New Internationalist

Bringing the house down

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In Kashmir, ‘collateral damage’ can mean losing everything in a matter of seconds, reports Dilnaz Boga.

War is at best barbarism… Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman (1879)

Photo by: Dilnaz Boga
Photo by: Dilnaz Boga

When a man builds his home, he expects to breathe his last in it. He does not expect it to be blasted in the middle of the night. One never expects to lose everything they have worked hard for in a matter of seconds. But this is Kashmir. And we know that collateral damage does not feature highly on the list of concerns of a State that busies itself fighting an unequivocal demand for freedom.

Here, a house can be reduced to rubble at the squeeze of a trigger. Everything you made can be lost forever and never replaced. This happened to 24 families and 12 homes in Chinkipora, Sopore, only 54 kilometres away from Srinagar. Little did the residents know that 22 February 2010 was the last night they would spend in their own homes.

Here, a house can be reduced to rubble at the squeeze of a trigger. Everything you made can be lost forever and never replaced

A month later, the rubble still remains, although speedy compensation was hastily dished out by an embarrassed but non-apologetic State. A fierce gun battle ensued between the security forces and the militants at dawn. The residents were not given any prior intimation to evacuate the densely-populated area, which housed around 50 families. As a result, several houses were damaged and a 17-year-old boy who had stepped out for his morning prayers was shot in the arm.

morning prayers was shot in the arm. Most homes suffered massive damage during the battle. Bullet holes adorn the green bedroom walls of Gulam Mohammed Ganai’s impoverished home. His two other bare rooms were not spared either. The army had occupied the house overlooking the huge empty space behind Ganai’s house. Unfortunately, Ganai does not even feature on the list of those needing compensation. ‘The security forces took our bed and utensils,’ he laments. It’s the small things that matter to the needy.

Nowhere to turn

One of Ganai’s four sons recalls the night he saw ‘tanks’ (mine-proof vehicles) outside his window. ‘It was petrifying. They hit us with mortar shells and there were no militants in our house.’ Fear still looms large in Ganai’s youngest daughter, Tabassum’s eyes. Ganai now has no one to turn to. The politicians have come and gone and so have the NGOs. The only message they have for Ganai’s family is: ‘You are not on the list.’ But Mukhtar Ahmed was not so unlucky. He received a compensation of Rs 140,000 (about $3,000) Sitting on a heap of rubble, where his house once stood, he tells me about how he has slept at this very spot for the last 30 years of his life. Currently, his family, which comprises five children and a wife, has moved in with the neighbours.

Photo by: Dilnaz Boga
12-year-old Waris Ahmed stands where his bedroom used to be. Photo by: Dilnaz Boga

The house adjacent to Ahmed’s lies partially destroyed. When the first grenade detonated early on the Monday morning, 12-year-old Waris Ahmed was hastily awaked by his frightened father Manzoor and evacuated from their bedroom, which is now a pile of bricks. Manzoor’s old mother, his wife and three kids hid in the furthest corner of their house – away from the demolished bedroom – until 11 am. The family escaped by jumping a wall in the back alley. Manzoor spent Rs 2.5 lakh ($55,000) constructing this new home only a year ago.

The result of the 18-hour gun battle – two dead militants who, Assistant Sub-Inspector Farukh Ahmad of Sopore police station claims, are buried in Bomiyar, Baramulla. He adds: ‘One JCO (junior commission officer) and three jawans(soldiers) were also killed, and three army personnel were injured.’

Harbingers of hope

In another house, a boy said that because the family was stuck in one room for so long they had to urinate in kangris (fire pots). Another one said this particular locality had been deliberately targeted by the army as stone-pelters often use the narrow lanes of this cluster of houses to escape from the armed forces. ‘They are unable to find the boys who throw stones, so they blasted our homes,’ he exclaimed.

Newspapers reported that tents and blankets were being distributed to the victims, but these claims were negated by those affected.

Meanwhile, a tug at my arm leads me to another heap of bricks. Mama Shaban Ganai and Mal Mohammed Maharaj insist that I take their names down, and the details of what they have lost. I fear their list will be a long one, but I give them a patient ear, hoping it might instill some hope in their hearts. So much more is expected of journalists here. Here, we are the harbingers of hope, not just listeners or note-takers.

More tugs, and I’m pulled in three directions at one time. More tales of loss, more complaints of army theft, more anger and matter-of-fact statements: ‘We don’t want to live with zaalims (those who commit atrocities) and kaafirs (non-believers) anymore. We want freedom.’ I can understand why.

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