This day, on April 1993, Srinagar’s trade heartland Lal Chowk went up in flames after the BSF troopers ran amok. After the inferno, the incensed troopers marched to the nearby famed Abi Guzar bund to fire at the commoners with impunity. 25 years later, as the carnage remains shrouded in the larger state amnesia, a boy witness-turned-journalist pieces together the reminiscences, reports and researches to recreate the doom of the day.
On one end of the huge Christian cemetery in Srinagar’s Sheikh Bagh area, is a small patch of land dotted with a dozen graves.
As Abba, my father, would tell me, it was only when a few locals were killed during the early 90s that people here felt the need of a Shaheed Marguzaar, the martyrs’ graveyard, that was not too far. Taking a body ripped with bullets or shrapnel to another end of the city for burial was a dangerous affair those days.
A barrage of armed forces would stop the Shaheed transported in trucks, lorries and whatnot, at several checkpoints installed on the way outside many hotels-turned-army-camps.
Hence the Marguzaar, the ultimate resting place just at a stone’s throw from the Abi Guzar locality, the place I was born in 1986 and spent the next 20 years at.
Over the years, I almost remember all the people buried here. There is Yaqoob, a militant and then his brother Shakeel, another rebel. Their father, who was known as Sher Khan (don’t remember his actual name), had wished that he be buried next to his sons. He eventually was.
Then we have a grave of an unknown Moutt, a mentally-challenged wanderer, who was shot by the armed forces in his back, claiming his half-eaten apple was a grenade. I remember him both alive and dead, for I saw him in either state on the day he was killed.
After his grave, we have five more, with April 10, 1993 engraved on each of them.
I remember that day as a seven-year-old would. It was a sunny, peaceful morning disturbed by sounds of gunfire, a norm those days. This one, however, was unusually long – seven to eight minutes, and loud, as if it was happening right next to me.
It was only years after I understood that the volley of bullets was actually fired in bursts. A trooper opts one of the three modes with clicks of a valve rifles or AKs come fitted with: one bullet on a trigger-pull, two bullets on a trigger-pull, or an entire magazine-burst. Choices, I think, are directly proportional to the level of frenzy or fear a gunman experiences the very moment he aims to kill.
Around 10 minutes after the firing stopped, Indian armed forces, with large black handkerchiefs wrapped around their skull, ran across the open space in front of our pahaer, a wooden hut with a tin roof on the banks of Jhelum.
On hearing their footsteps, my father, a 50-year-old boatman then, dragged my mother, sister and me into the small trench that he had dug beneath our pahaer. The trench was my father’s way of ensuring we did not come in the way of bullets when they were fired indiscriminately, for our wooden walls would never defy them. Once in a while, in the dark, I saw them fly above the hut when they zipped, like shooting stars.
“Behen****! Get out or else we will shoot,” I could hear the armed men shouting and abusing.
My father ran, barefooted. He stumbled on his way out.
They shouted at him again to get on to his shikaer, a small wooden boat and row another abandoned one to the shore.
“Get that to this side fast or we will shoot you,” the men said pointing towards a floating shikaer, while pushing my father violently.
My mother, meanwhile, had crept up to sneak through one of the many cracks in the wooden wall of our pahaer facing the river. I followed her, so did my 15-year-old sister.
What I saw next, is a childhood memory etched onto my mind. At least three people, all seemingly dead, were on an idle shikaer that was carelessly floating in the middle of Jhelum.
More than two decades later, I tried to know what had exactly happened on the morning of April 10, 1993.
“People on that day were particularly agitated over the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen deputy Chief Commander Maqbool Elahi,” veteran photojournalist Meraj-du-Din, then working with Kashmir Times and among the few photojournalists covering the killings told me.
Maqbool and at least four of his associates had been killed in a gunfight in Budgam a day earlier.
“The forces barred us to go beyond the press colony,” Meraj said.
It was the day of carnage, said veteran journalist Zafar Meraj. Over two dozen civilian deaths that day, he said, as the armed forces went on machine gunning them and setting ablaze civilian properties.
“More than 125 people have been killed in the last week, some in the fires in the Lal Chowk commercial center of Srinagar,” a New York Times story by Edward A Gargan published on 18 April 1993 described the incident. “Sixteen people were machine-gunned to death as they floated down the Jhelum River, and others were hauled from their homes and shot in the streets by security forces.”
I was only able to see with one eye through the crack. One man had his head in the water, while the body hung on the pedestal. Another had his legs dangling, and was about to fall into the river. The third one was down flat.
My father ran, as fast as he could, jumping onto his shikaer, which he used to tie with an iron ring attached to our houseboat. He rowed through the waves and it was only in a matter of a few minutes that both the boats were out of my sight.
Some of the armed men also ran along the shore, downstream. In about 15 minutes, we heard gunfire in the same direction where my father had gone. My mother fell down, fainted. She thought my father had been killed. My sister and I were horrified, crying and trying to wake her up.
She soon came back to senses, now sobbing with my head in her lap, and my sister trying to console her. We did not know what to do.
On 9 April 1993, writes the former J&K Governor Jagmohan in his book ‘My Frozen Turbulence in Kashmir’ (written in a way, expected of a thick-glassed Indian governor-sent-to-kill), a contingent of BSF which was in occupation of Sanatan Dharam Sabha building in Lal Chowk, moved out.
“The following morning, a crowd, led by a few militants, sprinkled oil on the building with impunity and set it on fire. Soon the centre of Lal Chowk turned into an inferno, consuming 26 shops and 50 houses. When the paramilitary forces rushed to the site, there was a prolonged exchange of firing.”
The former governor presiding over the multiple massacres in Kashmir quotes the Hindustan Times report of April 12, 1993, ‘10,000, gun shots were fired in this area in less than four hours.’
“In this and other terrorism-related violence in the valley,” he writes, “124 persons were killed in three days – 26 of April 9, 5 on April 10 and 38 on April 11.”
But the reality was completely different from what Jagmohan has written in his book.
Meanwhile, more armed men trickled in and around the Abi Guzar area. They cordoned-off either banks of the river.
“We should go to the neighbours’ place,” my mother told us.
She was terrified of all the troopers around our home and feared they would hurt us. We finally left in the afternoon and walked to our neighbour’s, who lived just a few metres away. Out of fear, the neighbours had crept in. My mother was still sobbing. There wasn’t a soul anywhere, but those wearing camouflage only.
Throughout the day, I could see them and them only manning the bund area. They did not let anyone out.
As dusk approached, I finally saw a local walking with a lantern ahead of a coffin being carried by four other men on the Abi Guzar bund. They were going towards the Shiekh Bagh marguzaar. The troopers were still around.
I later came to know that the Indian armed forces had allowed only five men to bury the body of the first of the many killed in Abi Guzar that day.
In one of the most devastating incidents of its kind on April 10, 1993, a June 1993 report ‘The Human Rights Crisis in Kashmir A pattern of Impunity’, gives a detailed description of the incident with witness accounts, a large section of downtown Srinagar known as Lal Chowk was burned to the ground by Indian paramilitary troops, apparently in retaliation for the burning of an abandoned BSF building by local residents.
The BSF commanding officer refused to heed warnings about the security risks of abandoning the force’s headquarters and bunkers, and then ignored pleas for assistance from local police who were trying to protect these sites. The incident, which was one of the largest such arson attack by Indian forces since the beginning of the conflict left at least four civilians dead in the immediate area and more in attacks in nearby neighborhoods.
M., a waiter at one of the hotels, told Asia Watch that on the morning of April 10, 1993, he came to work at the hotel at 8:00 a.m. Everything was quiet at that time and the bunkers near the hotel were still occupied by the security forces, as they had been for many months. Then at about 8:30 a.m. he heard people shouting slogans of “Azadi” (Freedom) and “We want freedom.”
He said that when he looked out of the first floor kitchen and dining room windows he saw Jammu and Kashmir police and civilians running in Lal Chowk in front of the hotel. Just after 8:30 a.m. he saw smoke and flames rising from the Sandam Dharam Sabha building. He told Asia Watch that at about that time a security vehicle arrived on the scene. The vehicle went towards the fire and then returned. He saw SSP Rajendra Kumar come out of the vehicle, walk toward the Sandam Dharam Sabha building and then walk back to the vehicle and put on a bullet-proof jacket and helmet. SSP Kumar then went inside the Akhara building. After half an hour, he and other security forces came out and, as M. watched from the dining room windows, about 100 security forces surrounded Lal Chowk and started firing indiscriminately.
After the fire started, people who were trapped inside the buildings tried to push open the doors only to discover that they had been bolted from the outside and could not be opened from the inside. The soldiers moved down the street, one of them carrying a green plastic bucket into which another soldier dipped a small can and then threw liquid from the bucket onto wooden portions of the buildings.
Within a few minutes, the buildings erupted in flames. The other soldiers continued to shoot all around Lal Chowk. M. saw a waiter from the hotel come to the second floor window and scream, “Spare us!”, and then he saw at least two soldiers fire at the man. The man fell backward.
Then the soldiers threw liquid from the bucket on the gate of the hotel. Fire erupted. Another soldier pointed some kind of weapon at the top of the Standard Hotel and fired and the roof burst into flames.
Then the Jammu and Kashmir police came and opened the bolt on the door from the outside and five persons came out of the hotel. M. said that at about 10:30 a.m., he broke open a window at the back of the hotel and escaped down the staircase of the mosque next door.
As he went he saw that the doors of two buildings adjacent to the new Standard Hotel were bolted from the outside and people were pushing on them from the inside. He ran to Barbarshah along the by-ways and two others from the hotel escaped with him.
In all, 59 houses, 190 shops, 53 stores where inventory was kept, two office buildings, five commercial buildings, two schools and a shrine inside the building were gutted by the fire. Four people were killed: a woman, Shishi Chouralsy; a man, Rahool Chouralsy, about 20; a boy, Mudasir, 14, who died of bullet injuries; and Bashir Ahmed Tantri, 30, a waiter, who was burned to death. One hundred and twenty-seven families lost their homes.
My father was still nowhere. My mother went crazy as our neighbour said that many had been killed and their bodies were thrown into the river.
At around 10 in the evening, I could faintly hear someone calling my name.
The voice was of my Abba’s. I ran across the neighbour’s compound without caring for the gunmen around. Abba was back and only Allah knows how happy I was to see him alive. I ran and hugged him like I had never before.
My mother and my sister followed me and kissed Abba’s feet. They were crying, now even more out of joy.
We all wanted to know what happened throughout the day.
There were three men on that Shikaer, Abba said. Two were already dead with multiple bullet wounds. The third, hit in his leg, was still alive.
As soon as Abba rowed both the boats to the shore, the Indian forces poked the lifeless bodies with the muzzles of their guns to know if they were really dead.
“The one who was alive let out a faint wail and moved his arm a bit; the trooper shot him twice, the bullets went past his body and pierced through the Shikaer they were on, it sank along with the dead,” narrated my father as we sat around him, horrified.
After the Lal Chowk inferno, the HRW report says, the BSF troops marched towards the Abiguzar Bund, shooting several people as they tried to cross the Jhelum river to safety.
A., a resident of a houseboat on the Jhelum river told Asia Watch that at about 9:30 a.m. on April 10, 1993, while he was on the deck of his houseboat, having tea, he saw smoke rising from the Lal Chowk area behind the river bank.
At about 9:30 a.m. he saw ten or eleven young men walk down from the bank in the area of Abeguzar and get into a shikara.
A. told Asia Watch that as the shikara started across the river, first one and then ten soldiers appeared on the bank. One soldier leaned on his knee and took aim at the shikara, firing 20-30 times.
After the first soldier emptied his magazine, a second soldier began to fire and then a third, all emptying their magazines. A. said that he saw many bullets hitting the water. When the firing started, all the people in the shikara (10-14) crouched down, ducking their heads.
One man, Mehraj Pakhtoon, jumped into the river, but he could not swim so he drowned.
Then A.’s brother, Ghulam, and another young man, and the driver of the shikara jumped into the river and swam to the opposite bank.
Then another boy jumped over the side and caught hold of the shikara and went down the river. At that point, A. went inside his houseboat and continued to watch from the window. He saw soldiers continuing to fire at the shikara while the passengers were jumping into the water. There were 7-8 minutes of continuous firing. A second shikara full of people began to cross the river as the firing started, but then turned back and took shelter under a boat on the river bank.
L., another witness to the shikara shootings, told Asia Watch she was washing clothes in the river along the side of her houseboat when she saw smoke coming from Lal Chowk. She went to a shop to get some bread and the people there told her that there was a fire in Lal Chowk.
Then she saw people running from Lal Chowk. She went back to her boat and warned her family that “they” were burning Lal Chowk, and then she continued to wash clothes. After a short time, she heard bursts of gunfire coming from the shore. This continued for about half an hour. She saw many bullets going into the river from the same side.
At 11:30, after L. saw the shootings at the shikara, her husband saw it finally come aground in Lalmundi. After the gunfire stopped, the husband also saw another shikara with a man (my father)* in it go across to the far side of the river and pull the shikara back to the near shore. When the husband later asked the man why he had done such a dangerous thing, the man told him that the BSF had threatened to kill him if he did not.
K., 32, a resident of a houseboat, told Asia Watch that she had gone outside to clean rice when her nephew, Farooq Ahmed, went down the bank toward the shikara. The soldiers on the bank called out to him to come to them. When he did so, the soldiers shot him and then threw his body in the river. The body was recovered the next day. There were bullet wounds in the right and left side of his abdomen.
Another witness, S., told Asia Watch that at 9:30 a.m., as he left his house he heard gunshots and saw smoke in the area over Lal Chowk. He told Asia Watch:
I had been speaking with two friends, Imtiaz and Bilal, for about fifteen minutes when I looked up and saw five or six BSF approach the street firing their guns. People were running to the river, and I ran along with them. I and twelve or thirteen others jumped into a shikara and began to cross the river. When we were three-quarters of the way across, we saw about 20 or 30 BSF on the bank of river we had just left. The BSF opened fire and Ghulam Hassan Malik was the first hit. He fell off the shikara.
Nisar and Janna and Miraj Huda jumped into the river. Nisar swam to the other side and took shelter. A number of bodies were recovered from the river the next day, including that of Mamran Ahmed Katia, which had bullet wounds in chest and back. Imtiaz Ahmed Shah’s body was recovered the next day with bullet wounds in the abdomen. The body of Bilal Ahmed Shah, 15, was not recovered for several weeks. Other bodies recovered included those of Mansur Ahmed Kouka, about 16 years old, a taxi driver; Ghulam Hassan Malik, 25; and a boatman’s son named Janna.
The day after the incident, a report on All India Radio cited an official spokesman who stated that, “A shikara boat which was on its way from Lal Chowk to Lal Mandi carrying a large number of persons capsized in the river Jhelum.”
To Asia Watch and PHR’s knowledge, this was the only explanation provided by the authorities for the incident. Asia Watch and PHR know of no investigation into the incident.
After the boat sank, Abba was bundled into a Wanton, his Pheran rolled over his head. Throughout the day, he was inside the rumbling vehicle.
“In Lal Chowk,” he said, “one trooper asked another who I was, the other said, ‘I was a militant’; he replied, ‘usko udhar hee maar dena tha’ (He should’ve been killed there only.) In the evening, an officer came and asked me to narrate what had happened. I narrated the whole incident, he let me go with a signed piece of paper and told me to show it to the forces who were manning the roads in the evening.”
Unlike Abba, not many were lucky that day to come back home. The war was escalating, so was the uncertainty of life in Kashmir.
* Nisar Dharma is a Srinagar-based journalist. His father (Abba), Ghulam Ahmad Dharma, passed away on December 02, 2017.
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