Charar-i-sharief: Twenty three years after the devastating fire in Charar-i-Sharief – that razed the town and the revered shrine of Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Noorani (RA) -, many people in the town still feel remorse for having fled the town when the confrontation between militants and army peaked.
The Operation Shanti launched by Indian army to flush out militants holed up in the Chrar-i-Sharief shrine culminated on May 11, 1995 with the whole town and the shrine in ashes, more than two dozen dead, including 20 militants. However, the militant commander, Mast Gul escaped safely from the gunfight, and surfaced later in Pakistan.
Abdul Hamid, a shopkeeper in the town, has “dreadful memories” associated with the fateful days that also left him homeless for a long time.
“It was named the operation Shanti (Peace), but there was only Ahsanti (Violence) in it,” Hamid said at his shop opposite the new bus stand.
Like the rest of Chrar, Hamid lives in a house built after the devastating fire that consumed the old town.
Locals say that fire started on 8th of May 1995 from congested Baba Mohalla locality, which they allege, was set on fire by army after sprinkling gun powder.
“I was among few people who were present in the town when majority of the town had already migrated to safer places for shelter, I can’t forget how army sprinkled gun powder on Baba mohalla,” Hamid said.
Hamid, who now lives in new satellite colony, blames the army for uprooting and distancing him from the shrine. Earlier he lived in Gulshanand, which was closer to the shrine.
“People in the area were in frustration and nobody was aware what was going on as major chunk of the population was out of the town” Hamid said. “Initially the shrine was saved by efforts by people and militants by dosing fire adjacent to shrine, but on May 11 when major chunk of population was out of town the shrine was gutted.”
According to some reports of the time, the Army claimed that the migration of the people avoided foremost causalities in the incident.
In a report published by India Today (May 31, 1995) Major General D B Shekatkar said that “it was unexpectedly tough resistance from the militants and by burning the shrine and town it is the militants who gained”.
However, locals say it was a strategic manouvre by the army.
“To ease their job and to give final shape to the operation launched by Indian army the whole area was cordoned and set ablaze to offset the militants in the area” Muhamad Shafi, 46, said.
“It was exactly 1:30 am in the night between 10th and 11th May when I heard continuous gunshots for half an hour, which suddenly changed into flames. I could see through my bedroom window the heritage shrine going up in flames,” Hamid added.
Residents say that Charar had turned into a hotbed of militancy in the 1990s. Militants would roam freely and survived for long on local support. According to some residents, a few hundred foreign and local militants were present in the town and surrounding areas before the standoff.
“Many militants were good at religious knowledge, and started religious classes in the town. Scores of children attended these classes and people liked them” Gulzar Ahmad, another resident said.
He remembers having seen many militants close by, and had good relations with them.
Ghulam Ahmad, another resident, who is in his 80s, said that army used to take people for forced labour to build their bunkers and positions around the town.
“We were living under the shadows of two guns and army was taking people on begaar (Unpaid Work) to make bunkers and supply food items to other camps falling under the base camp locally known as radar,” Ahmad said.
During the siege, locals said, army installed a wire from Radar to town to keep communication with militants.
“Army was scared of the militants and were offering safe passage to them by using different mediums,” he added.
On the morning of May 11, when the residents returned, they found the town and the shrine buried under heaps of gutted debris.
“I still remember how people were beating their chests after seeing the damage. Nothing in our house was left behind and all things were dumped in the debris,” Hamid recalls.
“Nobody knows how Major Mast Gul escaped from the town, some claim that he left the area in fire tender and some assume that army gave him safe passage to move out of the town making his escape a mystery,” he added.