I was an innocent kid when crackdowns – horrendous events that have left a scar on me- happened in our village, Botingoo in north Kashmir. Watching soldiers surrounding the houses, hearing the tapping of their shoes, angry looks, AK 47s on their shoulders was an indubitably nightmarish experience for me.
One fearful crackdown still haunts my memory.
Crackdowns occurred frequently in those days, but this one was defined by a surreal fear, apprehension and surging emotions.
It was bitter winter and the Holy month of Ramadan. In the early morning, whilst I was asleep I heard loud cries emanating from the outside. I did not want to sneak outside. I want to dream. I dismissed the noise and assumed that it was our neighbors or their children. But the sounds were getting louder and louder.
As I rubbed my eyes softly, my elder brother came running towards me and pushed me without saying anything. I started crying as I was afraid something bad had happened. When he took me outside the house, soldiers had already surrounded our house. They were shouting at us and hurling abuses. Their actions were meant to intimidate us. One of the soldiers lambasted our neighbor. He was pleading to him, but they were merciless.
The whole village had gathered in a nearby school. My parents and other family members too. It was cold and everyone had brought a fire pot, but we forgot to get one. As I started looking around, I saw there were children, older men who can hardly stand on their feet, some women without headscarfs and other women feeding their babies.
I remember ‘Ikhwanis’, who were leading army to search our houses; they were spies working for the army. They were looking for militants who according to them were planning to attack their camp. Our houses were frisked from basements to balconies. They found nothing. The Army Major ordered his troops to let us go back to our houses. Women were let go first. Everything was going smoothly, but suddenly I noticed one of the soldiers was burnt from head to toe. He was shouting loudly as he was in terrible pain. No one knew what was happening. As we start inquiring, ferocious soldiers chased three women. They were not terrorists, but one of them had thrown a fire pot at one of the soldiers. The soldiers had said something to the women (probably abusive and in the nature of harassment) and in return one of the women in protest had thrown fire pot at that soldier.
These women were our relatives and our close neighbors as well. The soldiers were beating the mother and two of her daughters ruthlessly. Everyone was shocked and surprised. As I looked at their father, I noticed he was crying. “Don’t beat them, don’t beat them” is what I heard he was saying. There was hue and cry everywhere. The soldiers came running towards us and asked everyone to give away fire pots to them. All the fire pots were thrown in the river. Soon the river was filled with fire pots. They were floating like water lilies.
Everyone was in fear. I thought maybe they would now beat or shoot us. Soldiers were waiting to do anything to us, as they were waiting for orders from the Major. We were watching anxiously. The Major was angry. He was looking at everyone with distrustful looks. He was tall and was wearing a brown cap. He had a pistol hanging on left side of his pants. While he was walking to and fro, he was shouting at one of his soldiers. There was heated argument between them. But suddenly the Major ordered his soldiers to let the women go home, then the men. As I heard his order, I felt like I was going to heaven.
We were curious to see the injured women. I started running towards their house. I stopped at their front door. There was a stained scarf with blood marks lying on the ground. I didn’t touch it. As I entered their house, three women were bleeding. All the other women present were crying and sobbing, helplessly watching. A mother and one of her daughters had fractured their legs and another one had lost her front tooth. They were in terrible pain. There were many bruises on their face and arms. The air was filled with the smell of blood. We tried to console their father who was hugging his daughters and wife. They were immediately rushed to the hospital. I was unable to stand there for long as I was scared. My parents told me to return home. As I sneaked back, eyes filled with tears and heart beating loudly, I heard “Burn their house, burn their house” angry soldiers were shouting.
In those days it was common for army to brutalize and harass people in some way or the other. There were many occasions when the Major had harassed them. “If something happens to my men, I will kill you all,” Major was heard telling the bruised and battered family.
The soldier, who was hit by fire pot, was seriously injured. Now, they want to take revenge. The soldier survived. If that soldier had died, the rumors were that they might have torched our village. These soldiers can perpetrate any crime as they have immunity under the law called “AFSPA” (Armed forces special power act).
Many years have passed since the incident, but that day still often strikes me like ‘thunderbolt’.