A day after government forces killed five militants in his village, smoke still rose from Mohammad Shafi Reshi’s house as he stood over the debris and looked at the sky. The 35-year-old tailor worked from his home in the Reban village of south Kashmir’s Shopian district, sixty kilometres from Srinagar.
On 7 June, the day of the gunfight, Mr. Reshi was in the kitchen with his family when two men entered the house. “They [government forces] entered our house and searched the house. After finding nothing, my family was brought out but I along with three neighbours were kept inside,” he said.
The government forces did not allow Mr. Reshi to leave. Two hours later, the forces had taken position inside his house and in the vicinity as they had tracked down the militants. “They opened fire when we were there,” said Mr. Reshi as he pointed to a nearby house. “For several hours, the gunfire continued until that house was on fire. When it caught fire, our house did too.”
As soon as Mr. Reshi’s house had caught fire, he said that the government forces moved out. “When they [government forces] felt it was on fire, we along with them came out of the window,” he said, adding that moments later, “cylinders also exploded here.”
Mr. Reshi’s house and a motorbike parked outside it were burnt in the day-long gunfight. “I had customers’ clothes worth 20,000 rupees. My three sewing machines and another machine,” said Mr. Reshi, adding that he hadn’t stepped into the house until this reporter arrived. “All of it is burnt.”
The Shopian district witnessed two gunfights in the Reban and Pinjoora villages in which nine militants were killed by the government forces and a total of four houses – two in Reban and two in Pinjoora – were burnt with nothing left to be salvaged.
“Used as human shields”
In Reban, four local residents – including Mr. Reshi – alleged that the government forces had detained them in the house as they engaged with the militants. “We were kept there to check the locations of the militants,” said Mr. Reshi, whose cousin, Asif Manzoor Reshi, too, was forced to search another house for hiding militants.
Like Mr. Reshi, twenty-year-old Asif was also at home when the government forces had directed him to come out. “I was told to search a house [his own old house],” said Mr. Asif. “First we went in one house and then another one but the Army didn’t come along.”
From a safe distance, Mr. Asif said, the government forces monitored the civilians searching the houses. He said that he had searched two houses, one by one and each room at a time. “We checked the ground floor and went back but they told us to go again as we hadn’t checked upstairs,” he said. “So the two of us went again and the militants were in the room.”
Mr. Asif said that the “forces were watching from another house and as soon as they saw the militants. They started abusing us and asked us to come out. We left and they opened fire”.
According to two local residents who claimed to have witnessed the gunfight, the militants had fled the building. “I was watching it all from my attic,” said one eyewitness. “Five militants came running from one street and they were followed by the forces. Forces asked residents if they saw militants but nobody did. After a while, an officer informed his team that they are near cow-shed.”
Another local resident claimed that “the militants were not killed in the house or stable. Four ran out from the windows and were shot dead just outside. One died in the house upstairs”.
Among the five militants killed was Sajad Ahmad Wagay, who joined the militant ranks recently. Sajad was not carrying any weapon, as per government sources and only two rifles and two pistols were recovered from the site.
However, refuting the accusations, the Senior Superintendent of Police, Shopian, Amritpal Singh, told The Kashmir Walla that all the civilians were evacuated before the gunfight started. “No civilian was sent inside the house to search,” he said. “We had evacuated everyone to other safe houses. We don’t do anything that puts the life of any civilian in danger.”
Destruction of homes
Soon after the gunfight had ended, visitors from several villages surrounding Reban thronged the site of the gunfight and the damaged houses of Mr. Reshi and his cousin Asif. Outside their homes, in the narrow lane, a few men collected donations from passers-by to help in the reconstruction of the two houses.
Mr. Reshi’s parents, wife, three-months-old daughter and six-years-old son are now residing in a neighbour’s house. “I had kept everything valuable in a tin box hoping I would find a way to take it out,” lamented Mr. Reshi. “It had jewellery and some cash. My children’s bank scheme documents were in it too. But after fire I couldn’t take it out as [nothing was left of it].”
His elderly parents had worked their whole life to build the house, Mr. Reshi said, losses can’t be evaluated. “This is my parents’ lifetime earnings. There is nothing even to pick from debris,” he said, standing in the midst of visitors. “If I want to change my son’s clothes, I don’t have anything to wear him. My father and I are wearing clothes given by neighbours. If I want to drink water right now, I don’t even have a glass. We have nothing left.”
At his cousin Asif’s home two cows died, one among them pregnant and a calf too. A third cow was hit by bullets and is being treated by a veterinarian. “It is unlikely she will survive,” said Mr. Asif.
In the gunfights between the militants and the government forces, residential houses are often damaged, burnt or partly destroyed, but in most cases leaving the houses uninhabitable. In the recent Srinagar gunfight on 19 May, as per locals, 19 houses were damaged as dozens of government forces killed two militants in a 14-hour long gunfight.
Another gunfight, two families homeless
The Jammu and Kashmir police chief Dilbagh Singh on Monday said that at least 22 militants, which included six top commanders, were killed in the last two weeks in nine different operations.
“Nine Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) militants were killed in the last two days in Shopian. Four militants were killed in the encounter on Monday. Among them were three top commanders against whom several cases were registered including the killing of innocent civilians, attacks on police and security forces,” he told the reporters.
The gunfight on Monday, 8 June, which Mr. Singh mentioned, was about fifteen kilometers from Reban, in the Pinjoora village of Shopian where two families have been left homeless after an overnight gunfight on Monday. Tariq Ahmad Paul, 28, was at his in-laws house when he received a phone call around 1 am Monday morning.
The caller informed him that the army had installed flood lights towards his house.“I was awake the whole night,” said Mr. Paul, as he walked through his burnt three room house. “I came here at 5 am [on Monday]. When the gunfight was over, I found my house burnt.”
Mr. Paul, a farmer, had constructed two more rooms in the house just two years ago, having saved money over many years prior to that. The house adjacent to his belongs to his uncle Shameem Ahmad. All that remains of the two houses are its bases and the walls. “All our household stuff and books of my daughter were burnt,” said Mr. Paul. “We saw only fire here and nothing was left to save. Even my daughters saw what happened here.”
His two daughters, aged 10 and 4, stood near the entrance of the burnt house. In the narrow corridor, a hair-clip and a pink cap of a drinking water bottle of his older daughter are half buried in the sludge. Mr. Paul said that the militants were not in his house but “the government forces burnt it” anyway.
The militants were killed in his uncle Shameem’s house, whose wife, Fancy Banu, sat under the shade of trees along with over a dozen women on Tuesday afternoon. Two houses are in a small ridge within a dense cover of trees. At Ms. Banu’s house, rooms are burnt, walls have bullet and shell holes. Perforated tin sheets around the house remind the intensity of gunfire.
“All is gone”
Ms. Banu said that the cordon was laid around 12am on Sunday and they were asked to come out of the house. “Militants had come running into our house and immediately they were surrounded,” she said, adding that the family – Banu herself, her husband, son, and daughter – were held by the government forces until 5 am even as they engaged the militants. “We were watching the gunfight but I can’t remember much.”
Her daughter, 20, was about to appear for the national level examination NEET after months of coaching outside Kashmir but has now lost hope as the fire reduced all her books, notes and academic material to ashes. “I had books worth 40,000 rupees and had spent 1,50,000 on my coaching,” she said, without giving her name. “Now all that is gone.”
Ms. Banu’s farmer husband had built this house five years ago. “We don’t have anything left now to even wear. We had recently bought a scooty for our son and that is also burnt. We had a cow, who would give 10 kgs milk daily, in the shed. She was burnt in the shed only,” said Ms. Banu, while staring at the house.
In Pinjoora, as the residents were collecting money for the damaged houses, people in Reban village were gathering in the mosque ground to offer absentia funeral prayers for Saqlain – who had joined the militant ranks in April, 2020 was killed inside Ms. Banu’s house on Monday. The two villages were connected by grief, loss and death.