Firdousa Bano woke up early on the morning of Eid 2020 to prepare breakfast for her 7- year-old son, Atif, and 10-year-old daughter, Mehvish. But the table was empty; no fancy bread was fetched; clothes were old; and no toys were brought.
It was the seventh month of her husband’s imprisonment, Riyaz Ahmad Bhat, 35, who was detained on 27 October 2019, two months after the abrogation of the limited-autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir in August. He was accused of feeding militants.
Married for twelve years, the loneliness at her home was “traumatising” as she longed for her husband in pain. “I would go to the next room and lock it and cry my heart out,” Bano said. “Then come out and do my daily chores.”
While nothing came easy for Bano, she went on to fight the societal stigma as she raised her children and the state’s machineries to secure Bhat’s release.
A frantic knock at their residence in Karimabad, in south Kashmir’s Pulwama, at 11 pm woke up the Bhat family in October winter of 2019. Two local boys came inside their house, calling Bhat out.
Half asleep, he told his wife to sit back and not to worry. He walked out of the brown coloured iron-gate to see a group of nearly fifty government forces’ personnel.
“I saw him leaving that door,” Bano recalled. “He didn’t come back for the next two years.”
Bhat was accused of feeding two militants some time ago — a charge he denied. He was whisked away into the darkness as his family awaited the last goodbye.
Back in the dark cemented room, the children woke up. When he didn’t return in half an hour, Firdousa took her daughter and went out in the night and wandered around her locality trying to look for the government forces, but in vain.
It was the longest night for Bano. “I just wanted it to end as soon as possible,” she said.
Few days later, she went to the Pulwama police station. When the police were taking him inside the vehicle, to Central Jail, Srinagar, Bano said her daughter tore apart her clothes. “Everyone was crying,” Bano recalled.
Bhat was booked under the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA), a presumptive detention law that allows the police to detain a person without trial for two years.
Six months later, he was shifted to Kot Bhalwal Jail, in Jammu. And then the meetings stopped too. It was after the abrogation of Article 370 that the authorities shifted many detainees in various jails across the country.
Back at home, life was only harder the next day. There were times when her relatives would get her basic food items that would last for a few days. “These two years felt like fifty years to me,” she said.
Bano can’t recall a particularly difficult day; “Every day, night and every moment were difficult for us,” Bano said.
Financially weak condition of Bano’s parents left her out of options. The Auqaf committee of the village filled in for Bano to help her meet basic necessities. They would collect the money and it would run her family.
“If my husband would have been here, I would have spent as much as I wanted, but I had to take care of everything.”
With each passing day, the three- roomed house that the couple had constructed themselves brick by brick, grew quieter.
Simultaneously, she had to keep in mind that Bhat’s absence won’t impact the children’s upbringing. But every night was a nightmare, Bano said.
What if she won’t be able to feed her children … continuously haunted her.
“I cried silently on sleepless nights,” she recalled. “The night would bring back terrible memories.” When her son asked for a toy that his friend had, Bano couldn’t help but break down. “I promised that I’ll get it for him,” she said, “but he never asked again.”
On hard days, she struggles with the constant queries of children about their father’s return — if ever. “He [Bano’s son] would ask me to take him to his father or leave his father’s house.”
But, Bano said, it has to be her fate. “At times it was so unbearable that I would think of drinking poison, but then I would look at my children.”
The court had quashed his PSA order on 18 May 2021. He spent nineteen more days in Pulwama Police station before he was released on 8 June 2021.
It was a surreal moment for the Bhat family. Sitting in a corner of the room, clad in brown kurta pyjamas, Bhat was listening patiently to his wife and her struggle. He couldn’t hold back his tears.
Upon returning, Bhat, for once, couldn’t recognise his locality … his home. “It felt like everything had changed. I couldn’t recognise my village,” he recalled. “It was an emotional feeling.”
Back at the jail, Bhat, a Pashmina weaver, his schedule changed completely as he sat idle for hours.
An introvert and a shy person, Bhat didn’t get along with inmates either. Inside the jail premises, the inmates would play some sports, but he wouldn’t go out. He said he kept waiting for the day when he could see his children and wife.
On seeing her father, Bano said their daughter couldn’t recognise him. He had put on some weight. But later, she was so elated that she couldn’t figure out if she should cry or laugh. “I couldn’t believe my eyes that my husband finally came back home.”
The couple, however, is yet to talk about the time they spent apart. “Neither he asked me about how difficult it was to run the house nor I asked him about the jail,” Bano said.
In jail, Bhat woke up every morning and he said he could feel his cell burning. And to Bano, she said her house was already burnt and there was nothing left but her wails in vain. The trauma lingers on; and for what, the family wonders.