Life inside a 40-hour long Cordon and Search Operation in Kashmir

“He’s a kid. He would collect these [bullet cartridges] with other kids just to play with them. But they don’t care. They can even kill a kid for keeping those.”

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On the intervening night of 11 and 12 November, Rafia Parra felt a stinging pain in the stitches on her abdomen, eighteen days after she had delivered a baby. Her father, Abdul Rashid Parra, decided to take her to the nearest district hospital in the adjoining Pulwama, some eleven kilometers from their home in Shopian’s Turkwangam.

At about 1 am, the Parra family got into a car, driven by Abdul’s nephew. Just as they were about to leave their village, reaching the main road, they were stopped by dozens of army troopers who had been deployed in the area. The forces had cordoned off the whole village on Tuesday night, at around 11:30 pm, sealing all exit points of the village. 

The troopers ordered the vehicle to stop and thoroughly checked Rafia’s medical records before allowing them to proceed. It was then that the Parra family had realised that the entire village, comprising nearly 1,500 families, and its vicinity was encircled by the government forces; they were in the middle of an ongoing Cordon and Search Operation, or simply CASO. 

Dozens of army troopers of the Army’s 44 Rashtriya Rifles, the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force, and the police’s anti-militancy Special Operations Group had laid a siege on the village. Turkwangam has seen CASOs in the past as well, sometimes stretching for days. This is the native village of the Hizbul Mujahideen militant commander Zubair Wani, who was killed on 16 June, this year, in the same village. 

***

On the morning of Wednesday, residents of Turkwangam woke up to the announcement being made by the village head, Jahangir Ahmad Mir, who was directed by the army to declare: “The entire village is cordoned off. Nobody is allowed to come out of their homes. If someone is found outside their house, he will be himself responsible for the consequences.”

At this time, Sadaf Jan was revising her notes before appearing for an exam that day. She panicked as soon as she heard the announcement and went up to her father, Abdul Hameed Lone, crying. Lone called the Nambardar and told him about the exams that were to be held that day. 

The village head then requested an army officer; half an hour later, he made another announcement. This time, Mir announced that all students appearing for an exam would first report, along with their admit cards, to the army officer at the bus stand. “We would allow the students only after scrutinizing their cards,” the army officer had told Mir. The officer also directed Mir to announce that the sick in the village could report to the Army’s Medical Camp in the village if required.  

At 7 am, the next day, the army had come to Mir’s house. They directed him to call the families of Asif Ahmad Lone and Suhail Ahmad Sheikh, a local youth who joined the militancy some months back. At his house, the army officer told the parents to ensure the surrender of their sons. 

Caso, Government forces, kashmir caso, kashmir siege, kashmir protest
Government forces personnel blocking a road with concertina wires in south Kashmir. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

But he gave the families just two hours. 

“He told them to search the entire village, find them and ask them to surrender,” Mir said. “They also tried to persuade their sons, through the microphones, asking them to surrender.”

The CASO continued for 40 hours.

Rafia, who was admitted to the hospital on Tuesday night, was being discharged on Wednesday morning. They left the hospital at 9 am and were again stopped at the same spot, again questioned by the Army. But this time the new posse of troopers asked the Parra family as to how did they leave when the whole village was under siege. 

“We showed them all the documents of the hospitals and told them that we have a patient with us,” Rafia’s mother, Nafeeza Parra, begged the troopers to let them go as her daughter was not well. “The village is under cordon. We can’t let you go,” came the reply from the troops. Left with no choice, they waited for six hours in their car. 

“It is routine for the army to stop us anytime and anywhere. That’s how it always has been. What should we complain about?” said Rafia. However, even as the family was eventually allowed to pass, it wasn’t the end of their woes.

When the mother-daughter duo reached their home, a few Army men followed them inside. They called Parra and asked him about the call he had made on Tuesday night to his nephew. When he explained the reason, he was asked to hand over all the mobile phones to their officer and to “report to the army camp tomorrow, and then we will give you your phones back.” The phones were returned two days later.

***

Anis Dar, 25, was sleeping at his one-story house when he had heard Mir’s announcement. He felt that the Army would take him and many other young boys from the village for searching other houses — a common practice, locals alleged. 

However, when the troops reached his house, they did not take him along for the searches. “I got lucky,” said Dar. Every time he hears an announcement, Dar said, he panics. “My psyche has changed in a way that even if the announcement is about something else, I will always presume that it is about a CASO.”

However, 23-year-old Faizan Bhat was not as lucky. Bhat, a labourer by profession, had woken up early in the morning, he had plans for the day. But when he heard the announcement, he stayed inside his two-storey house where he lives with his ailing father. At around 8:30 pm, the troops came to his house and directed him to accompany them. “I knew they were taking me for searching the other houses,” Bhat said of his instinct.

Bhat was ordered to check the houses around the bus stop and in the surrounding areas. When he reached the bus stop, he was ordered to lift the shutter of an old shop that was closed for the last two years. He couldn’t lift the rusted shutter and asked for the trooper’s help. “This is what they did,” he said, pointing to bruised thighs. Bhat was thrashed by the troops. He was then made to check some more houses before being freed. 

***

Caso, Government forces, kashmir caso, kashmir siege, kashmir protest
Government forces personnel blocking the road during the clashes in Srinagar. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

On the left side of the main market in a village of around 1,500 households, a small path leads to a hilly area with plain ground, covered with huge poplar trees with yellow and golden leaves.

On 15 November, just two days after the CASO had ended, 10-year-old Rameez, not his real name, wore a camouflage cap and a pink crocheted sweater, surrounded by four boys of the same age. They pointed their wooden makebelieve guns at Rameez and shouted fire”. Rameez falls down and the kids rejoice. Clearly they have “killed” the Army trooper and won the Kashmiri version of the chor-police game.

Years of conflict have crept into the daily lives of even children, many easily recognising the signs of conflict and adopting it as part of their lives. It was this forced cultural shift that got a son and his father thrashed during the CASO.

In a small one-storey house at a nearby mohalla, Lonepora, Afroza sat with her thirteen-year-old son, Danish, in a corner of her kitchen. During the CASO, Afroza was directed to come out of her home along with her husband and children–besides Danish, a daughter. 

After half an hour, the troops came out of her house and showed them a handful of bullet cartridges that Danish had collected from gunfight sites and played with. Her husband and son were beaten up by the troops as they searched her house.

“He’s a kid,” said Danish’s aunt, Saaja Begum, 50. “He would collect these with other kids just to play with them. But they don’t care. They can even kill a kid for keeping those.”

Some names have been changed to protect identities.

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