Witnesses of the army’s firing at Churath village in Qazigund tell of a sadistic attack that drew people out of their homes, then gunned down the women and children
Churath, Qazigund: On July 18, two women and a man were shot dead by the soldiers of the army’s 9 RR (Rashtriya Rifles) at Churath village in Qazigund. Seven others sustained bullet injuries, among them four minors, one of them 8-year-old Aqib Fayaz Shah, who was shot in the stomach. The army has regretted these killings and called for an inquiry into the incident. The families of those killed and residents of Churath village say that the army has created terror in all the villages of Qazigund after the killing of Burhan Wani, and “they can slay more innocent lives as their hearts are filled with hatred for Kashmiris.”
To know what actually happened that day, I travelled to Churath to meet the eyewitnesses, police and army, and to know why the army fired at unarmed civilians.
The confrontation between the army and the people started at Khargund village in Devsar. Residents of Khargund village said that the army suddenly arrived and started smashing windowpanes of houses. They said that no protest was going on in the village nor had anyone attacked army vehicles.
A boy of Khargund village, who wished to be not named, said, “I was playing cricket with many other boys in a small ground, next to the main road. It was around 5:30 pmwhen I saw a number of army vehicles approaching the village from Devasar of 9 RR. We just froze at their sight. The soldiers came out and started to hurl stones with slingshots at the houses. We all ran in different directions. We heard that soldiers were abusing people and breaking windows. Then someone appealed from the loudspeaker of the mosque to come out and protest. I heard him saying, ‘They will kill us. God save us from these kafirs.’”
On hearing the appeal, people came out of their homes and gathered in large numbers on the streets. The army soldiers then went away, taking with them three young men from the village. They went towards Churath village, about a kilometre from Khargund, eyewitnesses said.
At Churath, a village of 630 households, the situation was calm and all shops were open. Some people were sitting under the shade of a walnut tree talking about the uprising. Young men and boys were playing cricket and volleyball in a small ground. Their mothers were cooking food. “It never struck our mind that our children were unsafe outside,” said the mother of a boy who was playing cricket that day.
Ahmad, who was sitting at a shop, recalled, “At about 6 pm, a number of army vehicles came from the Qazigund road and stopped in the middle of our village. I went swiftly to see what they were up to. I saw one army vehicle carrying a heap of stones. Then I saw that there were many soldiers already at the village who were hurling stones from slingshots everywhere. Window panes began shattering and women cried out, ‘They will kill our sons playing in the field.’ This created terror in the village.”
Ahmad said that the army vehicles stopped near the playground where boys were playing cricket. By the time they arrived, the soldiers who were already at the village throwing stones at the houses, fear and confusion had spread in the village.
A resident whose house is next to the playground refused to talk about the incident, pleading that he did not want to see his kids orphaned and his wife a widow. He said the army might abduct him or kill him if he opened his mouth.
Mohammad Abbas Itoo, who was playing that day with other boys, did speak of the bloodbath he witnessed that day. He is the younger brother of Showkat Ahamd Itoo, who was killed by army bullets on July 18. Abbas, too, sustained bullet injuries in his arm while trying to save his brother.
“We were so engrossed in playing we had no idea that the army was hurling stones on the other side. But when we saw the army vehicles coming from the Khargund side, we stopped playing and kept an eye on them as they stopped a few meters away from the playground. They gave us angry looks. We did not know their intentions,” Abbas said.
The soldiers who were throwing stones in the middle of the village joined their comrades near the playground after people started to come out in protest. News had spread across the village that the army had taken away their children and were going to kill them. Mothers ran out of their homes to save their children.
Abbas said that when people heard that the army had taken away boys from Khargund village, they assembled on the road and began throwing stones at the soldiers. “When they saw us assembling, they took position to fire at us. When people threw stones at them, they opened fire, indiscriminately. We could only hear a buzzing sound, like bees, in our ears. My brother was hit and I rushed to save him. I was hit in the arm and I fell on the ground.”
Abbas said that he saw people falling on the road one after the other. “Dozens of people would have been killed had not the walnut trees stopped the bullets,” he said.
This shooting lasted for more than fifteen minutes, witnesses said.
One among the many women who ran out to save their children was Jawahar. “It was unclear what was happening. We just confronted the army and wanted our sons back,” she said. “I was hit by a stone on the forehead thrown by the army. I was also assaulted by the soldiers.”
Jawahar’s arm was fractured after she was thrashed by the soldiers.
Amir Fayaz, 12, was playing cricket. ‘When I saw the army, I ran away to home,” he said.
His mother, Neelofar Jan, was looking for him. When she didn’t find him, she was sure that the army had taken him. She went to where the soldiers had gathered. She was hit by two bullets in the stomach. She died before reaching the hospital in Srinagar.
Neelofar has left behind two sons and two daughters, all under the age of 12. Her husband, Fayaz Ahmad Shah, is in shock and was unwilling to talk. He said talking to the press won’t bring any justice. “It doesn’t happen in Kashmir. Killers always walk free here,” he said.
Another mother, Sada Begum, had also gone out to look for her three sons. Her daughter, Noor Jahan, followed her at her heels. She said, “My mother was desperately looking for my brothers. We were horror-struck when the army started to fire at the crowd. My mother was hit by two bullets in her head. As I went after her, I was hit by a bullet in my hand. Everyone was crying in pain. I was telling my mother to get up but she was not answering. My arm was in pain. I knew my mother won’t make it.”
“After the army gave vent to their hatred by shooting at us, they left as if they had won a war,” Noor Jahan said.
Sada Begum is survived by three sons and two daughters. Her son Nisar Ahmad, who was out in the field that day, said he did not know that his mother had died in the firing. He came to know of it when her body was brought home from the Srinagar hospital. “She went looking for me and she died,” the boy said with tears in his eyes.
Many elders in the village said that the army’s firing was an act of targeted killing, meant to send a strong message to people across Qazigund that “we will be killed for supporting militants.”
Ghulam Hassan Mir, husband of the deceased Sada Begum, said that the people do not want sympathy of police and army. “They came and butchered our people. They provoked us. We didn’t,” he said. He also said that if any organisation or individual was seeking money to help the Churath victims, it was a fraud. “We don’t want any financial help,” he said.
The station house officer (SHO) of police station Qazigund, Nazir Ahmad, said that an FIR had been lodged for the incident and an investigation was on. He refused to show the FIR and did not give any more details, saying he could not disclose any information while an investigation was going on.
The commanding officer of 9 RR stationed in Devsar kept me waiting for half an hour near the entrance of his office. Then he sent word that he could not meet me and I should come after some days.
Others injured in the firing at Churath on July 18 include Junaid Ramzan Wani, 15, hit by a bullet in the eye. He is being treated in Delhi. Basit Amin, 15, hit by two bullets in stomach. He is being treated at SKIMS. Ishfaq Malik, 16, hit by bullet in his knee and Rafiqa, 30, hit by bullet in her leg, who had also gone out to look for her son.