Families and villagers preserve the signs that remind them of the victims of the Pathribal killings of 2000. The Indian Express visits some of these villages after an Army court martial cleared five personnel accused of faking the encounter.
Nazir Ahmad Dalal opens a dusty, sky-blue refrigerator and takes out a half-empty bottle of Rooh Afza squash. The last one to sip from it was his nephew Zahoor Ahmad Dalal, 29, and that was 14 years ago. “No one has touched this bottle since,” says Nazir Ahmad.
Zahoor’s body, burnt and mutilated, was among five exhumed from graves in three villages on April 6, 2000. Army personnel had killed the five on March 25 and described them as foreign militants responsible for the killing of 36 Sikhs five days earlier in Chittisinghpora, close to Pathribal. Last fortnight, the Army closed court-martial proceedings against five personnel and cleared them of charges of having faked the encounter.
It is the first time the Dalal family in Mominabad is letting an outsider into the house since Zahoor was killed. The Dalals themselves unlock and enter the two-storey building once or twice a week — only to switch on the lights. “It is a feeling we have that the house is not empty,” says Nazir Ahmad. “It has been 14 years and we haven’t snapped the electricity and water supply to the house. If we do, our sister will feel sad.”
It retains many reminders. A yellowed telephone directory carries romantic verses in Zahoor’s handwriting. The directory is from 1994, when a telephone connection was a luxury, and lists Zahoor’s name on page 159. In the corridor is a kerosene lamp, now covered in cobwebs, a reminder of the time when inverters hadn’t come into fashion.
In a wood and glass cupboard in the kitchen is a plastic jug that Zahoor drank water from. There is a red toothbrush he used in 2000. On the top shelf is an empty bottle of Dabur Chyawanparash, manufactured in October 1999. “Zahoor regularly ate from this,” says Nazir Ahmad.
Mominabad: the house
Zahoor was well-off, running a textiles shop in Anantnag. He disappeared on March 22, 2000, after stepping out for evening prayers.
“He was sitting besides me. I asked him to buy some oranges,” says his eldest uncle, Mohammad Yusuf Dalal, who now runs Zahoor’s textiles shop. “When he brought the oranges, I offered him some but he hurried to his house and then left for the mosque. Everybody else returned but he didn’t.”
The family’s search ended after a few days. “A villager from Pathribal told me he had been killed,” says Yusuf. “We were hoping the news was wrong. The Army wouldn’t allow anyone to go to Pathribal, but an old friend of mine went in the guise of a holy man and came back with a piece of cloth. It was from Zahoor’s shirt.”
The exhumation confirmed it. “I identified him from his ring and burnt sweater,” says Nazir Ahmad. “He was in an Army uniform, which was intact when the entire body was charred. It was after burning them that they dressed them up in Army fatigues.”
Zahoor’s father, Abdul Gaffar, had died when the only son was just nine. With his four sisters married, Zahoor’s world revolved around his mother Raja Begum. She hasn’t entered the house since he died. Her brothers too restrain her fearing the reminders will be too painful to bear. What she does do is gaze at the house from the floor verandah of her brothers’ home.
“Ask Farooq Abdullah (the then chief minister) what he said that day and what he has to say today,” she calls out from the verandah. “Ask them what wrong my son had done.” And when the house is shut again: “Did you find my prince there? Tell him, please come.”
Brari Angan: the pictures
In a small, rusty tin box, Mirza Noor has kept three pictures of her husband Juma Khan, 55 in 2000. The first shows him with a henna beard and in a green turban. He had it taken in Jammu, the day before he returned home. “This picture gives me the reason to live,” she says.
Another picture is of Juma Khan’s second funeral in his village, Brari Angan, after the body had been exhumed from the original grave. The third shows the burnt, mutilated body on the ground. “I still cannot sleep,” Mirza says. “Whenever I shut my eyes, that image comes to me.” Yet she refuses to destroy the picture. “How can I? It is his last photograph.” Two men from this village, the other too called Juma Khan, were killed.
Zona Tengri: the shacks
From Wuzkhah, a roadside village at Pathribal, a 1½-km uphill trek leads to Zona Tengri, a small plateau where Gurjjar shacks lie unused. These connect the five families who lost members to the “encounter”.
On the morning of March 25, 2000, the army cordoned off the area and asked villagers to stay inside their homes. They heard gunfire and the loud thuds of mortar shells. When they were allowed to come out of their houses, they found the five burnt bodies in the shacks.
A fortnight later, when the victims had been identified as innocent civilians, villagers here decided to turn the site into a place of prayer. “It was a collective decision of the villagers to use this area only for prayers,” says Gulzar Ahmad Khan of Zona Tengri.
The villagers haven’t repaired their old shacks but built new ones instead. “How could we live in those shacks? The blood of innocent people was spilled there,” says Syed Mohammad Yousuf, 65. “It gets scary sometimes.”