Churath, Qazigund: It was 6 pm on July 18 2016, and hundreds of children and young adults were playing cricket in a field shaded by bending walnut trees in Churath village, while their mothers at home were busy with their evening work.
Seventeen-year-old Amir Fayaz was playing too. Suddenly there came sounds of unprecedented army shooting, and he ran home.
His mother, Neelofar Jan too had left home to protect her son in the fear and confusion that had so unexpectedly broken out. When she reached the playground, soldiers of 9 RR stationed in Devsar were shooting indiscriminately at people there, youngsters, children, parents. Neelofar Jan was hit by bullet and died on the spot. She left behind two sons and two daughters, all under 17.
A mere two days earlier, Tajali Jan, her daughter, had taken a cell phone photo of her with Amir under an open sky filled with warm sunlight. Tajali remembers her mother telling her to take a good picture. “She was happy and elated,” Tajali says. “We all wanted to take a picture with her. We could never have anticipated that she would be killed in two days.”
Tajali at age 16 is Neelofar Jan’s second child. After her mother’s death, she has left her studies owing to the work at home and, more importantly, to look after her siblings. Her face retreated into sorrow as she looked at her mother’s picture and said, “She wanted me to study, but who will cook for them and who will stay at home?”
Their father, Fayaz Ahmad Shah, is a labourer, and leaves home early in the morning. He works seven days a week to feed his family. Tajali Jan, thus, is the one looking after the rest of the family – Amir, Neha, age 14, and Jasir, age 11. She wakes at 5 in the morning and starts at once with the cooking. “I have no choice but to accept the reality that I am their mother now. They depend on me. I look after them as if they were my children,” Tajali said, tears filling her eyes to give way to sobs.
Arshie, their mother’s elder sister, sighs over how Tajali has been burdened with work while she is still just a child. “She should be going to school, but now circumstances are different.”
Arshie remembers finding Tajali weeping bitterly in the kitchen at times in the day when her siblings and father are not around. “She is depressed, and I can tell that she is burdened with big responsibilities at this tender age. She weeps often. She once told me she feels heavy-hearted and as if she cannot breathe.”
Amir was the closest to his mother, Arshie recalls, and “she was his sweetheart”. Driven deep into loneliness after her death, he always looks sad and deprived; his aunt elaborates, “He said he feels like the whole world is spinning around him and he cannot move.” He is presently seeing a psychiatrist in the city: “If God were to ask me what it is that I want in this world, I would not hesitate to beg Him to give me my mother back,” he said.
Neha is a quiet girl and very strong. She does not show her emotions openly. She is the 8th standard at school and is a bright child, says Tajali. On waking each morning, she still goes first to the kitchen to seek out her mother, as had once been her wont. Upon finding her sister instead, she steps back and makes her way into the house’s other room to find and kiss the picture of her mother.
“She did not cry when she saw our mother’s dead body,” says Tajali quietly. “She just stared into her face and touched her hand.”
Jasir is eleven. His clothes are ragged, and when asked about them, his answer is plain: “‘Papa does not earn enough to buy me new ones.” In their improvised two-room home, Jasir runs from one room to another and wants to eat sweets and have toys. Their father keeps only Rs 50 as emergency money with Tajali, and she knows she has to spend it very carefully. But despite her careful management, this too is taking its toll: “I am losing my health as I think of what has become of us,” said Tajali. “I am half of who I was.”
All they have now is one another and the hope that time will mend their luck