Raqeeba Bano, 33, standing by the curtain pierced by bullets. Photograph by Quratulain Rehbar for The Kashmir Walla
Not many things have changed in the rotting one-storey home of Raqeeba Bano in Dragad village of Shopian district in south Kashmir in the past year. Sitting beside the deep long cracks on the wall—made by bullets—her eyes sunk, as the light passes through the holes in curtain by the window—tearing apart the memories of one of the bloodiest day in Kashmir’s recent history.
But, how does one make an 11-year-old girl understand the idea of—human shield, militancy, encounter, and killing of a father in between?
On the intervening night of 31 March and 1 April last year, three encounters sparked in different areas of south Kashmir, ended up with killing of 18 people, coming from separate sects of conflict: eleven militants, three army personnel and four civilians named, Zubair Ahmad Bhat and Mehrajuddin from Kulgam, Mohammad Iqbal Bhat from Shopian, and 36-year-old Mushtaq Ahmad Thokar—husband of Ms. Bano, father to twins, 11-year-old son Abdul Hadi, and daughter—Muntaha Mushtaq.
Ms. Bano, 33-year-old, recalls the time when her home echoed with the laughter of father-daughter duo, playing in the courtyard. “When Muntaha would come from school, she would hurriedly open the main gate, and call her father from the courtyard, ‘Come abu-raaj, I am tired. Lift me in your lap and take me inside the house,” and being stubborn, wouldn’t move a foot unless her father, Mr. Thokar would come.
But with time, Muntaha’s health degraded. Knocking every door for help, Ms. Bano got tired with different tests and X-rays, a pile of pills, “but nothing worked,” said Ms. Bano. “Muntaha was not getting better.”
Later, a physician suggested, “Muntaha needs to see a psychiatrist, as her psyche has been deeply affected due to her father’s death, and that’s the only sickness she has.”
Now, when she comes home from school, she greets her family, and reside in her room.
Since the death of her father, the family has spent around half a lakh on Muntaha’s treatment. “My brothers helped me with expenses,” said Ms. Bano in a cracking voice. “I had no other choice.”
The longing of her father, being unclear about the loss, she wakes up in the middle of the night, asking her mother for the things she can’t afford. “Recently, she asked me to buy her three watches. After I got her, she told that she doesn’t want them, and started crying.”
Though, Ms. Bano can weave the thread to her pain. “She has lava of sadness boiling inside her, now I understand, she just wants a reason to cry.”
Umar Farooq, the 26-year-old nephew of Ms. Bano, who also lives with them since Mr. Thokar’s killing, try to mingle with Muntaha understanding swings in her nature. But, as he said, there are times when he finds her isolated in her room—crying, yet pretending to be fine.
Around 2 am, April had just slipped in, heavy knocks on the door poked the family in deep slumber. When Mr. Thokar stood to open the door, seeing a large number of government forces outside in the courtyard, Ms. Bano stopped him.
“Wait I will come with you, we will open the door together,” she had said. As per her, the forces ordered her husband to lead them to the house next door, as ‘they had inputs that the militants were hiding in the house of Rafiq Ahmad, their neighbor.’ Upon hearing this, Ms. Bano resisted saying, “his mother is sick, she will die if you’ll take him along.”
Forces didn’t pay heed, and allegedly took him as a guide, or ‘human shield’, and promised to return within five minutes.
That night was long for Thokar family. Hearing heavy firing throughout the night, the only thing family could do was hope. “For me, it was the doomsday. I was waiting for the night to end, and see my husband,” said Ms. Bano.
Dawn arrived. At 8, she shouted from her window, asking to come outside. She came out, and asked an army officer, “Where is my husband?” The officer replied, “chalo chalo, wo gaadi mai hai.” (Come, he is in the car).
Amid the dense crowd, lying a few meters next to the seven militants killed in the encounter, Mushtaq Ahmad Thokar, as per family, “He was made a human shield and later they (army) said that he got trapped in a cross-firing, but he had received bullets from a close range.”
“I am still waiting for those five minutes to end. That day ruined our family and entire life,” said Ms. Bano, longing for justice.
What to get her on birthday?
Today, on 1 April, the twins of Mr. Thokar—Abdul and Muntaha—were born. Muntaha is seeking peace in Mr. Farooq’s place in Kulgam, away from the idea of her birthday, and Mr. Thokar’s death anniversary.
“On last 31 March, she asked her father, ‘tomorrow is my birthday, get me something,’” said Mr. Farooq. “But on this birthday, she doesn’t want anything.”