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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

String of burglaries in Goa defence colony has war veterans worried

At least three delegations of retired defence officers have met three different sets of police officials over the decade. But residents say no patrol vehicle has been sent till date.

Written by Smita Nair | Porvorim | Updated: September 8, 2020 3:18:31 pm
In the defence colony in Porvorim, north Goa. (Express photo by Smita Nair)

A PORTRAIT of a Khasi matriarch wearing a traditional coral and gold necklace went public in Goa early July with an SOS: a house had been burgled in Porvorim, and the neckpiece “over 100 years old and of sentimental value” was missing.

So were family jewellery, military souvenirs and belongings, including a 32-inch flat screen TV, with the total loss estimated at Rs 17 lakh. “Not a single room was left,” says Brigadier Neves Braganza over the phone from Canberra, where he has been staying since attending a family gathering there before the Covid lockdown.

On July 28, two days after Braganza’s appeal wound its way through several WhatsApp groups, another house in the north Goa defence colony, Sainik Housing Society, was burgled “a little before dawn” in the same manner, with the burglars pushing open a rear window grill to decamp with “precious jewellery, silver and camera”.

“We were in the process of shifting. We had visited the house every day till then and had shifted a few things. Since it was raining heavily, we had missed that one day, and that’s when the house was targeted” says Maria Miranda, niece of Late Major General A C D’Silva.

Home to war veterans, including former Chief of Army Staff, General Sunith Francis Rodrigues, and VSM and Vice Admiral, M R Schunker, the colony of 133 independent homes have at least three wars between them — and burglaries as old as the colony, which started coming up in 1966.

Lt Gen C A Barretto PVSM, one of the oldest residents, recalls that the early burglaries in 1980 were “random and small”. The last decade, he says, has seen an increase in “pre-meditated targeted attacks” that are “more calculated and sophisticated”.

Residents say a majority are monsoon burglaries, with at least three reported during this pandemic. In many cases, homes have been burgled “over a period of time” and repeatedly, with the burglars “even pinching metal bathroom fittings, leaving houses to drown in water”. And, almost all burglaries have taken place at night, breaching doors and almirahs, with valuables and “military trophies” and “memorabilia” robbed.

Although the colony employed a security service in between, “the burglaries continued”. Braganza believes “there are at least two gangs operating” — one looking for metal, and the other for cash and jewellery.

In many cases, the burglary took place after the occupants left for vacations and in some instances, even for “a night or two” or for “longer nights beyond a week”. “It’s like someone is keeping track. Each theft is timed to perfection,” says Miranda, adding that she now has left her three dogs to keep vigil till they shift permanently.

The society office has 17 burglaries accounted in the last decade itself, says Group Captain Peter D’Souza, the officiating chairman of the society.

At the core of the burglaries, says Lt Gen Barretto, is that unlike many other defence colonies in the country, the one in Goa is not gated and has a public road running through it. “The access roads were given to PWD in the 1960s and treated as public roads. All the 133 independent bungalows are divided in two phases with a common road running through the colony and parallel to the highway. Anyone can enter at any time,” he says.

At least three delegations of retired defence officers have met three different sets of police officials over the decade. But residents say no patrol vehicle has been sent till date.

Baretto, who commanded an independent field company in 1965 in the Sialkot sector and served in the 1971 war, now relies on a “siren on the roof”, with the alarm switch next to his bed. “The other day, I saw a bunch of people trying to enter my neighbour’s house and I switched the button on,” he says.

According to a Goa Police spokesperson, a case has been registered on Braganza’s complaint and investigation is on. “All complaints are enquired into and we motivate the victims to register cases. In fact, the police have taken a very serious view of the issue and improved police presence and intensified patrolling in the area. The residents are also advised to improve the security by placing CCTV cameras, appointing common watchmen for their society for round-the-clock presence and informing the police when residents go out of station for long periods,” says the spokesperson.

But according to Putul Sinha, wife of the late Colonel Tara Kumar Sinha, registering an FIR is easier said than done.

Recalling her return from Lucknow, in December 2018 after her husband’s death, to a ransacked home, Putul says, “I went grieving to the police station. They sat me down and when I insisted that I wanted to lodge a FIR they kept asking how I would follow it up? They discouraged me saying it’s a long battle and I am old, and FIRs are usually pointless. They sent a team to our home, but refused to take fingerprints as they said the iron rods have rusted, and fingerprints will not come good and closed the case.”

Brigadier G R Bhangui’s house falls between two parallel roads and has been burgled six times, twice in 2017, and in late 2018. “The first time, they left telltale evidence, like remnants of meals cooked during the burglary. Then, they started stealing water meters, and everything metal. At least one among them was religious, he stole my Gita,” says Bhangui, who was at the Advanced Dressing Station treating war casualties in at least two wars.

Opposite his house, the Sainik Consumer Co-operative store was burgled and “looted for the obvious”: whiskey bottles. The store has since installed CCTVs and other security features — but it was robbed again, twice.

Commander Jerald Gonsalves was posted in Kochi when his house was burgled with even “even fans and the water meter robbed…Imagine you are in a job with bigger, pressing concerns and you get a call that your house limits have been trespassed…We continue to be insecure”.

Tulshi Sawardekar, whose husband retired from Corps of Engineers, recalls how she was called out of the garden by “men asking for the address of a tuition teacher and then making haste with my neck chain”.

Says Bhangui, “I can afford to live a comfortable life, but I now live a forced frugal life because I know it will be gone every time we leave home.” The irony of defence personnel’s homes being breached is not lost on him. “I think we are being observed, watched every day. It’s sad.”

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