‘I have been in mourning for almost 30 years’

‘I have been in mourning for almost 30 years’
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Once a mother of six, Hajra lost two sons to encounters, two were disappeared

BANDIPORA: “I am sorry for the troubles you have to face talking to me. The continuous noise in my head has taken my ears too, and now I can barely hear,” says Hajra, who lives alone in a single-room house at Onagam village of North Kashmir’s Bandipora district.
“The road has become difficult for me to walk on as my eyesight is also fading,” she adds.
With water boiling on an earthen hearth (Daan) in the house compound, she pulls out embers from the hearth, drops them in a fire-pot and guides me inside. She sits in a corner of the room she lives in that also serves as a makeshift kitchen, with a few shelves on which utensils have been carefully arranged.
Haja Aapa, as her neighbours and relatives call her, is in her eighties and was once mother to six sons. Only two of them are alive but stay separately; the other four and her husband, she has lost in the Kashmir conflict. While two of her sons died fighting the army as militants, the remaining two are missing; she is in a dilemma over whether to accept that one of them was also killed in an encounter after joining militancy. But she hasn’t stopped looking for Bashir, picked up by the army 23 years ago, from his bakery shop, soon after his marriage.
Nazir and Rafiq who took up the gun were killed in encounters in Panzigam and Athwatoo villages of the district in the early 90s, while Aijaz, the youngest, had crossed the border “after going through harassment at the hands of government forces”, but according to information received by Hajra, he had later returned.
“I don’t know where he vanished, I never saw his body,” she says. She once went to Patan Baramulla’s Kreeri village to demand from a family the body of a militant killed in an encounter. “But they refused, saying that it was their son who had crossed over the LoC (the Line of Control) 12 years ago, he was hard to recognise, the body was charred. That’s the only information on him,” Hajra says.
“After Rafiq died fighting, my other son Nazir went to join militancy. As he was gone, my other son, 30-year-old Bashir Ahmad Sofi, was coerced by the army to reveal the whereabouts of his brothers. He was abducted from his shop by the army’s 14RR, stationed in Chitirnar, while he was making dough for bread. I had gone home to fetch a basket for the bread; in the meantime, an army truck came and picked him up. The army said to me that he had escaped, but has anyone ever escaped from the clutches of the army? The walls and wires around the camp are so huge that even a bird would not venture out.”
Hajra has only one photograph of her missing son, Bashir, which she carries with her everywhere, holding it close to her always as an only memory. “When I began to search for him madly, everyone thought I would lose my mental balance. Then a near one arranged for a photograph of Bashir; it’s his only photograph with several copies.”
While losing her sons one after another like beads from a string, she also lost her husband after enduring “phases of consistent torture at the hands of government forces”.
“I am enduring the great pain of the loss of my sons and husband; I’m enduring the miserable situation I am in too; this torment has no end,” shares Hajra, who has been running from pillar to post in search of Bashir.
“It has been seventeen years since Aijaz vanished, and approximately 11 years next month from when my husband died. I have been in a state of mourning for almost 30 years.”
In the midst of all her grief, Hajra also had to endure having her house burned to ashes by government forces, not once, but twice.
“They would come and accuse us of hiding militants and in this process burned down this house twice,” she said.
Wishing there could be a hint about her missing son amid the growing hopelessness, she says, “Can anyone still tell me if any one of them is alive? I will not take them away from whosoever has kept them but will only see them once if they are anywhere, so that my heart finds some peace which it is yearning for. Twenty-three years are not a joke. Will they still come back? Or is it impossible now,” Hajra asks hopelessly.
With her sharp hazel eyes sunk deep into her wrinkled face, courageous but old Hajra lives in great penury yet has remained one of the strongest members of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), a conglomerate headed by Parveena Ahanger, which seeks the whereabouts of those disappeared at the hands of state agencies. It is with the help of this association that the otherwise desolate Hajra manages to meet her monthly medical demands and some daily needs.
Though it had helped her a little, Hajra says people forget you eventually after helping out for some time. Weak and frail as she is, and with her sight and hearing fading, her leg joints are now giving way too.
“I sleep without food for days together as my household supplies often run short. The winter has come, and I am feeling weak and cold. People forget you, even your neighbours, but I have never spread my hands in front of anybody. Would my martyrs like watching me do so? Doctors say to me that I am not eating sufficiently and that that is why my health is worsening, but how can I tell them how helpless I am? I pray to God to help me out, He is my only solace. The struggle has cost me dearly,” Hajra says, dejected. “Who would not have been like me – a Queen – if death hadn’t come to my garden so early? The sight of my sons in their death and in my memory are holes in my heart which profusely ache.”
Hajra says she has fought with the government over her son’s return, “but they didn’t speak a word about my son. Even the FIR which I had registered after five days of Bashir’s disappearance hasn’t been shared by the police, despite years of request. Now I am weak, I have no one to accompany me, I don’t know where I will collapse. Who is going to fight with them anymore?”
With all hope lost, Hajra says, “I pray to God to grant me patience from hereafter as I don’t know if I have a week, a month or some days left to live. Will there be anyone to arrange a shroud for me and stone slabs for my grave?”