Since her husband had disappeared, 45-year-old Gulshana Banno felt terrified and lonely during the night as visits by the government forces to search for her husband had become more frequent.
For Banno, 17 July 2020 was just another day till her 48-year-old husband Abdul Hamid Chopan, a woodcutter, did not return home in the evening from his day’s work in the nearby village.
After she realized that Abdul’s phone was switched off, the realization of what had happened kept coming in the form of flashbacks from 2017, when her 18-year-old son, Aadil Ahmad Chopan had gone missing in a similar way and later joined militancy, and 2018, when her 35-year-old brother, Mohammad Maqbool went missing to join militancy.
Four days later, Banno along with her other two sons went to a nearby police station and filed a missing report for her husband.
With Abdul’s disappearance, the Chopan family had not just lost a member but also the head of the family who was the only breadwinner looking after his wife, a daughter, and two younger sons left after Aadil.
One after another
A few days after her son went missing on 7 March 2017, Banno received a letter and soon she was informed that he had joined militancy. “He had asked us to stop looking for him. He was so innocent. He barely even had a beard on his face,” said Banno, adding that she cried out of helplessness after reading the letter.
Around nine months after writing the letter, Aadil’s body was brought home after he was killed on 20 November, in a gunfight in Seer village of Tral.
On the day of his killing, the government forces kept rushing past the village but Banno was totally unaware that her son was trapped in the gunfight. A few hours later, his picture started doing rounds on the internet informing the family of their son’s killing. “Even if one has many children, each of them is equally precious and to see them die is unbearable,” Banno said.
That night, countless people gathered in the compound of Banno’s two-story modest house as Banno sat next to her son’s body till the next afternoon when he was taken away for burial.
Banno applied henna on her dead son’s fingertips and kept pouring milk and water in his mouth throughout the night. “He was like a groom for me. I did what I would do for his wedding,” she said, adding that a “martyr is dead for them but for us he never dies.”
Three years later on 15 April 2020, Banno’s brother, Maqbool ran away from his home and joined militancy after “he was scared by the army”. “His house was frequently checked and my family was told to bring him forward,” she said. “He was so scared that he ran away and joined militancy.”
Less than two months after the incident, Maqbool was killed during a gunfight in Saimooh village of Tral on 2 June last year. He was buried in Baramulla’s Sheeri graveyard.
Banno said that the family is not allowed to stay at the graveyard for more than ten minutes even now when they visit. “It happened because of our silence,” said Banno. “If Kashmiris had spoken things might have been different. When someone from the police is killed, isn’t their body returned?”
After losing his son and brother-in-law, Abdul suddenly became quieter with each passing day as the grief had become too heavy for him to handle and he would “keep regretting what had happened”. “When a parent loses his innocent child, he continues to feel that pain,” said Banno.
After the loss
Banno has locked away her son’s clothes and two newspaper cuttings about his killing in a steel trunk as the “army took away whatever they could”. “They searched each and every corner of our house and took away all that they could,” she said.
During the days when her son was an active militant, Banno said that their house was “raided” countless times. The frequent army visits, as per Banno, have started again since her husband’s disappearance. “Even if we receive a guest, a few minutes later the army would come to our house for questioning,” she added.
A few months ago, Banno married her 19-year-old daughter off as the family was scared due to the “frequent army visits” by selling their land and trees.
On the day of her wedding, the house was put under cordon, said Banno. “Around thirty men came to our house during the night suddenly, they questioned my son and kept asking if my husband had attended the wedding,” she added.
Banno said that the government forces also trespassed by climbing the boundaries of their compound. “We would shiver when they came to our house,” she said. “My son was taken quite often. Obviously, it has an impact on him.”
After her husband had gone missing, Banno’s 19-year-old son Omar Hamid Chopan said that he had been beaten up and taken to the police station for questioning many times. “They beat me with sticks and even gave me electric shocks several times,” said Omar.
Once Omar was called for questioning after two guests visited their home and he was “slapped”. “I felt humiliated that day and I told them that I will not forget these slaps till the day I die,” he added.
Omar believes that he had to become the head of his family at an age when he was supposed to study. “This is what they do with boys. It is better to die once than to die every day,” he said.
“I feel the loss of my father more than anyone else does.”
For Banno, many such families have completely been shattered while others remain unaffected. “Azaadi is for every Kashmiri and not just for those who sacrifice their lives. In this process, some families just become hollow,” she said.
Since he went missing, Banno tried to find some hint regarding her husband’s whereabouts but failed. The search ended on 21 August, when the police killed three militants in a gunfight in Tral forests – one of them was Abdul Hamid Chopan, her husband. He became the most aged militant from Kashmir valley who was killed.
The Chopan family has only three members left now, and Banno is scared of losing the other two members too. “The fear is constant. I am scared for my sons’ lives,” she said.