By Murtaza Shibli
Bijbehara: At around 8:15 in the morning, the main road at Sadder Bazar, the oldest open market in Bijbehara, hometown of the chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, was jam packed with men who had come to offer the prayers marking the start of the festival of sacrifice, Eid al-Adha.
The swelling gathering of around 5,000 people, including men, youth and the children, appeared angry and agitated on seeing hundreds of soldiers and policemen having blocked the Zirpara bridge, the only passage across to the expansive grounds of the Bijbehara Higher Secondary School, the designated venue for the prayers.
When I arrived at the scene, I saw a group of six or seven citizens led by Zia-ul-Haq Nazmi, a local imam, walking across the bridge to reach out to a police officer on behalf of the people to request for the passage across to allow the people to offer the Eid prayers on the ground that had been prepared the last night.
More than a hundred volunteers had invested several hours to clean the ground, neatly marking the boundaries of rows with lime and installed a sound system, all ready for the occasion.
Early in the morning on 13 September, the Eid day, soon after the fajr prayers, the venue was locked down and cordoned off. Because of the communication gag, the news could not travel. Unbeknown, when the people reached Sadder Bazar, they were shocked to see the bridge closed.
Scores of them stopped by, wondering what to do next. Thousands of the early birds who had gathered in protest at the central Jamia Masjid also marched towards the bridge amid the customary chants of the Eid takbeers.
Everyone stopped just before the bridge about 30 yards away from the other side where the forces had blocked the route, waiting in anxious anticipation.
Within less than two minutes the negotiations with the police had failed, as I watched the group come back with only the dejection at hand.
The failure to gain permission for the prayers turned the tame congregation into a defiant protest demonstration. The angry crowd first started shouting slogans against what they described as “official terrorism”, but afterwards the slogans changed in support of azadi, Pakistan, and Hizbul Mujahidden, and an odd shout in praise of the Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba.
This continued for a few minutes while the elders tried to convince the youth to head towards the Jamia Masjid as an alternate venue.
Gauging the sensitivity of the situation, I also waded into the debate, a rarity on my part, and supported the idea of praying at the Jamia to avoid confrontation with the forces that were armed to the teeth and looked ready for yet another kill.
After a few minutes, it looked the elders were partially succeeding in directing the people towards the Jamia Masjid. Therefore, some of us started contemplating to move towards the mosque.
At this very moment the police mounted an attack, firing what sounded like dozens of pellet cartridges, tear-gas shells and sound grenades.
The attack was so sudden, intense, and without any warning that it took us a few moments to understand what was happening.
Dozens were injured by the pellets and tear-gas shells, or due to the resulting stampede. I was smothered and remained clueless for several precious seconds.
I couldn’t have made it but for the determination of a childhood friend Yunis Saleem, who at his own peril grabbed and hauled me for more than a hundred yards to a place of relative safety.
When I got back to some sense after several deep breaths and pouring water on my head from a nearby tap, I noticed cries of more than a dozen kids who had either got separated from their fathers or terrified by the loud shelling and the ensuing mayhem amid terrible clouds of smoke.
Despite unceasing coughs and pain in the eyes provoked by the gas, people were consoling them and some women from the nearby locality were shouting from their half opened doors to invite them inside.
I also saw a few injured teenagers helping each other in taking out pellets from their bodies. One of them was Zahoor from a neighbouring village, who did not give his full name for fear of being identified and later harassed or tortured by the police.
He told me he was in front of me moments before the police attack. Since I had managed to move a few yards towards the direction of the mosque, I was spared the injuries.
A person tore his own white vest that had acquired a slight yellowish hue into small strips fashioned like the surgical gauze and applied it to the blood splattered legs of Zahoor.
Unfazed by about a dozen pellet injuries to his lower limbs, Zahoor kept talking to me in a laidback fashion: “Our elders used to tell us there was no ban on our prayers and would question us why would we fight. I hope they understand us now”.
When I asked his friend who had also received some minor pellet injuries about how he felt, he sounded pretty composed. “These things happen everywhere. Freedom does not come cheap. You have to sacrifice lives to gain it,” he said. He refused to give out his name, but told me he was a B. Sc undergraduate student whose dream before the death of the iconic Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was to be a civil servant.
“Now I want to be a mujahid to fight for justice and honour of Kashmir,” he said.
The reaction was in line with the current refrain and, therefore, not surprising, but it certainly dispirited me, as it felt like a prophecy about some very dark times ahead.
Soon our interaction was obliterated. Within a couple of minutes the police had crossed the bridge and started attacking people from a close range.
I watched at least half a dozen smoke shells being fired towards us into a small road in a span of less than a minute. The impact was so severe that I nearly choked as I saw several people twist in pain or get dazed and confused.
I got pushed further towards Buta Mohalla on the banks of the river Jhelum. We could clearly see the bridge and the government forces in action. We saw a small boy, who looked barely seven or eight years of age and disoriented by the impact of the smoke, was ceased by the paramilitary forces and taken to the other side where the soldiers were concentrated.
Several women looking outside from their half-open windows started crying. This provoked a commotion and the people began yelling and shouting for the unknown kid’s release.
Irked by the uproar, the forces fired smoke shells, sound grenades and perhaps also pellets towards us. Thankfully, they hit the slope on the river bank so no one was injured, but it forced us to leave the place.
It took me a while to realise I was separated from my friends as I noticed I was walking alone. I tried to recall my moments and realised we must have got split soon after the second push by the paramilitary forces when I had managed to briefly talk to a couple of youth who were injured in the pellet firing.
I decided to go back to look for my friends on the other side using a short cut through a labyrinth of alleys. Barely some 50 yards into my trek I saw scores of people rushing towards me coughing and chased by the unending curls of nauseating smoke.
“They have fired dozens of shells and we can’t see or breathe”, shouted someone from a thick veil of fumes as I ran away.
I came back to my earlier place, but chose a slightly different spot taking the cover of a house. The shelling had spread to the other side of the town across the bridge where the people from the adjoining villages – Waghama, Veeri, Gadiseer and Dupatyar had also arrived to join the scheduled prayers.
They too were being subjected to indiscriminate shelling. This provoked groups of youth to throw stones at the police and the paramilitary forces, according to the locals who were able to watch some action from the attics of their homes.
Within less than half an hour, the whole town was looking like a war zone, with the continued shelling at various locations.
The word about the attack on the Eid gathering spread very fast. The women in the old town had gathered outside of their homes in the dense alleys crying for the safety of their loved ones who had gone for the prayers; others were wailing for those injured and the boy who had just been arrested.
I saw an elderly woman cursing the forces amid cries that the young boy ceased earlier would be beaten to death, a phenomenon that is becoming a common occurrence as the current uprising has entered into the third month.
“They did not even spare our Eid day,” a woman told me to me as I walked by the Pandit Hamam locality.
On hearing this I couldn’t help but cry as I was feeling pretty emotionally charged.
By the time I reached home my mum had learned about the situation through the continuous and loud shelling. She had been out on the road several times to look out for me and had grown worried for she was unable to get any news.
I briefly explained to her about what had happened omitting all the grotesque details including my close shave with the shelling and the pellet showers. “Such a brutality on the Eid day,” she said, as I noticed some mist form in her eyes. “Mum, it is not that bad,” I lied and left the conversation, pretending to go to the washroom.
The whole of this festive occasion was filled with an unending supply of sad news about the injured as the casualties mounted. There were attacks on several localities—Khar Mohallah and Dhobi Ghat in the old town—where the paramilitary forces vandalised several properties and destroyed household appliances.
Dozens of people were injured by the rampaging cops, per local reports. One elderly woman, Taja Begum, mother of a small roadside tea stall owner Mohi-ud-Din Wagay, an old acquaintance, was so frightened by the wanton destruction that she suffered a severe heart attack. She died early next morning, the second day of Eid.
The Eid had a similar flavour in other parts of the Kashmir valley. In the late afternoon, we came to know about a near total curfew in the Anantnag town as no one was allowed to come out of their homes. The day before, the paramilitary forces had allegedly killed a young laboratory technician just outside the district hospital following a grenade attack per the police claims. Elsewhere, almost all the Eidgahs, the prayer grounds, were locked, cordoned off and beyond the reach of devotees.
From the very early morning, this Eid presented an awfully ghastly sight. I have never seen such a heavy deployment of soldiers, not even in war situations that I have experienced in my life at several places in the world. When I approached the highway to reach the other side of the town on our way to the venue of the Eid prayers, I noticed scores of gun-wielding men in army fatigues standing alongside several armoured vehicles blocking the junctions and vantage positions. Though we felt nervous, I convinced a friend to walk with me along the main highway to determine the full quantum of the spectacle.
The moment we changed the direction of our heads towards the main highway, a vigilant policeman shouted and gestured with his long baton directing us towards the alleyway across the road that was almost blocked by an imposing armoured vehicle.
Before I followed his diktats, I stole a look at the highway ahead and it was full of battle-ready soldiers and their daunting merchandise of mortality. It was shocking to see dozens more soldiers with their armoury shining in the morning sun deep inside the alley.
They were busy cracking jokes or summoning oblique references to religious characters, oblivious to our sufferings and mourning on a day that should have afforded us some space in a siege that had now entered into the third month.
Although Kashmir has seen violence as a norm for the past three decades, Eid has remained an occasion of stillness and calm. This is for the first time in the history of Kashmir’s living memory that the occasion of Eid was marked by curfews, ban on prayers and attacks on religious congregations that killed four people and injured hundreds throughout the length and breadth of the Valley.
The former chief minister Omar Abdullah, who governed Kashmir in 2010 when more than 120 youth were killed in a similar public uprising, tweeted: “Long after Mehbooba (Mufti) has been forgiven by Kashmiris for the rest of her sins, she will be remembered for locking our sufi shrines on Eid.”