Before his funeral would be tear-gassed forcing his family member to lay bare his upper body towards the armed cops, Noorbagh’s pet lover Saleem Malik’s body had been lying gunned down in his courtyard. The armed forces’ latest action hasn’t only silenced another innocent life, but has put a question mark on the growing uncertainty of life in Kashmir.
It’s after three days that vehicles are plying on roads near Bhagwanpora area of Srinagar’s Noorbagh. The faces walking and standing on the roads are gloomy, lost and eager. “There’s no remedy to this pain,” says a young man standing a few meters away from where his friend Mohammad Saleem Malik—the shy pet lover—was shot dead by Indian armed forces on September 27, ‘in cold-blood, for no fault of his.’
Saleem, in his 20s, was a person who was madly in love with animals and birds. His traumatic mother cries that she can still see him tending to the sheep, hen, rabbits and pigeons at his place.
His day would be spent as per the needs of his pets. “Sometimes, when there would be stone pelting, he would get out with his sheep and no one would tell him anything. He would say Salaam with his head down. Although he hadn’t studied much, he was an example of goodness for all of us here,” says his tearful friend, standing outside a small multi-coloured tent where women are sitting around — wailing, crying, getting exhausted, and crying again.
Sitting among these women is Saleem’s inconsolable mother, Shakeela. She wears tear-drenched red eyes, and swollen, parched lips. Her hands lie open, as if saying a prayer for the departed soul of her son.
As tragic as it might get, out of the ten women sitting around Shakeela inside the tent, four have lost their sons. Reliving their pain, they’re consoling her. She behaves like a dazed person.
Women come and hug her, and hold her face asking her to stay patient for Saleem’s siblings: a son, Mehraj-u-din, Saleem’s elder brother who’s a salesman at a shop in Jamia Masjid and two daughters, Gousia and Madeena.
However, the women who had suffered the same fate tell her: There’s no cure to this pain. It’ll stay with you till you die.
“I’m from Pulwama,” says a woman relative of the bereaved family, and one of the mothers whose son had been killed. “You know how my son was killed? He went out and he was shot. He wasn’t involved in anything. It has been 26 days.”
Other women cite their examples of how they lost their sons, in order to console Shakeela.
“Don’t ask me where I was when they killed him. It only scratches open my wounds,” Shakeela finally speaks. “He’s a martyr. He’s good. It’s just that I feel those bullets pumped into his belly are in my heart. It’s aching. My wounds won’t heal. My wounds won’t heal, till I see him there.”
She drinks water, looks around and seals her lips again.
A local Masjid airs: “Sabiluna Sabiluna…” Shakeela sobs, as the dissent tunes dished out by a mosque loudspeaker gets loud. And soon, she starts singing dirges to describe the horrific pre-dawn fatal strike. The fact that her beloved son was killed just a few steps away from her pains her the most.
“O, my beloved, you loved pets,
Who will look after them now?
You went out to check if they were fine,
They caught you there, and fired upon you, my beloved…
Why didn’t I get to know you left?
Why did they snatch you from me?
How was I unaware for two hours—
until your sister saw you,
and cried, “O brother!”
I ran and thought you fell off from the slab,
I will die for those wounds,
O’ flower of my garden!
Then your father went out crying:
‘Kill us too!’
O’ dear friend of mine
He was hit with a gun.
He was pushed down on the ground
He got up said, “Come kill me, too!”
I will die for you, O friend,
I will die for you, O brother of these sisters,
I will die for you, O sweetheart of your father,
I will die for you, O darling of aunts and uncles,
I will die for you, O friend of friends,
How are your friends staying patient?
They have lost their mind after you,
They are standing for you,
May they live long.
You were innocent,
If anyone was here, why did they not find anyone?
Why did they not intimate you when they saw you out,
I will die for you, my love!
You did not quench your thirst,
You must have called out, “O mother!”
I don’t know how to cry, my friend.
I don’t want to cry on your death, O love!
I don’t want to believe it’s true!”
Inconsolable Shakeela and Gousia, Saleem’s sister, who had seen him lying on the floor, hug and cry.
“Where is he? He would wake up and feed the pets. He would leave to make bags. He would come back at 1 in the day and again feed the pets. He was no militant. What will I do with these wounds?” asks Shakeela. “He would wake up in the middle of the night to get us water and check on the pets.”
It was at around 2 in the fateful night when the armed forces had started flashing lights on houses of residents in Noorbagh area. Hundreds in number, they covered the area within a few minutes. “My husband drives a tipper truck. He told me there were around 30 vehicles of the armed forces. Hundreds among them had surrounded the area,” says a woman explaining where the military began its ‘operation’.
The residents say that as soon as they heard about the forces, they shut out all the lights, without having an idea of happenings outside.
“We did not dare to look out of the windows. We thought they might kill us. It was dark. It was scary,” says Fayaz Ahmad Lone, a relative of the Malik family and their neighbour. “They broke a glass on our window, opened it and barged in. They fired upon this wall for no reason. Before that they said my name thrice. They knew exactly where they were.”
Before that, the armed forces had entered a home opposite to Lone’s address. It houses the couple whose name happens to be the same as those of Saleem’s parents.
Narrating the scenes, Mohammad Yaqoob, Saleem’s neighbour, says he and his family heard a knock on the window that night. “I thought it was one of the children in house. My wife opened the door and saw the military. I went out and they asked me my name,” Yaqoob says.
“Then, they asked my wife’s, children’s name and that’s how they confirmed mine wasn’t the Malik house they were looking for. They asked whose son was Mehraj-u-Din and I pointed at Malik’s house. They said that’s where the militants are.”
As the forces surrounded the area, Yaqoob got his mother from her room to another room with their permission. “We all had to use her washroom as they did not let us move. And suddenly, they fired from everywhere. I shouted at them asking why they did that and they said they had felt some movement. I told them I will check in all the homes around and inform them,” Yaqoob recalls.
“That was the only time they fired. The firing stopped with that. That must have been the time when Saleem was martyred.”
The armed forces even told Yaqoob that in the morning they would take the civilians out and bombard Malik’s home.
“I confronted them on this,” Yaqoob says. “But they said they heard counter firing. I told them there was no counter firing and that they’ve killed a civilian here. They knew the clothes they [Saleem and Mehraj] were wearing. They asked about them. Then we told them Saleem was wearing green. That’s when they became sure he wasn’t the person they wanted to kill.”
After the firing the forces damaged the roof of Shabir Ahmad Sheikh’s house in the locality. Shabir is a young man who was held by the armed forces that night. He was the first one to see Saleem’s dead body.
“They were talking to each other, saying that the two ran away and we killed one,” Shabir says. “We could not understand what was happening. They asked me to go with them. They cut out the roof tin and pointed lights towards him [Saleem’s dead body], before asking me to identify which ‘commander’ he was. One among them hit me. He was a Kashmiri.”
Sporting spectacles, Shabir says, he told the forces that he couldn’t see clearly who it was, as he was facing the ground. All he could see was a boy with slippers on. “Had he been a militant, he would have boots on. He was in civilian clothes. He was innocent,” Shabir says.
“I confirmed that he was a civilian and two military men kept surrounding him. Then, his sister saw and cried. I did too. Another boy was also shown his body. He also confirmed that he was a civilian. They dragged me and hit my leg and asked me to spit out the truth. I again confirmed and told them that he’s the son of Mohammad Yaqoob who also has another son namely Mehraj-u-Din,” Shabir continues. “After I confirmed his identity, an armed man wearing spectacles informed other men on his wireless device.”
At 4.40am, the armed forces had said that they killed a Hizb ul Mujahideen commander, Shabir recalls.
“But it was absolutely incorrect,” he says. “They asked me: Humne kisko thoka? [who did we kill?] One among them asked the other where he had kept his weapon and the other one replied that he had no weapon with him. They even fought with each other there. One among them was Kashmiri. He was the one who spoke to me. He was asking them who fired. After conforming, they all gathered at one place and left. Some police officials were also there. They asked us not to tell anyone that they were there.”
At around 6 that morning, the residents raised a hue and cry and did not let the police in.
“They fired teargas. Then the top police official came to take Saleem’s body, but we did not allow him. A woman even spat on him, while a baker told him he had done wrong. Had they killed anyone else, we would have thought they had killed a stone pelter. He wasn’t even doing that. He would rarely come out. It wasn’t a cross-firing. Where was his weapon? Why was he wearing slippers? They could have arrested him in the day. They did not even announce,” Shabir says.
However, police spokesman said that based on credible input, forces cordoned a cluster of houses at Noorbagh, where the hiding militants fired indiscriminately resulting in Saleem’s death.
While the killing has left behind a trail of anger besides bullet marks on walls and ground, what, however, remains a mystery of sorts for the locals, is that after the firing, they had seen Saleem’s body lying near Lone’s house. And later Shabir was asked to identify the body near his house, which is a lane away from Lone’s residence.
Meanwhile, inside the tent, Shakeela’s dirges have momentarily stopped. She begins detailing the horrors of the night quite sluggishly.
There were no announcements before or after the area was cordoned off, she says.
“There were lights all around. I don’t know when he [Saleem] had gone out to check on the sheep,” she says. “In the morning, his sister saw his body and cried.”
Shakeela describes her son as a shy boy who would rarely come out of the home. “Even his brother would not go out much,” she says. “After braving poverty, my sons had now started earning and would help in educating their sister. I would work and make those scarves or caps. They would sell it.” Saleem’s sisters have completed their graduation and are further studying.
“We heard each fire they shot,” Shakeela says. “Just that, we didn’t know they were firing on him.”
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