Budgam: The village of Sitaharan, 36 km from district headquarters Budgam, is nestled in thick forests overlooked by the infamous Tosamaidan, and flanked from three sides by army camps — each approximately at a distance of under 15 km. It is also known in the area as “mini Afghanistan” owing to the “toughness” of its people and the violent times they have seen. The village is the last outpost of human habitation on the northern side of Budgam district; the terrain is difficult and even now just the occasional mini bus travels to the village from adjoining Khag township some 12 km away.
But this is also a village of relatively unknown horrors: during the last 25 years of conflict in Kashmir, the village has seen an “unbearable” amount of army repression. The villagers, in fact, say that almost everyone was tortured at some point during the last 25 years.
“Our plight is still unknown to world. As you can see this is almost a jungle and rarely anybody except the army comes here” says sarpanch Adil Ahmed Sheikh, 56. Adil has been tortured several times. “The torture was such a daily feature of our lives that we have forgotten the number of times we were tortured,” he adds.
The villagers vividly remember the ’90s and are full of stories of collective torture and brutal harassment at the hands of the army.
One name that recurrently comes up is of one Major Bhim Singh of 34 RR, of the nearby Beerwah Camp, who was posted in the area from the middle ’90s to early 2000. “Major Bhim Singh was a sort of de facto ruler of the army in the whole area. And he was terrible with us,” says Mohammad Jabbar Khan, 65, a resident.
In the document ‘Alleged Perpetrators’ (AP) prepared by the JK civil society, Major Bhim Singh of 34 Rashtriya Rifles is accused of extra-judicial killing of three men, two among them from Srinagar — Ghulam Nabi Lone and Shakeel Ahmed — and one Ghulam Mohiddin Zargar from Lanlab, a village just 5 km from Sitaharan. Case No 24 of this document accuses Major Bhim Singh of human rights violations. And all the three case against him are sub judice in the district court Budgam. On 23 July , 1995 , according to the AP document , the three men, Ghulam Nabi Lone and Shakeel Ahmed both employees in the power department, and Ghulam Mohiddin, a local guide, had gone to Uri for a survey assignment when they were killed by Bhim Singh and later called ‘militants’.
“We don’t want to remember what we have been through. We were tortured like animals and there are many people who were rendered disabled forever,” says Mohammad Jabbar Khan, who was tortured “innumerable” times by the army. The villagers claim that in the ’90s , the army would come to the village and pick up men one by one and
torture them in the ‘provisional torture camp’ in a dilapidated school building . They say they have spent hundreds of nights listening to the cries of the men beaten one by one at the torture camp.
According to the villagers, the army from the nearby camps, Drang and Raiyar, and Beerwah, which are at a distance of 7 km, 10 km, and 14 km respectively, would also come to the village and start beating whoever came in their way. “They accused us of hiding militants and providing shelter to them,” says Adil Sheikh.
One winter night in 1996, remembers Bashir Ahmed, resident of the village, soldiers from 34 RR from the Beerwah camp took away several men for interrogation. “There were around 30 of us, and they gave electric shocks to us. After that, many men never married,” he says. “I was hit on the head and I still get migraines from time to time, and I still feel like a current is passing through my body,” he adds. Bashir also says that some of the men were tortured so severely that they became disabled: “Around a dozen men never married after that. The army crushed their testicles and inserted copper wires in their private organs.”
Fayaz Ahmed (not his real name) is one of the victims of that torture who suffers from permanent impotency. He has a frail physique and limps while he walks. He accuses Bhim Singh of the torture: “He was not a human being, he was an animal. He passed electric
current through my private parts and after that let me go.” Zahoor Ahmed Malik, 40, was forced to drink urine when he was taken to the torture centre. “The things the army did here are beyond human comprehension,” he says. Satar Khan , 67, whose arm was broken during torture says the men used to flee to the forests in order to save themselves from the army and some also went to Poonch district to work as daily labourers, ponywallas et al.
The women were also not spared. Adil Ahmed Sheikh says that while the men used to flee to adjacent villages and towards the jungle, the army would barge into homes and torture the women. Some were also molested, he says. “The army tortured our mothers, sisters and daughters like animals. Many women were raped, but they buried those things in their souls and never talked about it openly,” says Ghulam Rasool Sheikh, a resident.
In August 1999, Farida Begum, 39, was tortured by personnel the Beerwah army camp and rendered disabled forever. “My left arm is disabled. It was twisted by the army and broken at the elbow,” she says. According to her, in late August 1999, three months after her husband died due to torture injuries, a dozen men in plainclothes barged into her house. “I was sleeping with my 14 year-old daughter when the men entered and dragged me out of my bed. Their eyes were bloodshot and they abused me and asked for the whereabouts of militants from the village,” she says. She recounts how the men pushed her aside and began to search, smashing window panes and utensils. “While they were busy searching my home, I, fearing rape, tied my pyjamas with seven knots,” she adds.
Finding no weapons or militants in the house, the men dragged her out. “Outside, around 30 army men flanked me and a Major Singh kicked me on the chest and I fell to the ground,” she says. Then
the men yanked her by the hair and dragged her to the outskirts of the village. “The major twisted my arm and it broke. Then they tied my arms behind my back and blindfolded me and tore off my clothes,” she says, weeping. “They then threw me to the ground and two soldiers sat on my legs and another forced a bottle of kerosene into my mouth. During all this, she says, the army men kept asking her to show them the militants and their weapons. “I told them that I knew
nothing, the only weapons I had are the tools used for wood cutting and agriculture,” she says.
Farida says that after torturing her for hours, the army then poured a bucket of water mixed with chillies on her face. “It was like fire. I felt as
if my body was set on fire,” she recounts. Later, she was thrown into a stream. “Fortunately, the stream was not too shallow and I crawled out and walked in the dark and fell unconscious.” Next morning, the
villagers discovered her unconscious and took her to the nearby Khag hospital where she was treated.
The family filed an FIR against the Beerwah Camp. “Nothing has happened to the case and I am too helpless to pursue it. I put my faith in Allah and ask only Him for justice” Farida says. She adds she wants to forget about that day, but the pain her body still feels does not allow her to. “I get migraines and I can’t sleep properly. My body is always in pain” she says.
In June 1997, Zooni Begum, a frail 45 year old woman had gone to the nearby jungle to collect wood. Suddenly, her 13 year old daughter came running and told her that the army has come. The army men, who were from the Drang camp, caught hold of her and began to beat her up. “They were saying I give food to the militants and that I have weapons at my home. I denied that and they began to slap me and beat me with gun butts,” she says. In broad daylight, the army dragged her from the jungle toward s her village. They took her to her home and tied her up in a room: “They yanked my hair and tied me with a rope. Then they beat me badly.”
The army cordoned off the whole village, and, in her home, Zooni says, the army men tore off her clothes. “Dastgeer Sahab saved my honour. I was praying to God to give me death but not let the animals dishonour me,” she says. At noon, the crackdown was lifted and a semiconscious Zooni was thrown out of her house. “After they threw me out, they
set my house on fire. They said it is punishment for not ‘cooperating’ with the army,” she adds. There was no justice later nor any compensation for her burnt house. She too has not pursued the case out of fear. “When I see an army man, my heart beats fast and sweat breaks out on every part of my body,” she says.
No FIR has been filed against these incidents and the villagers give two reasons for that. One, that they were “assured” by the then-Congress MLA Sarfaraz Ahmed Khan that he “will handle the issue himself” and that the villagers “need not worry”. “We waited for his advice but in the end he never did anything,” says Fareeda.
The second reason, they say, was that there “was no difference between the police and army”.
“We had nowhere to go and the police used to threaten us instead, and never came to our help or filed an FIR against the army,” the villagers say. “Those were dark times and we are simple people, we were concerned about our lives and never went to police stations after recurrent refusals and threats. There were even some policemen who were working for the army and they used to tell them everything about our visits to police stations,” they added.