By DANISH ZARGAR / MUDASIR AHMED
Shonglipora (Budgam): Because of a state government lease to the Army, almost every other family in this central Kashmir village has lost a loved one to a bewitching meadow two hours away.
One of the latest victims, Bashir Ahmad, a 32-year-old father of two, was brought home dead from Tosmaidan this June, killed by a left-over artillery shell while tending his cows.
With an incomplete list of 31 neighbours consumed by the meadow’s deadly charms, villagers have begun a fight to see the last of the Army which is geared to renew a 50-year lease that expires next year.
Since 1964, when the lease was signed, this byword for scenic beauty, has hosted mankind’s ugliest pursuit–the preparation of war—leaving behind grim reminders in torn human bodies and mutilated families.
Live ordnance litters the slopes and glens after spring-to-autumn military exercises in perfecting soldiers in the art of destruction.
The shells, from various forms of artillery, including the famed Bofors howitzers, are a death trap for nearby poverty-stricken villagers who subsist on grazing cattle in the vicinity.
Villagers insist that the lease of the meadow with an expanse of over 3000 kanals hadcondemned them to penury in addition to tragic deaths, and Tosmaidan’s tourism potential, if explored, could lift them from lives of deprivation.
Determined to force the government not to renew the lease to the Army, locals have already begun to face political manipulations, and say the Army has begun to keep tabs on activists at the forefront of their campaign.
Bashir’s wife, Hajra lives with her son and daughter in a dark and airless tin shed in Khwaja Mohalla, barely surviving on a tiny patch of land which grows maize.
Hajra recalls the ill-fated Saturday her husband was brought dead from Tosmaidan, as her son Amin, 7, and daughter Afroza, 11, look on. “We are not rich. We possess only a cow, a bull and a calf, which are left in Tosmaidan for grazing,” the 30-year-old widow says.
“That day he (Bashir) wanted to take salt for the cattle, and there he accidently stepped on a shell. Only his dead body, with a shattered leg, returned home,” she says.
“We didn’t see it happen,” she continues, caressing her son who stands clutching her legs. “But we know what happened and how it happened. Here people often get killed like this.”
Shonglipora, perhaps the last populated place on the road to Tosmaidan, is full of stories of many other Bashirs–they walk into the meadow, and return home as dead, mutilated bodies.
And not many families have been lucky to find their loved ones in one piece.
When Ali Mohammad Khan, living in Khan Mohalla, a stone’s throw from Bashir’s house, was killed last year, his leg was recovered after three days, and half of his skull was never found.
“He had set up camp at Tosmaidan and made a traditional oven for cooking. It required some support for which he used some sort of an iron rod picked up nearby. The rod exploded, killing him on the spot,” Mohammed Akram Sheikh, sarpanch of the village, told Kashmir Reader.
“Only half of his head was intact; the top half was never found. We found his leg in the meadow after three days,” the sarpanch, speaking for Khan’s wife, Raja, who is psychologically unwell, said.
Khan’s three daughters and a son, all minors, live with their mother in their single-storey mud-house. Her household is run by neighbours, but secretly.
“We collect the money and hand it over to her (Raja’s) father. He then buys food and other necessities for them because Raja can’t shoulder this responsibility herself,” the sarpanch says
Sheikh has himself lost a brother and a cousin to Tosmaidan, and Raja’s husband was the third victim from his own family. His two elder brothers, Rashid Khan and Karim Khan, too have been killed at the meadow. Karim was killed in 1995 along with his neighbour, Abdul Sattar Malik.
“Their bodies could not be recovered whole. We just picked up the bits and pieces in five yards of cloth,” Malik’s wife, Raham, says.
Untimely death is not the village’s only tragedy.
Over the years, treks to Tosmaidan have left many people, mostly young men, wounded or limbless.
The locals’ list, by no means featuring all victims, has 35 people of those injured by the scattered explosives.
“This injury is the only reason I could not study. And now it has become the only hindrance in my marriage prospects,” Bilal Ahmad Dar says.
Dar, then 14, had been fiddling with a shell which he thought was a toy. It blew up, tearing off his right leg from the knee. He now walks with an artificial limb, but has never gone to the meadow again.
“My younger brothers go with the cattle now while I work as a tailor. That is all I can do now. I was the eldest of my siblings. Now I am the most dependent,” Dar says.
With the Tosmaidan lease due to end next year, villagers in Shonglipora and adjoining areas have now come together as the Tosmaidan Bachao Front (TBF) to oppose its likely extension.
Of late, the TBF has been organizing protest rallies and sit-ins at Budgam and Srinagar, hoping that this may end the “violation of human rights due to Tosmaidan.”
“We know that if we don’t fight now, this violation of our human rights will continue for many years to come. So we formed TBF to fight at all levels against the possible extension of the lease to the Army,” says Nazir Ahmad, a senior activist of the J&K RTI movement—the body that claims to have formed the TBF.
The politicians and the Army, according to Nazir, have already started causing hindrances for TBF by way of “politicking” and “harassment.”
“After we formed the TBF, some political parties have encouraged their activists to form a parallel group called Tosmaidan Bachao Forum. Their aim is to sabotage our agitation and gain political mileage out of the issue,” he says.
“Army too has started gathering information about us. It is not going to be a smooth journey,” Nazir added.
The economic benefits in promoting Tosmaidan as a tourism destination are also a motive behind the public opposition to the lease.
Forests have been a major source of income for the villagers, but their depletion over the years has driven locals them to other, very unsafe, means.
During the training season, villagers say, the Army pays Rs 700 a day to a young adult for carrying on horses explosives from its base camp near Drang, a village about 2 km uphill from Shonglipora, to the firing range.
The Kashmir Reader team saw a group of locals lifting the explosives stuffed in secured containers.
A good chunk of the population from Shonglipora and its nearby villages is also said to collect the used shells at Tosmaidan for sale as scrap. This is also believed to be a reason of causalities.
“Tosmaidan is so beautiful that it can make anyone forget the best known tourist spots in Kashmir. But no tourist comes here for it is unexplored and also because it is a firing range,” Tanveer Ahmad Farash, sarpanch of Lassipora village, says. “If it (Tosmaidan) is developed as a tourist spot, people here will not have to starve.”
On the other hand, the local administration here has expressed complete helplessness to get the Army firing range shifted from Tosamaidan.
“We cannot do anything. It is up to the government,” District Commissioner Budgam Khurshid Ahmed told Kashmir Reader.
“The Army has asked us for the extension of the lease and we are trying to compile a Non-Objection Certificate (NOC). However, the government will take the final call,” Khurshid said.
Meanwhile, the fight against the possible extension of the lease has reached New Delhi.
Dr Raja Muzaffar, a social-activist from Chadoora, another Budgam locality, has submitted a petition to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) for granting the villagers “a right to live”.
“The commission (should) direct the state government not to extend the lease beyond 2014 in favour of the Union of India through the Ministry of Defence,” his petition reads.