SRINAGAR: The recent video of a Budgam youth tied to the bonnet of an army jeep has brought back unpleasant memories of the days of militancy in the 1990s, when Kashmiri civilians were routinely used as human shields by armed forces to escape or to protect themselves from militant attacks.
Though verbal testimonials have been given and reported of people being used as human shields, the recent video is probably the first documented proof of what is considered a war crime under the Geneva Convention.
A 39-year-old resident of Srinagar is one of the many civilians who were used as human shields by the army in the 90s. He told Reader that in the winter of 1994, a large number of army, Border Security Force (BSF) and police Special Operations Group troops arrived at Soura near Anchar Lake and laid a cordon around the area.
“After the siege was laid in several areas of Soura, militants fired a few rounds at the troops and managed to escape the cordon. They went and hid in the densely-planted marshy lands of Anchar Lake,” the man said.
The soldiers followed the militants towards the lake but stopped midway, knowing that the militants could attack them easily in the open. “After a brief but heavy exchange of fire, we thought that either the militants had been killed or the forces had retreated. But, minutes after, the soldiers smashed the doors of several residential houses, including mine, and barged into homes. We thought they were doing it out of frustration but their intention was something else,” he said.
The soldiers forcefully picked up four youths and two middle-aged men and asked them to accompany the soldiers to where the militants were hiding in the marshes.
In those years, the areas situated on the banks of Anchar Lake often witnessed militant activities as Anchar Lake provided a refuge. On that day, there were reportedly five militants hiding in the marshes, including a top militant commander, Saifullah of Pakistan.
The six men that the army had picked up from their homes were asked to walk in front of the soldiers through the vegetable gardens planted in the marshes.
After an hour-long search, the troops found no sign of the militants and called off the search in the afternoon. “Fortunately, we came back alive,” the man said.
Residents of areas like Gadoora, Umarhair, Sangam, Goripora, Shallabugh, Dagepora, Buchpora, Anchar and Soura say that during the 90s the soldiers would always take along locals when they had to search for militants. Ghulam Nabi, who owns a few acres of farmland inside the lake, said, “Once in 2001, a party of SOG men arrived in aggressive mood with a plan to search the main portion of (Anchar) lake to find any possible shelter of militants. They ordered us to arrange 15 big boats and the manpower to row them. One boat, in which a group of SOG men sat, was put at the centre of a huge fleet. The cordon of civilians they had laid around themselves was to protect them from a possible militant attack.”
The International Peoples’ Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-Administered Kashmir (IPTK) and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) have documented several incidents where civilians were used as human shields by government troops.
A case investigated by them revealed that on 12 November 2005, Shabir Ahmad Shah and Aijaz Ahmad Dar were used as human shields in an encounter between soldiers of the army’s 29 RR and militants. They were taken forcibly from High School Palhallan where villagers were gathered by the army. The two men were ordered to accompany the army for the search of Mohammad Sultan Ganai’s house in Palhallan village. The army had information regarding militants at that house. The army searched the house thrice, and on the third occasion, Major Lamba entered the house with both the civilians placed at the front. As soon as they reached the first floor, bullets were fired from inside the house and the troops in the courtyard outside started firing into the house. Sahbir Ahmad Shah was killed on the spot. Aijaz Ahmad Dar was wounded along with Major Lamba.
They were rushed to a Srinagar hospital but only Major Lamba was taken inside and Aijaz Ahmad Dar was left outside. Aijaz Ahmad Dar subsequently died. The families of the victims went to Pattan police station but found that the army had already filed an FIR stating that the two victims were killed in cross-firing.
Legal expert and political analyst Dr Shiekh Showkat Hussain said that the government and its troops were able to conceal the acts of using human shields because of the absence of international media in Kashmir during the 90s.
Hussain said that a ‘War Crime Tribunal’ should have been constituted here to investigate incidents of human shields and other human rights violations.
Human rights defender Khurram Parvez said that during the 90s, government troops would bring locals near encounter sites to deter militants from firing at the troops. “At times, the troops would hand over grenades and bombs to civilians to throw at the militants,” Khurram said.