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Homes burnt, life-savings vanished: Srinagar families lose everything in gun battle

File photos of Nawa Kadal encounter site where multiple houses were destroyed last month: KM/Umar Ganie

Residents allege cash, jewellery missing; SSP Srinagar says ‘file complaints at my office’

Srinagar: Shards of glass, piles of begrimed bricks, muddled clothes, charred books, burnt quilts and blankets, and yet-to-be consumed food in ravaged kitchen sinks sum up the destruction. Wailing women, sobbing children, and inconsolable boys present a war-torn look.

Twenty-four hours after the gunfight ended, smoke still emanates from the rubble and ruins that until Tuesday morning was Kani Mazar in old Srinagar city.

Families have been rendered homeless after security forces ‘razed’ 15 houses at the congested locality in pursuit of two Hizbul Mujahedeen militants on Tuesday.

One of the slain militants was identified as Junaid Ashraf Sehrai, an MBA who left his cushy job to join Hizbul Mujahedeen in 2018. Son of separatist leader Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai, Junaid was the divisional commander of Hizbul for Central Kashmir.  Another militant killed in the gunfight was identified as Tariq Ahmad Sheikh of Pulwama district in south Kashmir.

The encounter began just past midnight, flared up after 8 am and ended at around 3 pm on Tuesday leaving behind a trail of devastation.

Shakeela, a 45 year-old-homemaker, lost everything after her old house was burnt and destroyed.

The family of five including her husband Irfan Ahmad Najar (52), father-in-law Ghulam Ahmad Najar (71), her son Yamin (19) and daughter Sehrish (18) recalled how security forces made them cobble up in a single room in the house before they launched the offensive.

The house of Najars damaged during the encounter on Tuesday, May 19 2020 (Photo: KM/Umar Ganie)

At around 2 am, the forces entered the home rattling the family in sleep. Irfan, who is recuperating after a brain haemorrhage, was asked to assemble all the members including his elderly father in one room.

The forces were accompanied by Najar’s next door neighbour whose house too had been raided and asked to accompany them to inform other households about the cordon.

“We all were asked to lay flat in the room while they went on searching the entire house,” Shakeela said.

The family remained put until 6:30 am when they were asked to leave the house and run for their lives.

“Until then our house was all fine. But when we returned to it at around 4 pm, everything was charred,” she said.

Shakeela alleged that some gold ornaments including a chain and a pair of earrings, and around Rs 30,000 in cash was missing.

“We don’t know what happened to our entire life savings,” she said.

Besides, a laptop and a camera were also missing.

“I think they were stolen because the table the laptop and the camera were on hasn’t suffered that much damage,” said young Sehrish who studies in class 12 at nearby Nawa Kadal Higher Secondary.

Smoke still rises from the houses damaged during the encounter on Tuesday, May 19 2020- Photo: KM/Umar Ganie

Opposite to Najars live Gandroos. A mason by profession, Mushtaq Ahmad Gandroo, 60, walks room to room in his double storey house looking through the pile of burnt household items.

“At around 1 am (Tuesday), I heard a knock on our main door. I opened the gate and the troopers entered the house. They asked me and my family to stay inside one room while they searched through others. Then at around 1:15 am, I was asked to accompany them to inform other residents about the cordon,” he said.

Till 6 am, Mushtaq was kept in a different house (of Najars) when he heard an announcement asking people to leave the area.

Irfan, Mushtaq’s 28-year-old son, who was asked to stay in his own house till 7:30 am said the forces started firing towards another house after thoroughly searching through his.

“At 7:30 am, we were asked to raise our hands and leave the premises,” said Irfan.

“There is my bicycle, and here you can see the charred tin of rice grains. Even the bedding we were sleeping on has been burnt down,” he said pointing towards the burnt remains piled up on the roof of his under-construction house.

A burnt bicycle and foodgrains on the rooftop of one of the damaged houses (Photo: KM/Umar Ganie)

Afroza, Irfan’s aunt, who lives in the adjoining house, too claimed that her valuables are missing.

“When the troopers asked us to leave in the morning, I told them that I had some things in the locker that I needed to carry with me but they did not allow me,” she said.

As per her, gold jewellery including two bangles, two earrings, two rings, and a chain along with around Rs 30,000 cash are missing.

“The gold ornaments were in the locker whereas the cash was in a metal trunk. I don’t know where all of that has gone,” she said.

Mukhtar Ahmad Sofi (38), a shopkeeper in Chotta Bazar Srinagar, said he had to evacuate his elderly father Ghulam Mohammad Sofi on his shoulders when the cordon began during the night.

Standing outside his half-burnt house, Mukhtar said his father suffers from clinical depression and is on medication for years now.

“We have sent him to one of our relatives as he couldn’t cope up with the tragedy,” he said.

While his family was allowed to leave at around 5:30 am, Mukhtar was forced to remain with the paramilitary forces to search the locality.

“I was asked to go in and search my own house twice before I was told to move into other houses. I was also told to record the video with my phone. My heart was pounding and I was reciting the Kalima because I thought it was the last day of my life,” Mukhtar said.

He said that he was then made to share the videos with the paramilitary forces and asked to delete the same from his phone.

His father, a retired government employee, had kept his saved pension with Mukhtar.

“I handed over around Rs 63,000 cash to paramilitary forces. I haven’t received it back yet,” he said.

Mukhtar remained with the forces until 8 am when he was finally allowed to leave the area.

Smoke still rises from the houses damaged during the encounter on Tuesday, May 19 2020- Photo: KM/Umar Ganie

While these houses suffered massive damage, the interesting case is that of Beighs.

The family of three brothers were also asked to assemble in a single room while the forces personnel took their positions in the upper storey, aiming at another house where the militants were purportedly hiding.

“Two of the troopers said they were Muslim and needed some food for Sehri. We shared our food with them before we were asked to leave,” said a female member of the family.

Luckily, the house did not suffer any damage during the encounter.

However, when Beighs returned in the afternoon, they were shocked to see their valuables missing. 

A per the female member, gold jewellery including two rings (5 gram each), two bangles (25 grams each), one gold chain (more than 25 grams) and a pair of earrings (7 grams) stand missing.

“Look at this, the boxes are all empty. The gold ornaments are missing while these bronze bangles and a bronze chain are still there,” the woman said showing the closet kept in her bedroom.

Sitting on the smouldering rubble, Bashir Ahmad sobbed quietly while flipping through the half-burnt currency notes.

The elderly tailor master had saved Rs 1.3 lakh for his daughter’s wedding. Digging through the rubble of charred boxes and kitchen sets, Bashir was frantically shuttling from one place to another which until Tuesday morning were his well laid out rooms.

“We had saved Rs 1.3 lakh for my sister’s wedding. There was some jewellery too. We had put everything in a steel box. Everything has been lost,” said Adil Bashir, son of Bashir Ahmad, flashing half-burnt currency notes.

Bashir Ahmad looks through a set of papers burnt along with his house during the encounter – Photo: KM/Umar Ganie
Bashir Ahmad (not visible in the picture) looks through a wad of notes burnt along with his house during the encounter – Photo: KM/Umar Ganie

Posha, in her thirties, was eagerly waiting for the lockdown to end so that she could reconstruct the house. The homemaker had kept Rs 15 lakh in a locker at her house when the encounter broke out. 

“We were asked to vacate the house without giving us a chance to take even a second set of clothes. All my savings were in the locker. When I came back, everything was lost,” she said.

Some of the families whose houses have been completely or partly damaged in the gunfight include: 1. Hilal Ahmad (Age 45-unemployed since August 2019, was working as an ATM guard before it) 2. Mushtaq Ahmad Gandroo (Age 60-Mason) 3. Fayaz Ahmad Gandroo (Age 45- businessman) 4. Ghulam Mohammad Najar (71- worked as a carpenter) 5. Javid Ahmad Sofi (In late 30s-Government Employee) 6. Mohammed Sidiq Sofi (in late 50s-Government employee) 7. Nazir Ahmad Gandroo (in early 60s-Retired Government employee) 8. Gulzar Ahmad Malik (in late 40s-Government Employee) 9. Nusrat (in early 40s), wife of Late Mohammad Rafiq Gandroo 10. Fareeda, wife of late Mohammad Amin Baba 11. Ghulam Qadir Bhat (in 60s-Businessman) 12. Noor Mohammad Sheikh (in 40s-Govt employee) 13. Ghulam Mohammad Sofi (Retired government employee).

Left roofless, many of these families had to spend the first night after the encounter in a marriage hall adjacent to their houses.

“We have started crowd-funding so that the houses could be rebuild,” said Abdul Rehman Dar, President, Intizamia Committee Masjid Hanfia, Kani Mazar.

In a presser after the encounter, Director General of Police, Jammu and Kashmir, Dilbag Singh said the operation was “clean and only one residential house caught fire which was controlled immediately”.

“The first thing we did in the morning was to evacuate the inmates. In that process two forces personnel suffered injuries”, he said.

Srinagar police chief asks people to file complaint

SSP Srinagar Dr Haseeb Mughal refuted claims of families that their cash and jewellery was missing.

“I haven’t not received any complaint officially. If there is any such issue let them approach the concerned police station and file a complaint, we will certainly look into it.

“On the face of it, however, I would say it is just a smear campaign against the police and security forces. If anything is stolen in your house, what will you do? You will lodge a complaint at the nearby police station, list the items that were stolen, and the police will investigate,” he told The Kashmir Monitor.

Asked that people were apprehensive of reporting it at the police station, Dr Mughal said they can come to his office and file a complaint.

“If something like this has happened, we will be the first ones to point it out and punish the concerned persons. Also, during the fire and the gun battle lasting several hours, do you think anyone will risk his life to take the cash? Do you know what the average salary of a police constable is? It is around Rs. 40,000 to Rs 50,000. Why will they take someone’s money? Still I am here to probe any such incident. Let the people file a complaint,” he said.