So massive and merciless was the destruction wreaked by army soldiers that police officers said they were ‘sad’ for the incident
Hajin: It is 11am on Thursday and smoke is still billowing out of the stacks of dried grass that residents of Mir Mohalla Hajin had stocked for the winter. Uninvited guests are arriving at the residences of people here to console them for their “unbearable losses”, suffered the previous day when soldiers of the army’s 3 Rashtriya Rifles set afire 68 stacks of dried grass and other firewood.
Standing by the burnt stacks, Ghulam Ahmad Dar, 70, points towards his two-storey house and says, “All went up in the air. What shall I do for my domestic animals in the winter now?”
Dar said that it was about 1:30pm on Wednesday when army soldiers entered Mir Mohalla. “I was at home, along with the women. We could not stop the army men, as we were frightened, but the army’s actions angered me so much that I took up stones in my hand to hurl at them. My family stopped me,” the old man said.
Dar’s neighbour, Bashir Ahmad Rather, 45, took a group of reporters to his house, where his sister-in-law came out and pleaded: “Please ask the government to let us live peacefully.”
“We were inside our home,” Rather said, pointing towards his newly furnished one-storey house. “Army men came and set fire to the grass. Within no time, it was smoke all around and we could not see who was where and doing what. I have livestock of 200 and many other domestic animals.” At this, Rather’s sister-in-law said, “What shall we do now? Our livestock will die without grass.”
The place where the army soldiers burnt the grass stacks belongs to a man named Ghulam Mohi-ud-Din and it is where several villagers keep their stock of grass for the winter, Rather said.
Some yards ahead of Rather’s house, Farooq Ahmad Khan, 45, was sitting on the veranda of his house, smoking hookah. “The army men gate-crashed my house and broke all windowpanes with canes and stones,” he said. “Just five days ago, they set on fire all my stock of grass. What happened on Wednesday was the second incident of the army setting on fire the stocks of dried grass.”
Khan said he had livestock of 15 sheep and two cows.
Outside, on the road, a large gathering of people was discussing questions such as:
“Why should we pay for the failure of their (government forces’) cordon (against militants)?”
“It is a fight between government forces and militants; why should civilians become targets?”
To a question about the persistent protests in the area, a seventy-year-old, Ghulam Nabi Parray, replied, “It is my neighbour today whose property was attacked; tomorrow it may be mine. Of course, there is resentment.”
“Let the government forces fight against those who have guns in their hands,” he added.
A 30-year-old youth among the group said that the army’s actions were part of “Operation Tod-Phod”, a colloquial word for vandalism.
“It was around 11:30am when around 100-150 army soldiers from the 3 RR camp came walking via the watershed-Shahgund bund, and reached Bon Mohalla. At least three Casper vehicles and two other vehicles carrying soldiers came through main Hajin town. All of them converged in Bon Mohalla and Parray Mohalla. From there, they went berserk. They set on fire the grass stacks and a cowshed as well,” this young man said.
“It was a pre-planned act,” said the group in one voice.
Inside a house on the Shahgund road near Syed Mohalla, Aijaz-ul-Haq showed his broken Skoda car. “We closed the main gate and all doors of our house,” he told a group of journalists inside his courtyard, “but the army men came in by climbing the boundary wall. They damaged our car and tried to enter our house, but failed. Then they broke all the window panes.”
Haq is a neighbour of incarcerated Tehreek-e-Hurriyat member Abdul Hamid Parray, who is in jail since February 3, 2016. Hamid’s seven-member family lives in a single-storey house which was attacked twice in the past one week.
“The army men came and stopped outside our house and started abusing my father,” said Abdul Parray’s son, Hilal Ahmad. “They threw stones on our house and broke the window panes.”
The Parray family has now put polythene sheets on the windows to keep out the cold.
“Last time (they attacked), they set on fire our dried grass,” Hilal Ahmad said.
Across the nallah that flows along Shahgund road, lives Mohammad Shaban Parray. One of his three daughters, who studies in Class 10, said, “About 8 army men banged on our main door and broke all the windows. One of my sisters recently underwent surgery and we were very frightened. The army men were trying to enter our rooms.”
“We worked hard to construct this house,” said Shaban’s wife, “but we are more concerned about our honour and the safety of our daughters.”
“Our honour is our pride,” said her daughter Afroza. “They tried to break the doors… the attack lasted for at least 20 minutes.”
Nearby Shaban’s house, a family is busy shifting their stacks of grass to some other place. Pointing at it, a university student of the village said, “The cost of that grass is around Rs 30,000. Now that the dried grass in our area has been set on fire, there will be shortage in the winter. It is a crisis in the making.”
An enraged Afroza said, “We want freedom, that is why it is being done to us.”
On the way to Bon Mohalla from Syed Mohalla, Mohammad Sultan Shaikh, in his seventies, told Kashmir Reader: “It was loot. I could not save anything from my bakery shop.”
Shaikh said that soon after the “army raid”, he left his shop. “When we returned, there was nothing inside; the roti I had prepared was lying on the road, being eaten by dogs.”
One youth said that in Danger Mohalla of Hajin, army men barged into the courtyard of a house where orchardists were packing apples. “They took around 8 packs of apples and put them in their vehicles,” he said.
Hajin, according to the 2011 census, has more than 33,000 residents and is spread over 23 mohallas and 13 wards.
In a lone house standing amid a vast swathe of rice fields lives Mehtaba, a widow who has no son. She is weeping. Women from the neighbourhood sit in her courtyard and console her daughter and other family members. “I was inside (home), along with my married daughter,” Mehtaba said. “They (army men) came and I pleaded with them to leave us and our house untouched, but they broke all the window panes.”
Mehtaba said she lives at the house of her son-in-law.
“She is ailing and at time does not have money to buy medicine,” said one of her neighbours. Some friends of Mehtaba’s son-in-law, Ghulam Hassan Khan, have put on plastic sheets on the windows to stop the cold.
On the other side of the dry nallah along Shahgund road, a youth said, “My father, brother and I took up axes and stood guard around our piles of grass. No one (army men) came forward.”
“But it was a daredevil act,” he said of his action.
Some metres further, towards Bon Mohalla, from where the “Operation Tod-Phod” began, stands a half-destroyed cowshed. It belongs to a retired gazetted officer.
“This is terrorism, plain terrorism,” said one of the sons of Mohammad Yousuf Wani, whose cowshed and stacks of grass were set on fire. “My car and two motorcycles were also damaged.”
“We could barely save our cows,” the son said.
Wani’s younger brother is a Tehsildar-rank officer and lives adjacent to his brother. The elder brother’s house suffered the major damage; all its windowpanes have been destroyed.
“We called the DC Bandipora but he expressed helplessness,” the Wanis claimed. A few window panes of the Tehsildar’s house were also broken.
“Militancy is across Kashmir, not just here,” said Wani’s son. “Why do they target us, the common people?”
Locals of Bon Mohalla said that the army men fired in the air as well.
Beside the houses of the Wani brothers are ashes of about 30 stacks of grass. Locals said that they called the fire and emergency services, but the army soldiers did not let them come.
“The whole area was filled with smoke and women had to be rushed to the community health centre (CHC) because they suffered suffocation,” said a resident of Parray Mohalla who identified himself as Ahmad. “The army men did not allow the fire and emergency services to move towards our area. Their staff was even beaten.”
A trader who lives in Hajin said, “youth had become angry at the employees of the fire services. They were pelted with stones by youths who asked them why they had failed to do their duty.”
At community health centre (CHC) Hajin, records show that three employees of the fire and emergency services were treated on Wednesday. “One was hit in the face and had his tooth broken, Another was injured in the leg and yet another in his hand,” an official at the CHC said. “Some ladies also came here, gasping for breath. They had suffered suffocation from the smoke of the burning grass.”
After the fire alarm was sounded, a fire tender from the nearby Naidkhai station had to be called to Hajin. “The driver of that fire tender was hit in his face,” local sources said. Two fire tenders suffered damages and their drivers had to flee.
President of the Hajin traders’ federation, Mushtaq Ahmad, said, “At least six shops were completely damaged.”
His colleague, Nisar Ahmad, said, “About 68 stacks of grass were set on fire.” He said that all the houses in Bon Mohalla suffered damage.
At the police station Hajin located almost two kilometres away from where the incident took place, the station house officer (SHO) Mudasir Ahmad told this newspaper, “An FIR, number 77/2017, has been registered and an investigation has been started. All the parties, including army, will be questioned.”
The SHO said, “It was routine patrol of army soldiers from 3 RR which came under stone-pelting attack. The army men are not trained to contain the law-and-order situation which was created after the stone-pelting incident.”
“We held a meeting with the traders today, which was chaired by the SDPO (sub-divisional police officer),” he said.
Mushtaq Ahmad said that in the meeting, “Police officers said that they were sad for the incident.”
The SHO added, “At least two army soldiers were injured after being hit by stones. One of them required two stitches.”