Reported by Tabassum Barnagarwala, Avinash Nair, Ritesh Gohil and Kamaal Saiyed
Usha Sonkar, 50; Nirmaladevi, 50
Her last gift: A sweater for her daughter
On Tuesday, outside Mohan Sonkar’s vegetable shop in Dahanu town, slogans of “Pakistan murdabad” rent the air. On the second floor of a building opposite the shop, the sobbing of his four daughters could be heard above the angry slogans. Only the previous day, Mohan’s wife Usha Sonkar, 50, had told daughter Pinky that she had bought her a sweater. Two hours later, she was shot dead by militants in Anantnag district. “She never wanted to go. My father booked her seat a day before the trip because there were five seats empty in the bus,” weeps Usha’s eldest daughter Seema. “Why was she killed? She only went for a pilgrimage. Who will look after our father now?”
Usha, a vegetable vendor, was “very religious”, say neighbours. But on July 1, she had urged her husband Mohan to not force her to go for the Amaranth Yatra. Finally, she agreed, leaving on July 2 in a bus from Umbergaon for a 20-day tour. Accompanying her was her daughter Pinky’s mother-in-law, Chaya Mehar. After the Amarnath trip, the pilgrims planned to head to Katra to pray at the Vaishno Devi temple and later, to Manali in Himachal Pradesh and Ambaji in Gujarat. On Monday, the group had gone sightseeing and shopping at the local market and Usha bought a sweater for her daughter. Around 5 pm, soon after their left the shrine, their bus got punctured. It took over two hours for the driver to fix the tyre. It was already dark when the bus started again for the base camp. Somewhere in Anantnag, the terrorists struck.
Usha’s family first saw news of the attack on television. So did Nirmaladevi Thakur’s family, who live a few kilometers away, in Ashagad village. From the images on television, Usha’s family recognised the bus. They started calling the bus owner and their kin. That entire night, they flicked through news channels, only to get a confirmation of the death in the morning. Usha and Nirmaladevi were part of 15 pilgrims from Dahanu who had joined the tour for the Amarnath Yatra. “Even when I left my mother at the bus stop, I urged her to stay. I did not want her to leave because there is so much tension in Kashmir,” says Pradip Thakur, Nirmaladevi’s son.
Every year, Nirmala, 50, went on pilgrimages with friends from Dahanu village and has visited the Kumbh Mela in Ujjain, and temples in Varanasi, Pandharpur and Mathura. Pradip, a taxi driver who paid Rs 16,000 for the tour, says his mother had planned three months in advance for the Amarnath trip. Nirmaladevi’s daughter Neetu Singh Thakur says she bought her three salwar-suits, a new sari, and three sweaters. “I also packed four pairs of woollen socks. She could not bear the cold,” says Neetu, who is wracked with guilt since she had “forced” her brother to send their mother for the yatra.
On Tuesday, with the house reduced to a shocked silence as villagers and relatives pour in, Nirmala’s grand daughter Pooja, 13, keeps crying: “They (militants) should die just the way they killed her.” On Sunday, Nirmaladevi had called Pradip to say their bus was pelted with stones. “We were already tense about her trip,” says Nirmala’s daughter-in-law Rekha. At 5.20 am on Tuesday, Nirmala’s friend Bhagyamani Thakur called to inform them that she had died minutes after getting shot. “ She had motion sickness. She usually occupied the window seat. She must have been shot first,” Neetu says. “Even they (the militants) have mothers and sisters. Don’t they understand our pain?” asks Rekha, breaking into tears again.
‘Been on yatra over 15 times, didn’t know this would be last’
Laxmiben, 57, has been to Amarnath over 15 times, each time as a cook for the travel operator that took people to pilgrimages. On Monday, she was among those killed in the terrorist attack on their bus that left her friend and neighbour in Valsad town of south Gujarat seriously injured. On Tuesday, the two-room house in Madanwad locality, where Laxmiben lived with her two sons, their wives and children, plunged into mourning. “My grandmother left with the bus on July 2. She has been to Amarnath more than 15 times and so we were not worried about her safety. But we didn’t know this would be her last journey,” says Ajay Patel, 24, Laxmiben’s grandson, filling a small earthen pot with dry cow dung and straw as part of preparations for the funeral.
Ajay says he was the last person from the family to talk to Laxmiben. “It was my birthday on July 5 and so I had called her. It was then that she informed me that the tour party had changed their plan and was headed for Amarnath. When she had left, she had told us she was going to Vaishno Devi,” says Ajay, who works in an automobile repair shop. Laxmiben was accompanied by her friend and neighbour Laliben Patel, 55, who lives a few houses away from hers. Laliben is among those injured and currently undergoing treatment in Anantnag.
By noon, a temporary tin roof is erected outside the house. Men wearing ‘Valsad Nagarpalika’ T-shirts ferry ice-boxes with water bottles for the policemen, visitors and media crew who have been camping here since morning. By noon, the trickle of mourners turns into a steady stream. Among those who have arrived are BJP’s Gujarat chief Jitu Vaghani and local MLA Bharat Patel. “Some arrangements for the funeral have been made by the BJP. Others have been done by colleagues of my father,” says Ajay, whose says his father and uncle are contract workers with the local municipality.
Ratilal Patel, 45
He saw mother on TV, waited until morning for news on family
Santosh Patel, 23, learnt of the terror attack through news channels. As he sat in front of the television, praying his parents would be safe, he suddenly saw his mother in the video footage. “I tried calling my father, but his phone was switched off. We tried to contact the tour operator but couldn’t,” says Santosh, a local businessman in Vadoli village of Valsad, Gujarat. The next morning, news came in – while Santosh’s mother Hasumati, 39, survived with bullet injuries, his father Ratilal Patel, 45, fell to the terrorists’ bullets. “We were awake the whole night, waiting for information,” he says.
Ratilal Patel, a building contractor, lived in Vadoli with his wife, son Santosh and his family. He is also survived by his daughter Jagruti, 20, and her family. Another other couple from the same village, Ramesh Patel,52, and wife Bharti, 50, were on the same bus with Ratilal and his wife. While Ramesh was hit by bullets on his left leg, his wife Bharti is unhurt. On Tuesday afternoon, villagers, and police officers from Valsad and Daman waited outside Ratilal’s home for his body to arrive. Hours later, the body arrived in a police convoy.
Champa Prajapati, 56
Family thought she was fine, only for policeman to break grim news
A Monday night that began on a reassuring note, soon turned into a nightmare for the Prajapati family of Nandi Kumbharwada Faliya village in Gujarat’s Navsari district. When the first visuals of the Amarnath attack appeared on television, Pinal Prajapati, 30, says he attempted to locate his mother, Champa Prajapati, 56, “When I saw the news on television, I contacted my uncle Deepak Prajapati who was travelling with my mother. But I was unable to get through to him. I somehow managed to speak to him later in the night, when he told me that my mother along with a few passengers had sustained injuries,” Pinal said.
But soon, Pinal added, a local policeman brought the grim news that Champa was among the pilgrims killed in the terror attack at Botengo village in Anantnag district of Kashmir. Champa was among the five victims from Gujarat; the others being Surekha Patel from Udhwada in Valsad, Lakshmi Patel from Valsad, Hasu Ratilal Patel from Vadoli Faliya in Valsad and Ratan Patel from Valsad. On Tuesday, Champa’s husband and children — Pinal and two of his sisters — sat in a mix of disbelief, shock and profound grief as visitors kept pouring into the family home.
“My mother left for Kashmir with other relatives on July 2. They had planned to visit Amarnath along with some tourist destinations. We last spoke at around 7:30 pm on Monday, when she told us that they were all fine and en route to Katra from Srinagar. She told us that she had offered prayers at Amarnath and had visited Srinagar. She reassured us twice that she was fine and there was nothing to worry. Little did we know that this would happen,” says Jaywanti,33, Champa’s younger daughter.
Even as neighbors tried to console the family, Champa’s husband, Raman Prajapati, a retired wireman of the Gujarat Electricity Board, remained inconsolable throughout Tuesday as the coffin carrying her mortal remains arrived from Surat, via an Air Force plane. “It is hard to believe for me…” he said, breaking down. Kamal Prajapati, Champa’s neighbour, too couldn’t contain her grief at the loss of her friend. “I lost my best friend; she was a very kind woman, always ready to help others. When my husband died, she arranged for everything and stood by me. Every evening we use to sit at the bench outside our homes and play with her grandson,” she said.