Inside the ‘silent before the storm’ world of Kashmiri Fidayeen

After two Kashmiri Fidayeen stormed the southern military training centre at the turn of the New Year, the Valleys’ military landscape is coming up with defensive fencing around its installations. But beyond the resurrection of Masood Azhar’s ‘stormy squad’ with Kashmiri strikers, the shattered world left behind by Fardeen and Manzoor had seen the resounding silence, the one that often manifests before the storm.

On the pleasant morning of September 14, 2017, a 6-feet tall skinny boy left for a usual morning stroll in his nylon slippers. Three months later and 16 days after his 16th birthday, he returned home as a martyr

The boy had become a Fidayeen by December 31, 2017—when he brazenly attacked the highly-barricaded paramilitary Commando Training Centre (CTC) in Lethpora village of Pulwama district, along with his two associates.

The news appeared as a usual militant action initially. Two militants were killed before the onset of next day. As the third militant was still alive and fighting fiercely, the forces released a statement saying the two of the attackers are Kashmiris and are identified as Fardeen Mohideen Khanday and Manzoor Ahmad Baba of Jaish-e-Mohammed militant outfit.

Otherwise a forte of militants from across the Line of Control, the Fidayeen attack by Kashmiri militants is seen as a rare insurgent strike.

On the same day a video went viral on the internet. It showed the teenager Fardeen sitting cross-legged, surrounded by ammunition, talking about his decision to join the militants in a clear and composed tone. “Our land has been occupied… so jihad becomes our duty,” he said, denouncing unemployment and poverty as reasons for youth joining the militancy. “This is a propaganda peddled by the state.”

The video, first of its kind, came as a surprise for observers and the military setup for its nature, and clear message.

“The Kashmiri militants haven’t only attacked the base, which is unusual, but also filmed the pre-attack video which makes it doubly daredevil,” says one senior journalist, reporting Kashmir for the international press. A senior police officer admits that the nature of the attack has raised alarm bells within the military apparatus.

One of the Fidayeen, Fardeen came from Nazneenpora, a nondescript village tucked in the thick cover of walnut trees near Tral Township. And the other, Manzoor, hailed from Drabgam village in Rajpora Tehsil.

The two villages are separated by nearly 20 miles but they are united by the fact that both have traditionally been Militant towns and continue to do so. Manzoor was eight years older than Fardeen and the two have separate stories of their life and fate.

…That morning of September 14, 2017, the boy, Fardeen had gone to the Masjid, as usual, for Fajr prayers before going for stroll.

“He would never miss the prayers,” says Ghulam Mohidin Khanday, Fardeen’s father and a police constable, sitting in a tent pitched inside his double-storey house’s lawn. Fardeen is said to have occasionally led the prayers at the Mosque and taught the Quran to the children there.

The night before his militant foray, he had been up, studying late into the night, along with his brother, Faizan Khanday, who is his twin brother. He had also ironed his school uniform. The brothers were preparing for the incoming Class 10 board exams.

“My son was a studious boy,” Khanday continues, amid the rising footfall of the mourners inside the tent. “He was the brightest amongst his siblings and had dreamed of being successful in life.”

The twins were enrolled in the same school—Iqra Model Institute—in Mandoora, a nearby village. He topped his class regularly and would lead the morning assemblies in school. The twins were not just brothers, but had developed an intimate relationship. They would confide into each other.

On the day of Fardeen’s departing, however, Faizan had no idea about his twin’s absence in the class of 20 students. Later as he came home, he asked his mother about Fardeen. The query dazed both. And for a while, the mother-son duo gave each other a fleeting look of disbelief.

Minutes later, as the cell-phone of their family headman Khanday started ringing in faraway Handwara, where the cop was on duty, Fardeen’s mother spoke about their missing son. The policeman in his late forties turned pale. Perhaps it was the vague signal that another cop’s son has joined the rebel camp.

But Khanday somehow wasn’t convinced that his shy son, who had never shown rebellious inclination, would end up joining the militants.

“One night, two years ago, while studying alone in his room,” recalls the father, regularly shaking hands with mourners praying for his patience, “Fardeen came crying in my room and told me that he had heard some unusual sound and that had scared him. I asked him to sleep with me in my bed.”

Fardeen wouldn’t even roam around with the other boys of the village. He would spend most of his time with his education. He had also bought books for his next class and the twins were planning to move to Srinagar for tuitions in the winters. The siblings did not even possess a mobile phone possibly “to avoid getting distracted from studies”.

These memories are taxing for Khanday.

Fardeen, he recalls, had driven him to the neighboring villages to distribute the meat packs of Eid sacrifices. “He had learnt driving recently and that was the first and last time he drove me anywhere,” he says, still unable to make sense of how such a ‘simple’ son could shoot a fearless video before attacking a military installation head on, barging into the training centre, daring the military force.

Much of this disbelief stems from the fact that the Khandays of Nazneenpora are the usual pastoral family with a regular worldview. It took them three days after Fardeen’s leaving to lodge a missing report in a local police station in Tral. That was a “distressing time” for the family having no idea about their son’s forthcoming strike to the military apparatus.

And then everyone, who knew Fardeen, went still, when his photograph in military fatigues, wielding a gun appeared on the internet. “We didn’t know how to react,” Khanday says, shaking his head in disbelief.

Even as the family was petrified over their son’s decision, the police assured them that they’ll do their best to get Fardeen back. It was the time when Kashmir police chief Munir Khan—flanked by his allied forces’ chiefs—would offer Surrender amid Operation All Out to militants willing to surrender, during his pressers. Videos in which wailing mothers would plead with their insurgent sons to return home were yet to become a shot in the arm for the establishment.

Amid all this, tracing Fardeen was not easy. Particularly in his case, there was never any talk of having spotted or heard of him, from anyone, anywhere, anytime. Until the picture appeared on the internet.

“Our relentless efforts, day in and day out, bore no fruit,” Khanday says.

The family remained clueless about their son till he was gunned down inside the Lethpora camp by the morning of December 31, 2017.

That day, Faizan too, like everyday, had gone for tuitions and returned in the afternoon to play cricket with the village boys. It was only after an unknown person approached him, and showed him a picture of his brother, dead, and smiling.

“I was blown apart,” says Faizan, who rushed straight to his home but could not disclose it to his mother. Later when the villagers started gathering at their home, Faizan couldn’t bear it, and disclosed the news.

Khanday was attending to his duty in Kupwara and came to know about the killing of his son through the internet.

When the relatives of Fardeen rushed to the Awantipora Police Lines to receive his body, they were caught in disbelief.

“I couldn’t recognize him initially,” says Fardeen’s Uncle Manzoor Ahmad. “He had built up physique. Even when we boarded him in the vehicle, I had to check again if he really was Fardeen.”

When later his other family members, including his twin younger brothers—Tanzeel and Tafeem (13)—saw his body, they were shocked.

“Police officers refused to believe that he was only sixteen,” Manzoor talks about his completely transformed nephew. “The way he talked in the video made him seem like some battle-hardened insurgent than a shy boy that we knew him till some months back.”

Despite being so close to Fardeen, Faizan is flabbergasted over his twin’s ‘stormy’ decision. “I never found anything unusual in him,” he says. “We never talked about any such topic in our life.” Even for the villagers, Fardeen’s decision to pick up a gun remains a mystery.

After many rounds of funerals, the shy teenager—apparently re-enacting the Afaq Shah moment in Kashmir’s contemporary insurgency—was buried in the corner of the village graveyard, kept for the ‘martyrs’. Locals say he is the fifth one is past few years in this village to die as a militant.

Some 20 miles away, another fresh grave had come up in another Martyrs’ Graveyard. It houses Fardeen’s brother-in-arm, Manzoor Baba.

In his Drabgam village in Pulwama’s Rajpora, he is being called the easy-going youth, who never nursed grudges—against anyone—and was for the community welfare. Before becoming the member of Jaish-e-Mohammad’s Kashmiri Fidayeen squad, Manzoor had passed through a typical commoners struggle.

He was just a year-old when his father died due to an illness in 1996. It was his mother and elder brother Jawaid Ahmad who raised him. However, school never attracted him.

In Class III, he started working as a mechanic at an automobile workshop in his village. Few years later, he became a conductor with a pickup truck and later drove a vehicle of a local transporter. In 2016, after passing through twists and turns, Manzoor bought his own passenger cab, a Tavera, from his own savings and some family support.

“He was content with his work,” says his friend. “His life ran smoothly.” The family owns apple orchards and harvests them for a living.

Things suddenly changed for his brother Jawaid when he was called by the police in March 2017. “Manzoor was detained by the police on the charges of ferrying militants in his vehicle,” says Jawaid, sitting glum inside his house resounding with occasional cries.

Following the relentless efforts of the village elders, Manzoor was released 25 days later. “He was severely tortured,” Jawaid says.

He had initially concealed his torture story from his family. But when they asked him for marital plans, he declined. The family had even seen a girl for him in nearby Kral-Chak village.

“I can’t ruin someone’s life. No, I can’t!” Manzoor had told his brother. Behind his reluctance was a reason.

“He told me his genitals were subjected to electric shocks,” Jawaid says, making a long face.

After this revelation, the family witnessed a personality shift in Manzoor. He sold his Tavera and started working with his brother in the orchard. “He did not want the police to bother him and his family again, and that’s why he sold the vehicle,” says Mazoor’s friend.

His family, meanwhile, tried to divert his attention from the ‘torture’ he had suffered.

“He was now a changed man who would speak less and would wear a gloomy face,” says his neighbor, who grew up with Manzoor.

In August 2017, he was again called by the police but this time he was released after one night. On Nov 6, 2017, forces killed three Jaish militants in Aglar village including Sameer Ahmad Ganie, a militant from Manzoor’s village. He also went to attend Sameer’s funeral, but didn’t return home.

“His phone was switched off,” says his brother. “For a couple of days, we thought he might have been driving someone’s vehicle.” The mystery ended shortly when his photograph with a message of him joining the Jaish appeared on the internet.

“I could never imagine Manzoor joining militancy and then carrying a Fidayeen attack,” says his friend. “The torture changed him.” On that fateful day of December 31, Manzoor was behind the wheels one last time, driving his Fidayeen squad to storm the Lethpora paramilitary commando training centre.

Hushed and stripped bare in January’s icy cold winter, both Drabgam and Nazneenpora today make the air mournful with the emergence of two freshly dug up graves in their lap. For many villagers, the fattening Martyrs’ cemeteries only serves as a reminder, albeit dourly, about how the long-drawn-out conflict continues to consume Kashmir’s Fardeens and Manzoors.


Aakash Hassan is an independent Journalist based in Kashmir. 

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