger, who is in his 30s, he recalled an incident after 4-5 months of the case when he was going to his furniture shop in the Shopian town, along with his two-year-old son, Suzain, and a police convoy came and asked him to step out of his car. As he resisted, the police officials started abusing him, badly. “Why would anyone listen to abuses? But they went on to drag me on the road, in front of my toddler,” says Ahanger.
The home with two-storeys on the right, a smaller one floor on the left with an empty compound in-between, the rusted gate stood still in hope to welcome justice. “The home hasn’t even changed a bit since then. It is the same. Old and wrecking; so is our life,” with a younger brother, Aqib Ahmad and sister, Rumi Jan, Ahanger’s are only left with one reason to smile, little Suzain. In a family of 4, Shakeel is the only breadwinner.
Like every other issue in the valley, all the political fronts have led down the people of Kashmir in their own way. “When Mehbooba Mufti was in opposition, she used to say, ‘these are like my sisters.’ Apparently, she was protesting more fiercely than we did.” But Mufti has harshly turned her back on the victims of Shopian rape and murder case since she took the office in her hands three years ago.
The National Conference has not helped in any manner either. The then serving Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, as claimed by Ahanger, offered him a huge amount of money and a government job. “But can this money buy my wife and sister’s honour? No, it can’t,” said Ahanger. The memories of various fake promises accelerated and Ahanger went on to say, “They think that they can rape Kashmiris and throw money on their faces to shut them up.”
Ahanger believes that they have walked a long way in their struggle seeking justice, and became the face of resistance against sexual violence by government forces in the valley. “They think that one day, we will get tired. We will stop asking for justice. But, Insha-Allah, whether I live or die, my child will take this struggle forward.”
Standing in his courtyard, Ahanger looked up to the sky, stared and said, “If we would have stayed silent, they would have done the same; if not in Shopian then somewhere else in Kashmir.”
Around 4 in the evening, Suzain, now 11-years-old, returned from the school to his father at home – happy and cheering. Ahanger hid his teary eyes and asked his son about his day. As Suzain went in to change his uniform, Ahanger said, “His upbringing was the toughest part and even now it has not changed much. He was breastfeeding, when they murdered his mother. Tell me, how to tell him about what happened to Neelofar?”
A couple of years back, a media person had come for the family’s interview and she told Suzain about the incident for the first time, his father hadn’t. “Every night, he would sleep with his head pressed to my chest, but that night he turned away and slept with his back facing me. I couldn’t sleep that night. I was worried about how he will ever live through it?”
To negate the loss of the young mother and a teenage aunt, Ahanger has made Suzain live on the materialistic things. “Whenever he tries to find his mother and aunt, we buy him something to escape the pain of facing him,” said Ahanger. As he told us, Suzain focuses a lot on Kashmir’s conflict now. “When forces killed the innocent children of Shopian, he was angry- very angry. He told me, ‘I want to do something.’”
“No parent in the world would want their son to go on the way Suzain is going,” sighed Ahanger.
While speaking to The Kashmir Walla, Mohammad Shafi Khan, vice-president of the former Majlis Mashawarat committee said, “What kind of hope is left with the case? It has already been buried- deep and down.”
The consultative committee was formed by the people of Shopian to lead the protests and campaign for the case. But now unlike earlier when international media and human rights commissions were standing by the family, now they are on their own wailing for justice.
As Suzain came, he took us to his room; full of paintings and board games. “All the children play here on Friday, Sunday, and on Hartals,” said Suzain. The wall had a canvas full of small handprints of children. “This one is of Suzain, isn’t it perfect?” Ahanger pointed out. The printed hand didn’t have the palm lines.
Ahanger believes that Suzain is the worst affected by the tragedy. “I want to become a heart surgeon. There are not many in the world, right?” asked Suzain.
Though Suzain has asked his father a lot of times to not worry about him, he does miss his mother. One such incident was during Iftaar in days of Ramzan when Suzain bought two tiffins saying, “This is for me and the other one is for Mamma.” The cold graves of two women who never returned home are barely 100 metres from their house.
“Suzain never goes to his mother’s graveyard. He knows exactly where it is, but he never goes there,” said Ahanger.
As today, in 2018, the family is in Srinagar to protest on the ninth death anniversary of their loss and to ask the valley, “Do You Remember Asiya and Neelofar?”
Photograph by Vikar Syed