Of loss, sorrow, and life in Kashmir

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Fahmeeda Akhtar, mother of Aqib Malik, showcasing case file of her son. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

Her instinct kept telling her that something was not right about his visit to the police station. “Aqib,” she kept shouting at him as he slowly walked away, “don’t go today.” It was 23 July 2020. That was the last time that Fahmeeda Akhtar saw her son, Aqib Ahmad Malik.

Ms. Akhtar clearly remembers the day. Mr. Malik was summoned by the Nigeen Police Station in a 2018 case registered under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

Mr. Malik, 26, a student at the University of Kashmir, left for Srinagar at around 8 am from his home in Aglar, Pinjora area of south Kashmir’s Shopian district. He called Ms. Akhtar about four hours later “[to tell] me that he had reached Srinagar. He told me to not be scared,” said Ms. Akhtar. “That was the last thing I heard from him on that day.”

The Malik family received another call around 4 pm informing them of Mr. Malik’s arrest. Since then, Mr. Malik has been held at the Srinagar Central Jail for allegedly shouting anti-India slogans during protests in the university and for participating in the funeral of a militant. 

“We have been constantly demanding the police to show us any sort of evidence against our son but they have not been able to show us any,” she said. Since the arrest of Mr. Malik, the second eldest among four brothers, “our lives have changed”.

“I have lost my focus now,” Ms. Akhtar said. “How can a mother be happy when one of her children is not in front of her?” 

“I go to his room now and he is not there. [His absence] haunts me. My son is innocent,” she rued.

In jail for the past more than three months, the family has had little contact with Mr. Malik. “[Jail authorities] do not allow us to speak regularly. But whenever I got a chance, he acted so strong,” she said. “I know what he is going through.”

Her three other sons have stopped Ms. Akhtar from looking at Mr. Malik’s photographs, hoping that it would somehow prevent her everyday heartbreaks. 

But she “still looks at the door and waits for him to return”.

Superintendent of police, Hazratbal, Sudhanshu Verma had earlier told The Kashmir Walla in July 2020 that Mr. Malik was booked under “a proper case”, and “there is no ill motive”.

Even at the home, it doesn’t feel safe anymore to the family since Mr. Malik’s arrest. “The army kept coming to our home. They would randomly come and ask us about the number of rooms in our home. They asked about Aqib and even took our car once,” she said.

The family has time and again been told by people to wait patiently as the process takes time. However, the constant fear of the army had concerned the family about his return: “We are scared that they might just take him as soon as he will be returned to us.”

Kashmir conflict, kashmir profiles, Kashmir
Masuda Jan opening her the school bag of her son, Akeel Ahmad, at her home in Shopian. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

“She always wears his clothes. When she doesn’t, she gets anxious”

In the neighbouring Pulwama district, Masuda Jan still serves food for her son, Akeel Ahmad, who was killed three years ago. Every evening, she feeds the food to animals before going to bed.

On 1 August 2017, Mr. Ahmad and his friends were sitting on a shopfront in Gabarpora Haal village; in another village nearby, the government forces had killed a Pakistani militant, Abu Dujana. The government forces were passing through the village and the first sight of their appearance had scared the locals into fleeing. 

In the run, three shots were fired by the forces — two of them killed Mr. Ahmad.

Back at home, Ms. Jan was still washing the cup in which Mr. Ahmad had had the last tea when she was informed about his killing. She rushed to the shop and saw Mr. Ahmad’s blood soaked body. “I lost control of myself,” she recalled. “He kept saying that he was fine but I knew that he wasn’t. He was only asking for water.”

Soon Mr. Ahmad was referred to a hospital in Srinagar from the district hospital Shopian. His mother was not allowed by the people to travel with him any further. “I still regret not being able to be with him in his last moments,” said Ms. Jan. “He must have been looking for me.”

Her son’s killing was the second tragedy after Ms. Jan’s husband died in 2008 of cardiac arrest. Since then, Mr. Ahmad “always tried to be my helping hand in everything,” said Ms. Jan.

Mr. Ahmad was living along with his two younger siblings and mother in a small house made with mud that had started to dangerously tilt. While the financial turmoil always made the family suffer, Ms. Jan was always hopeful about her elder son’s future and wanted him to become a lawyer. “I was so sure that he would have gotten us out of this situation one day,” said Ms. Akhtar.

Three years after his killing, however, Ms. Jan continues to feed and fulfill the needs of her two children with the meagre amount of money she earns from cooking and cleaning at people’s houses, and working in the orchards. 

But often, Ms. Jan recollects how her son would come and hug her while she would be busy with her work. 

“I crave for that hug now,” she said with a distant smile.

While Ms. Jan’s hopes are attached to her younger children now, her elder son’s memories, and his face, and the night before his death, does not leave her mind.

At times, when she is alone in the small dark kitchen of the temporary shed that the family currently lives in, Ms. Jan is haunted by her son’s memories. “He always sits in front of me in the same posture, waiting for food,” she said, wiping her tears.

Aadil Ahmad, 15, and Rihanna, 18, try, too, to fill the void but their own suffering fails them. 

“My younger son’s heart starts aching and he is always very angry,” she said. 

On the day of his killing, Ms. Rihanna, scribbled her brother’s name on a small mirror, hanging on the mud wall of her home, with her blood using a shaving blade. Since then, she has been getting constant panic attacks and anxiety. “Not even a single day goes by when she doesn’t cry. She always wears his clothes. When she doesn’t, she gets anxious,” said Ms. Jan. 

The idea of doing something for her younger kids has helped her keep going. “They didn’t deserve this. I am living for both of them now,” she said. “They need me.”

Kashmir conflict, kashmir profiles, Kashmir
Children strolling around the rubble of their destroyed house in Beighpora, Pulwama. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

“I saw my house burning in front of my eyes”

On the morning of 6 May 2020, Tasleema* saw her home burning in front of her eyes. The fire also burnt years of her husband’s hard work and her family’s memories and comfort.

Ms. Tasleema, in her mid-thirties, was busy with her usual home chores in the Beighpora area of Awantipora, when she heard someone pounding on the door. Before she could even make sense of what was happening, she was told by the government forces to get out of her home. 

“They told us that we were hiding a militant in our home,” said Ms. Tasleema.

Ms. Tasleema took her 6-year old daughter in her lap and held her 12-year-old son by his hand and rushed out with her mother-in-law. “We kept telling them [forces] that there was nobody in our house but they did not listen to us,” said Ms. Tasleema.

Within no time, the family saw their newly constructed three storey home turn into a mound of rubble. “I saw my house burning in front of my eyes but we couldn’t even say anything,” said Ms. Tasleema. “We kept crying.”

Ms. Tasleema’s home was among the four houses destroyed in an almost six-and-a-half-hour long gunfight during which Hizbul Mujahideen’s chief, Riyaz Naikoo, was killed. 

The destruction of their home was just the beginning of the many problems to follow. Soon, after the gunfight had ended, Ms. Tasleema’s husband Azad Ahmad was arrested with two other men from the village. “He is in central jail right now,” said Ms. Tasleema. “We couldn’t even approach people for help because we were absolutely left with nothing.”

Mr. Ahmad, a carpenter by profession, started building a new home for his family when he received money from the government to relocate for the construction of a railway track outside his old home. The family shifted to the new house around seven years ago. 

Then “suddenly, we did not have a roof over our heads,” said Ms. Tasleema.

After the gunfight ended, the family was only left with the clothes they were wearing at the time. “Relatives, neighbours and a few NGOs came to help us. They have been giving us food to eat and clothes to wear,” said Ms. Tasleema.

Since then, Ms. Tasleema has lived with her two children and mother-in-law in a small shed constructed with the help of her neighbours. “We were planning to build a cow shed here. But as this happened, we had to construct this shed for ourselves instead,” she said. “Some people give us old clothes and even used utensils. I feel bad about this but what can I even do?”

With the harsh winter approaching, Ms. Tasleema is worried for the health of her mother-in-law and children — as well as the fees for their education. “We don’t even have a single blanket. This reminds me of the luxury that my husband had provided us,” said Ms. Tasleema. “I don’t have the capacity to even educate my children.”

Ms. Tasleema believes that if her husband would not have been arrested, the family could have been relieved of their predicament. “I don’t know when or if they will let him go,” said Ms. Akhtar. “His return will be our hope for a new beginning.”

Kashmir conflict, kashmir profiles, Kashmir
Amir Hussain Dar sitting at his room in Shopian. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

“Then they told me to live separately — every one of them”

Amir Hussain Dar was ready to die after the metal-pellets pierced his eyes in 2016. That’s when it all changed for him: all the hobbies — like playing cricket and going on outings — are in the past.

“It was depressing. Sometimes, I think about how I was before 2016 and how I am now,” he said. “It makes me sad.”

Mr. Dar, 23, lives in a one-storey house, surrounded by pear trees. His house is just a few meters away, in the same compound, from his parents’ old house in the Kunsoo area of district Shopian.

For pellet survivors, dealing with the light, and darkness around them, is challenging but some even tend to struggle to find a place in their own families. 

“You have gone blind. You are disabled. You are not able to do anything.” Mr. Dar recalls, with a frown, what his sister-in-law had said to him after he was hit by pellets and lost the vision of his left eye.

Mr. Dar stopped living in the same house as his three brothers and parents when he sensed the emotional abandonment by his family. 

Mr. Dar was working as an ironsmith at a shop in Imam Sahib Shopian when he was hit by the pellets at Haal in the city. “I was on a motorbike, with my two other friends when we were targeted by the army personnel from the camp, leaving many of us injured,” he said. 

As soon as Mr. Dar got injured, he left the work because he was not able to adjust to the new reality, see properly and focus on his target. “It would have been difficult for me to work as the world seemed weird to me at that time and I wasn’t even able to walk properly,” he said.

Mr. Dar resumed working — at the same place where he worked before 2016 — only a year ago when things started becoming difficult for him at home. His own family members taunted him for not doing anything and being dependent on his family.

After four years and seven surgeries in Srinagar, consulting doctors in Amritsar in 2017, Mr. Dar’s world is still dark. “I stopped visiting doctors after I went to Amritsar for the treatment,” he said, “as my father couldn’t afford another visit.”

There have been nights when he slept without food. Or stayed alone in that small room that he calls home. “I was hurt and I used to cry that hurt my eyes,” he said.

Mr. Dar’s life took a turn, like the lives of many other Kashmiris, when he was coming back from the funeral procession of Burhan Wani in Tral — the then commander of the militant organization Hizbul Mujahideen. Mr. Wani was killed in a gunfight on 8 July 2016 in Kokernag.

His killing was followed by a surge of deadly violence in the Kashmir Valley. The internet was flooded with close-ups of bloody damaged eyes and pellet-scarred faces. Mr. Dar was hit by pellets in both of his eyes, leaving 70 per cent of the vision in his right eye and the other one, completely dark.

In 2019, Mr. Dar lived separately from his family for two months. “I had a rift with my family as I wasn’t doing anything. Then they told me to live separately,” he said. “Every one of them.”

Mr. Dar used to sit alone in his room — with red and golden curtains and one bulb at one end of it — and cry for hours, sometimes didn’t even get sleep at all. “If a stranger would have said anything to me. It wouldn’t have affected me but these were my own people who were taunting me,” he said.

When two of Mr. Dar’s brothers left their parents’ home, his father asked him to live with them. “I was angry. I told him why did you listen to my brothers, didn’t you know what I was going through?” said Mr. Dar, adding that he took a decision to have meals with them but still live in another house.

As he sits in a room with one bulb and windows with broken glass, his eyes start irritating when light hits his eyes. So he keeps his head down.

Not just his family but his girlfriend for eleven years also gave up on him a year and a half ago. “When I feel depressed or miss her, I call her but she doesn’t answer my calls. I feel bad as I miss her a lot,” said Mr. Dar.

Mr. Dar’s life has changed after the 2016 incident. In the last twenty days, he has survived a major panic attack and has been taking pills for anxiety and insomnia. “I can’t sleep without taking medicines,” he said. 

However, even after all the sufferings and problems, Mr. Dar lives with the dream of opening his own ironworks shop. “I will earn money and become something first, only then I will consider getting married,” he said.

Gafira Qadir contributed to this story from Kunsoo, Shopian.

The cover story originally appeared in our 25-31 October 2020 print edition.

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