12 years on, ‘unidentified militant’s’ clothes hanging from a tree, await identification

Baramulla: From the clothes hanging for the past 12 years from a tree in a Baramulla village, it is nearly impossible to recognize the man who wore them and long ago turned to dust in a nearby grave.
But the villagers keep it hanging from the Ailanthus tree, hoping that the man’s family might turn up one day, like hundreds of people who have visited the place in search for their kin who were subjected to enforced custodial disappearance by armed forces in the past 25 years.
As many as 135 bodies were brought to this village, Kitchama, by army, Border Security Force, CRPF and police over a period of several years. The forces would hand over bodies to the villagers for burial. Each time the villagers were told that the body is that of a militant who has died fighting the forces.
The man whose clothes hang from the tree was among these men. Normally, militants killed by the government forces are hailed as martyrs and need not be wrapped in shroud or ritual bath before burial.
But the villagers removed this ‘martyr’s’ clothes and buried him according to normal rituals. In an unprecedented move, they hung the clothes, a khan suit, from the tree.
Those were the days when people whose kin have been subjected to enforced custodial disappearance would scour every such village, where ‘unidentified’ people have been buried, for a clue about their loved ones.
Malik (he requested not to mention him by his full name) told this reporter that he remembered the day when army brought three bodies, dressed in khan suits, and said “they were killed in a gunfight in Uri”.
“We shot the pictures of the bodies and send them to Alsafa newspaper. We also showed pictures to people in many nearby areas. After a few days a group of people from Srinagar came here and identified the men. They said the trio had been picked up by the STF (an extra legal police force) when they were going to a wedding. We exhumed the bodies and they took them along,” Malik said.
As the bodies kept coming, the need for expanding the graveyard was also felt. The common land in the village was therefore converted into the graveyard, which the villagers consider so hallowed by the presence of ‘martyrs’ that the local Auqaf committee recently buried loose and torn pages of scriptures there. Such pages are buried so that they do not get defiled if littered.
“It all started in 1999 when a team of local police station inform the village head that they have received bodies of four foreign militants from army and we want to bury them with your help. Scores of us marched to the police station Sheeri and brought the bodies here. We buried them in the lawns of a shrine but when police started bringing bodies regularly we earmarked portion of common land for their burial,” Malik added.
Not all bodies, Malik said, had bullet wounds. Some had been tortured to death.
“We appeal to the people whose kin have been disappeared to come to the local police station and inquire about those who are buried here. They can at least have the address of their loved ones,” he said.
He also appealed to the people to general to at least raise funds for fencing the graveyard.