The lives behind the numbers: Glimpses of the five people killed in Handwara protests in Kashmir

Everyone tries to go back to normal except for the families of those killed in the firing, for whom nothing will be the same again.
The lives behind the numbers: Glimpses of the five people killed in Handwara protests in Kashmir
The lives behind the numbers: Glimpses of the five people killed in Handwara protests in Kashmir
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It’s the second day since the curfew was lifted in Handwara town after protests broke out on April 12, following allegations of a minor girl being molested by an Army man in the area. Five civilians had been killed during the protests, in police and army firing.

The army bunker in the main chowk from where the first bullets were allegedly fired at protestors has now been razed to the ground by authorities to calm tempers. A high level probe has also been ordered to punish the guilty. But there is still uneasiness in the air.

Suddenly the police personnel inside a vehicle stationed close to where the bunker stood spring into action. Anticipating trouble, a few shopkeepers in the market close their shops. In a matter of moments everyone starts running for cover. Like a domino effect, shutters start coming down one after the other. But nobody is quite sure what is actually happening.  

That’s when a group of students emerge from Degree College, Handwara, which is barely a hundred meters from the main market. The police don’t intercept the procession of students. Instead, they seem more interested in convincing shopkeepers to return to their shops. The procession of students, carrying ply cards demanding justice for Nayeem Qadir Bhat, 21, (who until last week was their fellow first year student at the college), crosses the main market and keeps moving towards Nayeem’s home.

Everyone tries to go back to normal except for the families of those killed in the firing, for whom nothing will be the same again.

At Nayeem’s home, people still keep coming in numbers to pay tribute to the “shaheed.” His younger sister, Muneera Akhtar sitting in a corner of a tent erected to accommodate the visitors, is still in a state of shock. “Why did they kill him?” she murmurs. 

Nayeem was a promising young man, an all-round cricketer, who hoped to make it big in the game one day. He had recently passed his grade 12 exams with distinction, and was hoping to secure admission at a college in Uttarakhand. 

“He wanted to study Bsc in forestry,” says his mother, Subi Begum. “On the day he was killed his father had withdrawn money from the bank for his fees. We were sure he would get admission. He was as good at studies as he was at playing cricket and I didn’t want him to stay here. All he did was play cricket.”

On April 12, Nayeem had left home around 2 PM to hand a camera over to his brother, a reporter with a local news agency covering the protest. There, his uncle Ali Mohammad Dar gave him some vegetables to take home, and both started walking back. While returning, Nayeem was allegedly shot in the abdomen by a policeman.

“The protest had just started. People were being chased by the police. We were walking back home when a policeman fired at us. He had been posted in the area for years. He knew both of us well. I looked at him and I didn’t think he would fire. The bullet hit Nayeem in the abdomen. We took him to hospital but he had already lost too much blood,” says Dar, who was with Nayeem at the time he was killed.

Nayeem’s mother has vowed to fight until killers of her son are given a “deserving punishment”. She says, “No amount of money, no job can fill the hole in my heart now.”

On the same day, 23-year-old Iqbal Ahmed Pir also died of bullets at Handwara main market, allegedly fired by police and army personnel.  “He was hit by three bullets – head, chest and abdomen,” says his younger brother Shahnawaz Ahmed Pir at their home in Drugmulla.

Shahnawaz Ahmed Pir, show his brother's photo on his phone

Iqbal was the eldest in the family, among three brothers and a sister.  A class 12 pass-out, Iqbal had to quit his studies a few years ago to look after the family since his father was left bedridden by a gallbladder ailment. He worked as a salesman at a photo studio in Handwara.

Iqbal made sure his two younger brothers and sister didn’t have to take that step.  He also wanted resume his studies. He had enrolled himself in college in 2016 through a distance education programme, and wanted to move to one of the Gulf countries to take care of the growing needs of the family. He also had a diploma in computers and taught young children in his neighborhood for a little extra income.

“He would never stop smiling. He was one of those guys who would always be ready to crack a joke. We didn’t know he was dead until we saw his photo on Facebook. He was a very caring boy. He looked after all of us,” says Rafiq Ahmed, his Uncle.

After hearing the news Iqbal’s family and neighbors reached Handwara around 5 PM. By then he was already dead for over an hour. “His body was lying on the roadside but we couldn’t retrieve it until 11 PM. Bullets and teargas shells were flying everywhere. It looked like the end of the world,” says Shahnawaz.

The third victim of the day was 54-year-old, Raja Begum. A mother of two children, Raja was working in her field in Langate — around a kilometer away from the scene of protests — when she was hit by a bullet in the head from behind.  

Mohammed Jamal Mir in the kitchen where Raja Begum would spend most of her day

“We knew about two killings in Handwara. But it was normal here. We both went to work in the field around afternoon. After a few hours I left for prayers but she insisted on staying back. She was a workaholic and did all the household chores all by herself,” recalls Mohammed Jamal Mir, her husband.

It wasn’t until 6:30 in the evening that news of Raja being hit by a bullet reached Jamal. When he rushed to the field, he saw her lying face-first on the ground in a pool of blood. “We took her to the district hospital here but they told us to take her to Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Science, Soura (60 km from Langate). She couldn’t survive the night,” continued Jamal.  

After a day of mayhem that saw three people dead and scores injured, the government imposed a strict curfew in the area. But the fresh spate of killings in the valley didn’t stop there. On the very next day, Jahangir Ahmed Wani, 24, died at a local hospital allegedly after being hit by a teargas shell in the head from a close range near his home in Nagri village in Kupwara district.

Jahangir's father Ghulam-ud-Din Wani (R), and his mother Zareefa 

Jahangir was the sole bread winner of the family. He had returned home from Punjab in February after the Pathankot attacks. He would travel there every winter to sell Kashmiri shawls to support his family.

“I had insisted on him to return soon after the Pathankot attacks. I didn’t think he was safe there,” says his father, Ghulam-ud-din Wani.

According to the family, Jahangir along with his cousin were waiting for a tractor at the link road that connects Nagri village with the main highway when two “Special Task Force” personnel started running towards them. The duo didn’t run. But just as the men in uniform got close to them they fired a teargas shell that hit him in the head.   

“There is no police station or army camp in the area. So anyone who says he was pelting stones is lying. Those who killed my son may have done this for an extra star on their shoulders, but I have lost my son. Can anyone bring him back?” asks Wani.

Jahangir was supposed to get engaged this past Sunday to his cousin from the same village. He is now buried at the martyr’s graveyard in the village close to his home.

The last victim to have fallen to bullets in this episode of violence was Arif Hussain Dar. He was just 16. A class 11 student, Arif was hit by two bullets allegedly fired by the army in his left leg on April 15 at Natsuna village.

Arif's three sisters and mother at their home in Awoora village in Kupwara

“Just after the Friday prayers, people started protesting against the killings in Handwara and Nagri. I told Arif to head home. I left from there too. But when I reached home I learnt Arif has been injured in firing. We reached the place and saw him lying there. He was bleeding but the army didn’t let us pick him up,” says Aijaz Ahmed, Arif’s brother-in-law with whom he had been living for past 11 years.

Back at his home in Awoora village, some 10 km from where Arif was killed, his two younger sisters studying in class 1 and class 9 are still unable to comprehend what has happened to their brother. Arif, had recently completed his grade 10 exams and wanted to become a doctor.   

(All images by Syed Shahriyaar)

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