By Asim Shah
Sopore: The people of Sopore live surrounded by graveyards. Nine of the graveyards here are dedicated to ‘martyrs’. Sopore may be a small town in north Kashmir, but its influence on the history of militancy in Kashmir is much greater than its size.
Fifty kilometers up the highway from Srinagar, a bend at Sangrama leads to Sopore. The main market place, named Iqbal market after the great 20th-century poet-philosopher, is situated upon a graveyard. The Sopore hospital and fire station, too, sit atop old graveyards. The degree college borders another graveyard.
According to the records of the Sopore Tehsil office, about 300 kanals of the town’s land is graveyard. In such a small township, the graveyards seem to be omnipresent. A martyr’s graveyard exists at every nook and corner – in Chinkipora, Rahim Sahib Mohalla, Main Chowk, Iqbal Market, Tawheed Bagh Batpora, Bagh-I-Islam Kranshivan, Nowpora A & Nowpora B, and Amargarh. Each of these martyrs’ graveyards goes back to the time of the insurgency period in the 1990s, except one graveyard which dates back to 1931. This contains the graves of six Sopore men lost their lives in the rebellion against Dogra rule.
Both local and foreign militants are buried in the martyrs’ graveyards. The Anjuman-I-Islam, a religious organisation, oversees the maintenance of most of the martyrs’ graveyards in the main town. Vice-president of the Anjuman-I-Islam office of Sopore, Mohd Aziz Bhat, said that all except one of the martyrs’ graveyards were built during the 90s when Sopore was the epicentre of militancy in Kashmir.
A visit to the nine martyrs’ graveyards revealed that most of the gravestones bear the names of local militants. The foreign militants are referred to in the gravestones as “mehmani mujahedeen”, guest militants. Most of them died in the 90s and some in recent years.
The martyrs’ graveyard at Chinkipora, in which more than twenty graves exist, was at first a government park. It was turned into a martyrs’ graveyard during the 90s. It is known as the graveyard of the most daredevil militants. There is a large grave here with a small tree with flowers on it. The grave is of Akbar Bhai, a militant from Afghanistan who was active in Sopore for almost four years and was killed in an ambush by CRPF in Kraltang, Sopore, in August 1993.
Locals remember Akbar Bhai as strongly built, with long hair and long beard, of whom the government forces were scared. He used to carry a long-sized gun on his shoulder always. It was said that when he used to go out, government forces did not came out of their camps till he was gone. He was a militant of Tehreek-I-Jihad Islami, which later merged with the Hizbul Mujahedeen. A local who wished to not be named said, “I have seen many militants during the 90s but Akbar Bhai was the bravest. He visited my house a few times.”
The residents of Sopore town are ever ready to take you on a tour of the martyrs’ graveyards and tell the stories of the militants buried there. One of them spoke about ‘Engineer Saab’. “His real name was Ibn Masood. He had come from Sudan to Kashmir. Ibn Masood was the smartest militant. He once put petrol in the water pipes that went to the CRPF camp in Hatishah in Sopore. Then he set it on fire. The whole CRPF camp was gutted. He was also the one who single-handedly burned down the Hatishah bridge. Now Ibn Masood is buried in the graveyard of Chinkipora along with Akbar Bhai, but with no gravestone,” said Abdul Khaliq, a shopkeeper whose shop is situated near the Chinkipora martyrs’ graveyard.
At Mohalla Teliyan, a small graveyard contains the graves of twenty martyrs. It was also a government park, one of the first parks in Sopore. During the years of armed insurgency in Sopore, militants were buried here with a gun salute by their comrades. Some of the 55 civilians who were killed by the army in the Sopore massacre in January 1993, are also buried here, Rashid Dar who lives in the front of this graveyard told Kashmir Reader.
Sopore was the nerve centre of the armed insurgency that engulfed Kashmir in the 1990s. It was in Sopore that army tanks rolled into town to flush out militants. In one incident, seven boys were killed in Arampora. They were buried in the martyrs’ graveyard at Iqbal market, which also contains a row of five graves which belong to members of one family who were all killed in the Sopore massacre. The Iqbal Market graveyard contains more than a hundred graves and is now completely packed. Before it became a graveyard, it used to be an Eid Gah ground, the Anjuman-i-Islam’s Aziz Bhat told Kashmir Reader.
The martyrs’ graveyard located in the historic main chowk is the one that dates back to 1931. It has a small hoarding that reads “Martyrs of 1931” in Urdu over seven graves — all martyrs of the first revolt against Dogra rule except one martyr who was killed in police action in 1979, when Gen Zia-ul-Haq hanged Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. People in Sopore (and other parts of Kashmir) protested against the hanging and one protestor lost his life in the subsequent police action.
There are two recent graves in the Tawheed Bagh graveyard, where more than fifty martyrs lie buried. One of these two graves is from 2010, of Mudasir Kachroo, a popular football player of Sopore town who was on his way home from a local masjid after offering evening prayers, when a rubber bullet hit his chest at Kaushal Matoo in old town Sopore. He died instantly. He was 25 years old.
The other grave is as recent as last year. It is of Muzaffar Naiko alias Muza Molvi, who was killed during a brief encounter at the outskirts of Srinagar and was buried alongside Mudasir Kachroo. In the Tawheed Bagh graveyard, many gravestones bear names of local militants and those of foreigners bear the name of “mehmani mujahedeen”.
The graveyard at Bagh-I-Islam is the biggest of the martyrs’ graveyards. It dates back to the 90s and contains more than thirty graves. Here, too, some foreign militants lie buried.
There are two martyrs’ graveyards in Nowpora, both built during the 90s. One of them has twenty martyrs’ graves and the other has nine. The militants buried in these two graveyards were all natives of Sopore. Their gravestones bear their names and dates of their death. The oldest grave here has a 1991 date.
Last but not the least, the Amargarh martyrs’ graveyard, is situated at the beginning of the main town along the main highway. It contains more than ten graves of martyrs.
The “mehmani mujahedeen” buried in Sopore’s graveyards came during the 90s from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and several other countries to fight for the freedom of Kashmir. The identities of some of them are still unknown.