On a cold February morning, Mubeena Bano grabbed a bucket from her kitchen and went out to milk her cow. When she was finished, she heard a gunshot.
It felt to Bano as if the gunshot she heard had hit her chest. She cried, “It’s my Ashraf. He got martyred.” With every bullet fired, she became more sure it was her 30-year-old son, Mohammad Ashraf Sheikh, a year old militant.
The firing continued till 12 pm. The insurgency was in its eleventh year – the year 2000. Bano screamed and called her family members, telling them it was her son. Everyone told her to calm down as they were not sure it was Sheikh trapped inside the cordon.
In Kulgam district’s Rampura village, some sixty-one kilometers away from Srinagar, speculations were ruling for the whole day that Ashraf had run away from the encounter site. However, Bano had a feeling he was killed.
At around 5 pm, Ashraf’s body reached his native village where hundreds of people were waiting to have his last glimpse. His body was brought and he was kept at his home – for the last night.
Twenty-six hours ago, he had come home during the night; wearing a cardamom coloured tracksuit with a black pheran, a weapon hanging around his shoulder. Bano, now 70, remembers every detail of that night when he sat with her and talked for an hour.
After he said goodbyes to everyone, Bano had told him not to go to Thokerpora, a village two kilometers far from her place as the government forces would often lay a cordon there. He assured her that he had to go to some other place. A day later, Ashraf was killed at Thokerpora.
Sheikh’s bruised body was draped in a blanket and his tracksuit had two holes on his belly and two on his chest. There was also a hole on his right cheek due to which the eyes were bulging outwards, Bano recalled.
She fed him a spoon of milk and sat with him the entire night. “I asked him that time why did he leave me alone?” she said.
It has now been eleven years since Bano lost her second son. Her first son, Mohammad Ibrahim Sheikh, was killed during the 1990s when the militancy was still in its infancy in Kashmir.
Bano is among the hundreds of women of southern Kulgam’s Qaimoh sub-district whose sons became militants and were killed in a gunfight, leaving behind sorrowful mothers who carry the burden of memory and loss.
Sometimes when Bano is in deep slumber, she hears her son calling her name; “Aapa,” as he would call her. “Even today, I can hear him call my name from that window,” she said, pointing towards the window in her room from where her son, during his militancy days, would come to meet her.
The memory with the window and the room is so emotive for Bano that she refuses to sleep anywhere else.
When he was buried, a man from Thokerpora had come to meet Bano and told her that there was something that Sheikh left in the village before getting killed. “It was a burnt pheran with holes,” said Bano. The man had come to ask for permission to keep it with him.
She gave him the permission as she had kept something for herself: the blanket in which her son was shrouded. Ever since he was killed, Bano has not used it nor does she give it to anyone. She has kept it folded in her wardrobe – a souvenir of her dead son.
“It is the only memory of my son,” she said. “I want to keep it till I die.”
Razed garden, removed flowers
At a distance of twenty feet from Bano’s house, lives 60-year-old Ateeqa. She regrets the day when she wasn’t home when her 19-year-old son, Dildar Hussein Shah, was killed in a gunfight 20 years ago.
When Shah joined militancy in the autumn of 2000, his mother had already lost two sons due to natural deaths. A tailor and a cloth seller, Dildar did not ask his parents for permission as he knew they would never allow him. He just vanished.
After a month, a rumour started in the village that Dildar will come to meet his family and villagers. Everyone was waiting eagerly for his arrival. Many people came to meet his mother, to congratulate her.
“It was like a festival,” Ateeqa said. She had hoped to convince Shah to leave the insurgency.
“I thought I would cry in front of him which would make him come back but he had come prepared,” said Ateeqa. She finally told him to go: “I told him that I leave you for the sake of the One who sent you to me”.
The last time Ateeqa met her militant son was at a relative’s marriage function. He had come to meet her. He asked her if they were planning to build a new house, as he had heard it somewhere. Ateeqa told him that the construction was starting soon. “Will I ever be able to eat in the new house?” he had asked her.
Shah was killed a few days later in the neighboring village of Qaimoh when he was hit by bullets in an open rice field.
Unaware of her son’s killing, Ateeqa had taken her sick daughter to the Kulgam hospital. On her way to the hospital, Ateeqa had heard that a militant had been killed and was being brought to a local police station.
She along with her daughter reached the police station as she was apprehensive the killed militant might be her son. Ateeqa asked the constable outside. “He told me that it was Dildar Hussein from Rampura.” The constable also told her that the body has been sent home.
“I wasn’t able to walk as I couldn’t feel my feet,” she said. “It felt like it took years to reach”.
She walked, barefoot, as much as she could and boarded a vehicle on the way. When she reached home, Ateeqa saw a sea of people carrying away his son’s body for the burial.
Outside the house of Ateeqa, there was a garden with beautiful flowers, as she recalls militants of the neighbourhood would often come and click pictures with their families. When Dildar was killed, Ateeqa razed the garden and removed the flowers.
“If my Dildar can’t sit in this garden, I don’t want it,” she had told her husband.
“I see him in dreams”
“He never came to meet me, I swear on his martyrdom,” said Yasmeena, 35, mother of 16-year-old Parveiz Bashir Bhat who was killed in a gunfight last year.
After fifteen days of his killing, Yasmeena had a dream. “He was wearing new clothes,” she said. “I wanted to ask him, who gave you these new clothes? But he left and did not look back.”
It was not the only time she saw Bhat in her dream. Yasmeena said that every time a mother loses her son, she sees her own son in dreams. “Whenever there is an encounter and someone gets martyred, the same day I see my son in the dream,” she said.
The last time she saw her son in real, and not in a dream, was when a militant from Sopat Kulgam, Shakir Ahmad, got killed. Bhat, who had not yet become a militant was at his aunt’s place in Anantnag for over a week, had come to offer his funeral prayers. From there, he went home to meet his mother.
He had tea with one and a half roti, she recalled. Later he had an argument with his brother about a new phone that he wanted to buy. While leaving, he told his mother that he would now come only when he “achieves martyrdom”.
“And that is exactly what happened. His body entered this courtyard, not him,” she said.
She recalls the time when both of them would wake up for Fajr, the pre-dawn prayer, and then they would sit in the kitchen. Yasmeena would do her chores and her son would often give her company and talk to her.
She would often tell her son that a child should always take care of his parents once they are old and weak. He would reply, “If I was not able to serve you here, I will serve you in the hereafter. I will be your stick in the other world.”
“Every time I wake up and finish my prayer, I remember him,” she said.
His mother regrets that she could never meet him before he was killed. When his body was brought home in the evening, Yasmeena begged her husband that she wanted to keep him for a night. “He said he is gone now. There is no point in keeping him here now,” her husband had said.
Yasmeena said she now lives with the memories of her son and visits other mothers whose militant sons are killed in gunfights. “I tell my family that I feel better when I talk to someone who can understand my pain and no matter what people say only a mother can feel the pain of another one,” she said.
But the longing and pain of a son’s death are burdening the young mother. “I just want to die and meet him there only,” she said.