Reported by: Tabassum Barnagarwala, Ubeer Naqushbandi, Wajahat Shabir, Ritesh Gohil and Kamaal Saiyed.
Bhagyamani Thakur does not recall if the terror attack in Anantnag lasted for seconds or a few minutes. All she could sense in the pitch dark of the bus was her bleeding sister-in-law Nirmaladevi Thakur and the sound of broken glasses. It is a miracle that she survived the attack, Thakur says, despite sitting at the window and in the direct line of the militants’ fire. Her sister-in-law wasn’t that lucky. “I counted five of them on the road and two on motor bikes. There could have been more. They were wearing police uniforms. So we were wondering as to why the police were firing on us,” the 50-year-old pilgrim, nursing an injured foot outside her hut in Santoshi village in Maharashtra’s Palghar district, says.
“Everybody in bus started shouting ‘Namaha Shivaya’ and our driver stooped low and pressed the accelerator,” Thakur recalls. Ramesh Patel, 57, of Vadoli village in Gujarat’s Valsad district, too credits driver Salim Shaikh for driving away from the ambush site. “One terrorist even tried to enter the bus but the cleaner closed the door and pushed him away. After driving for around 10 to 15 minutes, the driver stopped the bus near military vehicles, which were coming towards us after hearing the gunfire. Everybody was in a state of shock. The army took us out of the bus one by one,” Ramesh says.
On Monday, the 54 pilgrims in the Gujarat bus had visited popular tourist sites in the Valley before boarding the bus at 4.30 pm for Katra, a five-hour drive away. At 5.15 pm, a tyre was punctured, and they reached a mechanic. Ramesh recounts that it was only about three kilometres from the repair stop, when they heard what many passengers, according to him, thought were “firecrackers” in the dark: “By the time, I could understand what was going on, many people were injured and it was raining bullets. People started screaming and crying. Some even fainted. The entire floor of the bus was covered with blood.”
At the SKIMS hospital in Srinagar, tour organiser Pushpa Goswami, 49, too has praise for Shaikh. “Our driver sped away and stopped near the military camp. There, soldiers helped. Otherwise we all would have been dead,” she says.
Doctors treating her say she has bullet injury in the right peripheral region but she is defiant. “I will come again next year for the yatra seva,” says the burly lady, as she grieves for two for her neighbours, Usha Sonkar and Nirmaladevi, who lost their lives in the attack. Goswami says she initially didn’t realise she had been hit. “I thought I was alright at the time… I even met officials, the DySP and CM, who came over there to civil hospital. It was only when everybody was receiving treatment at the camp, that I found blood oozing out of my body.,” she says, adding that she was transferred here in the night.
A resident of Dahanu in Maharashtra, Goswami says she has been in the Yatra business for five years. “I am a yatra aayojak (trip organiser). I organise tours for women. I usually bring small groups to the yatra but this was a big one. We had an amalgam of three groups this time,” Goswami says.
Back home in Dahanu, Goswami’s husband, ambulance driver Divesh Goswami, struggles to hold back tears as he helps carry the bodies of Thakur and Sonkar. He would later drive the ambulance to Nirmala’s house in Ashagad. “I consider myself lucky, I’ll get to see my wife alive,” Goswami says. Pushpa had already contacted Divesh to inform him that she had survived. “She had called at 2 am on Tuesday. She managed to say that she is alive. I did not need to hear anything more,” the 50-year-old says.