When Irfan Fayaz Wani’s family was shifting to a new home in Srinagar’s Eidgah, his mother, Rafeeqa was reluctant. For the last five years, Rafeeqa has lived off the memories of how Irfan came of age in their modest downtown home, and then his funeral.
When everyone left, Rafeeqa stayed and spent the day alone, wandering in their old home, for one last time. “All the memories with him are in the old house,” she recalled. “I feel like I left them behind.”
The 55-year-old woman spent her life wishing for a more prosperous home. But now she had it, she said the new home in Eidgah only brings her more emptiness and regrets. “He always wanted to make a new house for us,” Rafeeqa recalled, “but now we are here and he isn’t.”
Irfan was eighteen in 2016. And he was among the 145 civilians killed by the government forces during the months-long civilian uprising that summer, which erupted after the killing of Burhan Wani, a popular 21-year-old militant commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, who caught the imagination of Kashmir’s youth, on 8 July 2016.
Rafeeqa believes that she is no longer the same after her son was killed “in the blink of an eye”. And she firmly believes she is not alone: “Every mother who lost her son is not the same anymore. It isn’t just me.”
The bloodied summer
“Yes, I’m Irfan,” he had screamed as he unmasked himself in front of the government forces while protesting on 8 July 2016, recalled Faisal, Irfan’s friend.
Moved by Burhan Wani’s killing, he picked up a stone in his hand to confront the armed government forces’ personnel that evening. While over 2,00,000 people gathered to catch a final glimpse of Burhan, Irfan Wani protested in the narrow lanes of the downtown area of Srinagar.
Irfan was a “wanted stone-thrower”, his friend told The Kashmir Walla. Since 2010, when Kashmir was rocked by a civilian uprising, Irfan protested each killing by throwing stones at the government forces.
After that confrontation, the police looked for him in every nook and corner of Fateh Kadal area of downtown. Rafeeqa was even asked to bring her son to the police station.
“They had vowed to kill my son one day,” she said.
Nearly forty-days later, on 21 August, Irfan was caught between a group of stone-throwers and the government forces outside his maternal home in Bohri Kadal area of Srinagar.
He was sitting at his maternal home while his mother poured a cup of tea for him. The entire family had gathered to celebrate his cousin’s wedding. “Just then, we heard some noise. Irfan rushed outside to check what was happening,” she said.
Before she could stop her son, Irfan had vanished into the smoke of teargas shells.
“Then I heard that a boy from Fateh Kadal had been killed,” Rafeeqa said.
Rafeeqa was immediately rushed back to her home, in Fateh Kadal, she said. “Suddenly the entire area was deserted, just like the aftermath of a storm.”
Around an hour later, Irfan returned home — dead.
He was hit by a teargas shell in his chest that tore his heart apart. “It was karbala,” she said, referring to the battle of Karbala — a battle in which Prophet Mohammad’s grandson was martyred.
His face was cold, clothes were bloodied, and the heena was fresh on his hands. Rafeeqa fell unconscious and woke up after he had been taken for burial. “I couldn’t see him then, I see him in my dreams now,” she said.
Irfan’s funeral procession was taken through the same streets where he once threw stones in protest. Many walls and shutters outside his house in Fateh Kadal still have “shaheed Irfan” scribbled over them.
Rafeeqa does not remember the first time when her son threw stones at the government forces, but she remembers the first time he was arrested for it. “Since his arrest, he had been more inclined toward stone-throwing,” she added.
In the years prior to his killing, Irfan was arrested “countless” times and had been detained in various police stations, including the Central Jail of Srinagar for a month. “He had become a prominent name among protestors. Even if he wasn’t part of a protest, he was still held responsible,” said Rafeeqa. “He had become the target.”
The police raids never stopped. Rather, Irfan finally ran away to the state of Goa, where he started working as a salesman. However, he returned on 30 September 2015, a day after his father died due to cardiac arrest.
The police raids became frequent. Irfan, sometimes, jumped from the roof into a neighbor’s house a few times before he completely stopped living with his family, Rafeeqa recalled.
Faisal, a 23-year-old friend of Irfan, who did not wish to be identified by his real name, had known Irfan as the most fearless boy of his age, of the times when they threw stones together.
He recalled Irfan rushing to the front line of protestors, even standing on top of the police vehicle amid the protests. “But he was never beaten up or held during the protest,” he said. “It was impossible to catch him.”
During one of his detentions, Faisal alleged that Irfan had been tortured and his tongue had been burnt by cigarette butts. “He could no longer speak properly,” he said.
When the teargas shell hit Irfan, Faisal was standing next to him, throwing stones. “He was still conscious on the way to the hospital. His mouth was bleeding and he died outside the hospital,” said Faisal. “He was targeted.”
Since Irfan’s death, Faisal hasn’t thrown stones like many other young protesters in Kashmir. But he believes that it is a temporary halt, an uneasy silence that will gradually erode.
“Protests stopped because of what is being done to us,” Faisal said, referring to the continuous crackdown. “One day, someone will throw a stone again.”
For Rafeeqa, the years of separation have changed completely. The constant thoughts of her son’s struggle in his teenage years don’t elude her. “He didn’t see anything in his life. We were really poor … he started working at a very tender age,” Rafeeqa said. “I feel like my heart is not at peace.”