‘In dreams, I see myself with my son in the pastures where we grazed sheep’
Malangam Bandipora: A rough road leads to Peth Malangam village, dotted with walnut trees and old roof houses on the sides, some of them fenced with rocks from streams.
It leads to a barren hill with traces of pine trees, wherefrom an under-construction dusty road goes uphill to villages, with entry through the gates of an army camp.
Just before the army camp, besides a dried stream is the humble house of Ghulam Mohammad Chopan.
A shepherd, Mohammad, is not sure of his age. His grandson says he must be over 100 years.
For Mohammad, life was beautiful once, which turned dark 28 ago in the December of 1990, when his youngest son, Habibullah, 17, was picked up by government forces.
“The sky was clear blue as the dawn of 14th December 1990 broke. We lived slightly downhill back then. Habibullah left from home at 8am to graze the sheep. I was about to follow him when chaos broke. Army had entered the village, men began to flee.” Mohammad recounts.
“Unaware of all this Habibullah continued. Woman on the way told him that army has entered the village and you must flee, but instead of fleeing, like other youth, Habibullah walked into the direction of the army.”
Mohammad is hard of hearing, unable to move without support, and remains most confined to his mud plastered room. A cupboard, overhead, is filled with medicines, some of them scattered on the windowsill.
“It was for the first time that the army had entered the village as the uprising in Kashmir was in its inception,” he says, his voice wavering and hands shaky.
“The army had brought a local masked informer along. They caught hold of Habibullah and dragged him to the identification parade near the Jamia Majid where all the men of the village had been gathered. The informer, who was in a vehicle, I am not sure if mistakenly, identified my son as an area commander of militant outfit,” Mohammad continued.
After that, he was tortured very badly, he added, his pleas went unheard.
“Habibullah was illiterate, he knew no language except Kashmiri. It infuriated the army men more as they weren’t able to grasp what he was saying. His pleas of innocence, his cries, went unheard,” said Mohammad, as his speech turned to sobs and tears roll down his wrinkled face.
After that, Mohammad said, army took Habibullah to search houses at gunpoint. “He was kicked and dragged by the hair in the process.”
At this moment, Habibullah realised he won’t see his family again. “Goodbye to you all, they will kill me,” were the last words he was heard saying before he was bundled into a truck along with seven other youth of the village and taken to an army camp located in Kaloosa village, where nowadays a Block Development Office is operational.
Mohammad has lived with his memories since.
“Habibullah was just six months old when I underwent a kidney removal surgery. He had begun crawling, and I couldn’t move for many months. He rose and began to walk in my bosom, and when I returned to take the sheep to the pastures he followed my steps. By the time he was 17, he had scaled so many mountainous pastures with me, sometimes we wandered for months together in the green valleys. He was for me an oasis in the unending hot deserts, so calm and polite who knew nothing except shepherding,” Mohammad said.
In the days that followed, Mohammad made all efforts to look for Habibullah. The seven youth picked up from the village along with him, were released after two weeks.
“The day after he was taken, God too was sad and He brought so much snow that I hadn’t seen ever before. But in that situation I walked with my son-in-law, every day, for 15 days to Bandipora asking for my son’s return from the army. But every time I returned hopeless”.
One of the youth picked up along with Habibullah, and later released, told Mohammad that they had heard Habibullah’s cries in custody.
“Oh my Mother! They have killed me” they had heard Habibullah saying. The youth told him that after they were picked they had been blindfolded and kept separately.
“Habibullah was the first to be taken for the torture, as he came, he was asking for water, afterwards what happened with him, they said, they do not know” Mohammad said.
The fear of army was so much those days, that no one had the courage to question them, Mohammad said.
“I even pleaded before various elders from the village to accompany me to plead for my son’s return but no one had guts to face the army, fearing repercussions. Even the army men wouldn’t let us look straight into their eyes. They would beat us, throw something at us, and tell us in rage, what we can do? We politely said “hum kya kara saktai hai,” he said.
After some time Mohamamd heard that the army company has shifted to Dobgaw village of Sopore.
There he says, he met a CRPF officer.
“When I asked him ‘Mera Jawaan Kahan Rakha (Where have you kept my young boy)’, he angrily responded ‘Agar beguna hoga, ghar aayega, nahi hoga tou kabi nahi aayega’ (If he is innocent he will return home, if not he will never come back).”
As he kept frantically looking for Habibullah, people told him that he was killed soon after he was picked up.
One day, he said, he went to a nearby village and asked a woman fakeer, “who was like a sage, and often talked to herself” if Habibullah was alive.
“She responded repeatedly with ‘bloodshed…bloodshed’,” Habibullah said, adding that after the incident he also had thoughts that Habibullah might have been killed.
Habibullah’s mother, Saja, died some 15 years later after going through unbearable pain of her missing son.
“She would cry every evening and when I would be back from work, she would question me about Habib” said Jabar, Mohammad’s other son who is in his 50’s.
“In this time she lost her eyesight and mental balance and became hypertensive. She would walk uphill from where Habibullah took sheep for grazing, calling his name and crying profusely. Ultimately she died of heart attack,” Jabbar said.
After 20 years, in 2010, a rumour spread that some Chopan youth from Bandipora is in Kotbalwal jail Jammu.
“I went there (Kot Balwal) in hope that he might be my son but he didn’t turn out to be Habibullah,” Mohammad recalls.
Still struggling to find the answers the old man says, “My hope is Almighty Allah, but is Habibullah anywhere? Is he alive, if yes wouldn’t he come looking for us, for me? Or is it like what they say that the dead never return?”
Though sleep is a “very rare thing”, he says, “whenever I have comfortable sleep, I see myself with my son in the pastures where we grazed sheep.”
After Habibullah disappeared, Mohammad says, he gave up shepherding, despite many pleading him to return to work for the sake of family.
“I told them God is there to run my family as for me my son’s company was my strength. What would have I done all alone?