When the Indian army sent its ‘bomb hunters’ under Operation Falah to clear unexploded shells from the ‘King of Meadows’ in 2014, Tosa Maidan’s 5-decade-old nightmare-firing-range apparently ended. Since then, the place, formerly known as a ‘death trap’ for devouring roaming shepherds and grazing cattle has been hosting tourists and trekkers. But when a leftover shell came alive on 11 August 2018 and claimed another life, the meadow’s meditative mask fell off.
Sitting in a dark room of his house full of mourners, Bashir Ahmad Ahangar is still struggling to believe that he’s being paid condolences on the death of his son who left home on a horse like a prince a fortnight ago.
Hailing from Zogokhani village in Beerwah area of Central Kashmir’s Budgam district, 21-year-old Wajid Bashir left home to be part of the Jashn-e-Tosa Maidan—the tourist festival being celebrated every year since 2014, to mark an end to a 5 decade occupation of the meadow by the Indian armed forces.
The meadow was taken on lease for the artillery firing drills in 1964.
It was Sunday, when Wajid left home on a hired horse. He was to join his brother Rameez Bashir who was already in Tosa Maidan. “My son took a bath and put on new clothes, before leaving home, riding a horse like a prince,” says Bashir, lamenting like a child over the sudden demise of his son.
Few hours later, Bashir received a call from his elder son. The panting voice informed him about a blast—that had ripped through the tourist-filled meadow, leaving Wajid, and two other boys injured.
The rattling news sounded as if the shelling nightmare had made a resounding comeback, to haunt the villagers living around the meadow. In peacetime that ensued after the last trooper vacated the meadow four years ago, many villagers had flashbacks of the traumatic past when in the name of human bodies, they would take home some kilos of shell-ripped human flesh of their tribesmen from Tosa Maidan.
But that tragedy had ceased in 2014, when the Indian army left behind a devastated meadow, haunted hamlets and shell-shocked lives. Then in an eagerness to woo tourists to the meadow, the state government conveniently overlooked the unexploded shells trapped in the ridges and crevices.
Such shells left untouched by Op Falah are now killing civilians and promising youngsters like Wajid.
“I hardly had an idea that my prince left home only to return dead,” Bashir wails, turning everyone in the room moist-eyed.
Sitting opposite to his father, Rameez Bashir, the elder brother of Wajid cries out, “I saw him riding a horse from a distance, he waved at me.” But soon, as a loud explosion shook everyone in the meadow, Rameez rushed out, and found his sibling lying in a pool of blood.
Wajid was rushed to a neighbouring village called Khag in a private vehicle. Throughout the journey, he bled profusely.
“At Khag Primary Health Centre, they couldn’t find a scissor to cut his shirt,” says Rameez while struggling to find words. “They referred us to Srinagar but it even took time to find the driver of the Ambulance.”
After reaching JVC Bemina, Wajid was shifted to SKIMS Soura where he breathed his last. The glaring absence of the trauma facility centre at grassroots equally played a part in his killing.
Blaming the authorities of the motivated plan to kill Kashmiri people, the mourning father wonders: Why aren’t there any signboards at the place marking the danger zones and safe zones? If the area where thousands of people go for picnic, trekking and herding cattle on a daily basis has been cleared from unexploded shells, why has such an incident happened? How can authorities be negligent about it when they’ve thrown it open as a tourist destination?
While most of these queries are likely to remain unanswered, the administration has responded by launching another sanitation drive at Tosa Maidan.
But given how Op Falah left behind a killing meadow, many seem doubtful about the new sanitation drill — especially the shell-shocked villagers of Shunglipora.
Around 5km from Zogokhani, Shunglipora is a packed house of yesteryears’ horror stories. This small village has paid a huge price, for falling in close range of the frozen firing range.
One of the first shell victims in Shunglipora—called Shocklipora by some journalists for its devastating history—walks with one hand bent close to his chest. He’s Abdul Rashid Malik, a man in his early thirties, who as a 12-year-old minor became a victim at the King of Meadows aka the death trap. Since then, he lives a life of a deaf person and comes across uncanny.
Since 1964, when the meadow became a military lab, more than 60 people have been killed in Tosa Maidan. “Out of which 37 persons belonged to Shunglipora-Khag including my elder brother Abdul Kareem Sheikh,” says Mohammad Akram Sheikh, the 39-year-old Sarpanch of Shunglipora-Khag.
As a kid, Akram remembers how ‘normal’ it had become for his tribe to hear the blasts announcing the death of cattle, or worse, of a shepherd.
“I remember that day when an old Chopan (nomad) while crossing the meadow lost more than sixty sheep of his flock to an explosion. The pieces of meat were scattered more than two kilometers away,” Akram recalls. “The first person to be killed was Ghulam Ahmad Ahanger back in 1972 who was blown to smithereens after stepping on an unexploded shell.”
Scores of people in the village have been left handicapped, and in a derailed mindset throughout these years.
“We’re poor people, and avoiding the meadow was neither an option for us, nor for our cattle,” says Abdul Satar Malik, who lost his fingers due to an unexploded shell in Tosa Maidan one foggy winter day, some two decades ago.
It was not just the physical damage that the villagers have been subjected to, but for more than 5 decades they had to grapple with the militarization.
“Whenever an explosion would kill a person or cattle,” says Akram, who was himself injured in an explosion in 2002, “we would be scared to go for help or even participate in the final rituals. Even the burial would be carried out very secretly.”
Sometimes, the Sarpanch continues, the armed men would storm the village and take men out of their houses, beat them and force them to carry their stock on shoulders to their camps. “We were subjected to Begair (forced labour) for decades,” he says.
Initially the armed forces used less noisy weapons like LMG and MMG, which were eventually replaced with heavy motors, like Bofors and missiles, which would produce rattling sounds and shake up the whole area, Akram says. “The effect of their firing has been quite evident on the cracked house walls in the villages of Drang, Khag, Sutaharan and Chill. In case of a misfire, village houses would often go up in dust.”
Years of unspeakable sufferings ended in 2014—when a mass campaign launched by the locals under ‘Tosa Maidan Bachao Front’ forced the armed forces to vacate the meadow after more than 50 years.
That year, the army top brass along with the state government started the sanitation process under Op Falah, to clear Tosa Maidan of unexploded shells.
“Under Operation Falah, they searched the open ground in the meadow for almost three months but didn’t search the corners and depths of the adjoining area,” Akram says. “Locals have knowledge of the firing range but the authorities didn’t let them even get close when the search was going and there was no way that they would allow us to guide them.”
There are still hundreds of unexploded shells in Tosa Maidan, Akram says, which makes it a death trap for tourists as well as the locals.
Perhaps beyond the photo-op operations now, the King of Meadows needs a thorough cleansing exercise to stop it from consuming lives, like Wajid’s. Till then, tourism can wait.
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