In less than 100 hours after the Lethpora suicide attack, joint forces claimed to “neutralise” the “mastermind” along with his two Jaish associates in an 18-hour long gunfight in Pulwama. In the same fierce clash, a civilian was killed, now being mourned by his woebegone, clueless family.
Just as the clock ticked 12:00 am on February 18, two men in civvies knocked on the door of Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat in Pulwama’s Pinglena village.
“It’s a CASO and we got to search your entire house. Put on the lights of every room, pull off its curtains, and come out with your family,” one of the men ordered. Mushtaq at once came out, along with his wife and two teenage daughters.
And for the next half an hour, according to Mushtaq’s 17-year-old daughter Muminah, a group of eight-to-ten armed forces personnel searched their entire house. “They ransacked every single room, but couldn’t find anything,” she says, sitting next to her younger sibling, Monisa, a class 6 student, inside their bullet-sprayed house.
After the search, Muminah thought that the forces would now leave, but, that wasn’t the case.
The armed men, she says, rather decided to take Mushtaq with them to a neighbouring house to carry out another search.
“I pleaded them not to take Abbu, to which, one of the men replied: Government ka order hai sabko maar dene ka, chupp karo, aur andar jaao (Government has ordered to kill everyone, shut up and go inside),” she alleges.
Such alarming words followed Indian premier Narendra Modi’s reiterated statement “we’ve given free hand to forces”, in the backdrop of the suicide attack at Lethpora Pulwama, which left 49 CRPF men dead in the afternoon of February 14. And given how the highway bombing triggered war hysteria and revenge calls, the military operation at Pinglana village became a major media event.
Petrified by the deadly rebuke, Mushtaq’s family silently went inside their house and occupied one of the rooms. From inside, Muminah and Monisa sat very close to their mother – who tightly held each of their hands, giving hopes to her daughters that their father would soon join them.
About half an hour had gone by and with each passing-minute, Nusrat had been striving hard to keep herself strong. “I couldn’t have lost hope, how could I? I was answerable to my two little girls,” she says.
The next minute, sound of heavy gunshots overpowered the rather silent night. “It was very scary,” Muminah recalls, “Me and my sister hugged our mother as tight as we could, and cried continuously.” Until, the exchange of fire stopped after about 25 minutes, Nusrat, gathering all the strength, quickly ran out of the house to find her husband – which, she couldn’t.
“I was only able to see army-men lying on the ground,” she recalls. “One of them was in intense pain. It was a horrific sight to witness. But when I could not spot Mushtaq anywhere, I told myself, he must be safe and that I need not worry.”
And so, Nusrat again went inside and assured her daughters about their father’s safety, giving them all the hopes she could. Just as the trio, once again, breathed a sigh of relief, armed men entered their room and ordered to “immediately evacuate the entire house”.
“We asked about Mushtaq, but they just stayed silent. We were then quickly shifted to our neighbour’s residence and were locked there inside an empty room, although we requested them to allow us to sit with the family,” Nusrat recalls. And for the next 18-hours, the trio stayed there, with no clue about Mushtaq and the outside world.
It was now 2:00 in the night. The news about a brief exchange of fire between the armed forces and three trapped militants in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district was already doing rounds. Moreover, the firing had left four army men including a major dead and many wounded. This was the first major counter-insurgency operation since the deadly suicide attack carried out by Jaish-e-Mohammad’s local recruit claiming 49 CRPF men.
The house in which Mushtaq’s family had been locked-in was that of his next-door neighbour Manzoor Bhat. Like Mushtaq’s, Manzoor’s residence, too, was raided by the armed forces. But the militants were nowhere to be found.
Taking the advantage of the dark, villagers say, three militants – one local, and two of them reportedly highly-trained from across the LoC – were giving a hard time to many deployed Indian forces in the village. The militants belonged to the same JeM outfit, which had earlier carried out the deadly suicide attack.
Meanwhile, Manzoor’s teenage daughter Sabreena tried her best to sneak into the room where Mushtaq’s family was locked-in. “But we had been warned to not have any communication with them,” she says.
Sabreena’s family had learned something and “that we don’t reveal it to anyone,” she alleges, her family had been abused and beaten by the armed forces “to instill fear”.
Their family, too, was then locked in one of the rooms, like that of Mushtaq’s family.
At their residence, the armed men had placed five dead bodies post the exchange of firing between the militants and the forces. “And one among them was Mushtaq uncle” – Sabreena had seen it!
Silence surrounded the room right after, and the very next minute, the little girl left. Tears fell from Nusrat’s eyes and her two daughters sitting next to her, cried inconsolably.
Mushtaq’s killing remains a mystery with conflicting versions of the local residents narrated to this reporter. While many say the 46-year-old was killed by the armed forces to “avenge the killing of their four soldiers”, police’s official version says he was killed in “cross-firing”.
The family, meanwhile, is clueless. The news of Mushtaq’s killing had reached them only after the gunfight concluded.
“When we were finally set free,” Nusrat says, “The villagers came and narrated whatever they knew about my husband. Who knows, it could be a targeted killing.”
Mushtaq is one of the uncountable mysteries of “collateral damages” at the gunfight sites, consuming thousands of civilians in the three-decade-long insurgency in Kashmir valley. Official versions, generally either cite that the civilians were killed in “cross-fire” or for being a “stone-pelter disrupting the military operation”.
To conclude with the quote of an elderly villager, who has witnessed the dreadful 90s era – told to this reporter in a 15-minute conversation post his visit to the gunfight site – as follows: “That’s how it works, son. There are only three people who can tell you the true sequence of the event: Allah, the one who got killed, and, the killer himself!”
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