Ahgam(shopian): Nearly 20 years after the fateful day of April 14, 1998, Ahgam village of district Shopian still bears the pain of the bloody gun-battle government forces waged here that took the lives of at least seven militants and several troopers, including three commanders, and destroy ed almost everything the village possessed, including 52 cattle and 60 residential houses and cowsheds.
The village then belonged to district Pulwama and is now located in Trenz area of district Shopian, some 10 kms from the Shopian district headquarters. The group of slain militants was known as the Haq Khan Group; among the seven militants killed was Abdul Haq Sheikh, son of a revered family of Reshnagri village, also of Shopian. The Pulwama police said they do not have data available about the killing of troopers or the property lost in the gun battle that razed the whole village to the ground. Ahgam villagers, however, said that at least 20 troopers were killed in the encounter. Memorial stones for commanders in the village show that three commanders were also killed.
The Ahgam encounter of April 1998 is considered the deadliest gun-battle between militants and government forces. According to locals, heavy war machinery was used to neutralise the hiding militants and to bring down residential houses. Acting on specific information about the presence of dozens of militants in Ahgam, a joint team of security forces cordoned the village that day. The hiding militants opened indiscriminate fire on the security forces, killing several security persons and setting off the operation, reads the First Information Report (FIR) lodged in Police Station Pulwama.
The initial shootout resulted in an encounter by the evening. Muhammad Abdullah Bhat (45), son of Abdul Gaffar Bhat, recounted to Kashmir Reader how he tried to escape when the encounter started, but was caught by the forces. “They beat me ruthlessly and broke my bones. I got several fractures, including in my arms. One of the steel rods which the doctors put in my arm as a support was removed 13 years after the assault.”
Habibullah Shah (78) said that the whole village was razed with explosive material. “They destroyed everything in the village, every residential house, cowshed,” he said.
He continued, “There was no road to the village, but they placed armoured vehicles on the Khambri-Trenz road, from where they fired mortars to raze the houses in which the militants were hiding,” he recalls.
Villagers remember how, after the encounter, Congress chairperson Sonia Gandhi and the then minister of home affairs of India, L K Advani, visited the village and assured them of their resettlement.
“Both the political leaders assured us that they will resettle the village as everything in it had been destroyed by the forces during the battle with militants, but nothing was done on the ground,” local numberdar Abdul Gani Lone said.
He added that the majority of the families lived under the sky for months without any aid from the government.
Raja Begum, an elderly local lady, said that her two-storey house was shattered in the encounter, the like of which the village had never seen. “We lived outside in a tin shed for about two years, I saw them (the forces) chopping trees, beating people and damaging everything that came their way, but we were helpless to do anything,” she remembers.
Habibullah told Kashmir Reader that it was not an encounter but a war. “I saw everything burning. They brought armoured vehicles to clean everything in the village. Other than the houses they razed with bombs, they set ablaze at least 15 houses to make sure that nothing on the ground remained in the village,” he narrates.
Habibullah recounts that at least 52 domestic animals such as cows and sheep were killed in that bloody war between forces and militants.
Ahgam village had 65 houses in 1998 and now has 110. Other than nine or 10 partially damaged houses, everything else here was razed in that encounter.
This Ahgam encounter is still remembered as one of the deadliest in Kashmir. At least seven militants and several army officers were killed in it. The encounter continued for seven days, including four days of the shootout and three days of search operations to go through the debris.
According to locals about 20 militants were believed to have been present there, but after seeing the heavy collateral damage, the government forces gave a safe passage to the rest.
Abdul Jabbar, another resident, said that from the day of the encounter, the village was given to the Army’s Sadbhavana operation for development, but they did nothing.
“They established an army Good-Will School in the village, where students pay monthly fees and other expenses; they built a primary health centre here, which was not registered in the state health department. Still more evil is the fact that the land on which the hospital was built belongs to a local Mosque. The land acquisition was not compensated,” locals lamented.
Hilal Ahmad Shah from the village was forced to accompany the forces during the encounter but he refused to share any memory of it with this reporter.
All seven militants, including Abdul Haq were buried at Gabarpora village graveyard in the area. Villagers had put a board near the graves, mentioning the name of a local militant and the other six as ‘martyrs from Pakistan’.
Lone, the numberdar, said, “Soon after the encounter was called off, a top army official came to the village and told us that he would give the villagers a gift because they have lost everything. We were joyful that they would give us something big, possibly even reconstruct our houses. “The gift turned out to be horror. It was an army camp that was established in the village and it is still here”, a villager said.
He said that the relief offered by the government was peanuts as compared to the actual cost of the lost property. “We were paid first instalment of Rs 10,000 for utensils and Rs one lakh to rebuild the houses. “That relief was nothing in comparison to what the village lost in the encounter,” laments Lone.