October 2007 News

Residents Here Spend Id Grieving For Their Dead

14 October 2007
The Hindu

Bandipora: Waves of excited children washed over the Nishat Park in Bandipora, participating in the most vibrant Id-ul-Fitr celebrations Jammu and Kashmir has seen since the long jihad began in 1988. An hour away, in the small mountain village of Chak Arslan Khan, Id was spent grieving for the dead. The local mosque has been locked all week, and most families have been spending their nights with friends or relatives in Bandipora. Here, the declaration of the three-day ceasefire declared by the Pakistan-based United Jihad Council to mark Id passed unnoticed - and its end, Sunday night, was un-mourned. During Ramzan alone, close-knit Chak Arslan Khan has seen three local residents killed - and local residents fear that the nightmare isn't over. Murder on holy night On the night of Shab-e-Qadr - one of the holiest nights of Ramzan when, believers say, the first verses of the Quran were revealed to Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel - Zaitoona Mir decided to visit her brother-in-law. Three men were waiting outside. Her 16-year-old daughter, Zubeida Mir, was watching the drama unfold in front of her. She recalls: 'one of the men shouted out to my mother, asking if she was Zaitoona behn [sister]. My mother walked over to talk to them. The next instant, there was firing, and my mother's dead body was lying on the ground We knew the men they had often eaten at our home, and spent the night with us.' Zaitoona Mir's murderers were Lashkar-e-Taiba militants, part of a group of six known to operate in the Bandipora mountains. Her husband, Bashir Ahmad Mir, was a long-standing Lashkar operative. After he was killed in a 2002 encounter with the Indian Army's 14 Rashtriya Rifles, Zaitoona Mir sought vengeance by opening her doors to shelter Lashkar operatives hiding out in the forests around Chak Arslan Khan. Swift retribution On October 3, though, the Lashkar's top commander in Jammu and Kashmir was killed in a firefight with Indian troops. Mohammad Amjad, a resident of Wazirabad in Pakistan's Punjab province, was shot dead at Rampora, just a short walk from Chak Arslan Khan. Given that Amjad had spent the previous night at Zaitoona Mir's home, Lashkar cadre assumed she had betrayed their commander - and delivered retribution seven days later. Her next-door neighbours had earlier suffered the same fate. Police constable Manzoor Ahmad Mir had walked to Rangdori behak, a high-altitude pasture where his relatives were tending their livestock. Hours after he returned to Chak Arslan Khan, two Jamait-ul-Mujahideen terrorists were shot dead in a military ambush. Days later, Mir and his father, Mohammad Yakub Mir, were killed outside their home by the JUM. Death, Chak Arslan Khan residents know, will more likely than not call again. Before the Ramzan murders, nine residents of the village's Malkhiana Mohalla - a quarter with just 60 homes - had been killed. Two were terrorists who were shot in combat. One was an al-Badr operative killed by his one time comrades after he surrendered, while six died at the hands of various militant groups. Desperate times Violence has scarred livelihoods too. Members of the pastoral Gujjar community, most Chak Arslan Khan residents drove sheep and buffalo to high-altitude pastures. For the past decade, most have been too scared to do so. Without fodder, the animals starved - and so did their owners. 'I sold all my 22 sheep for Rs. 25,000,' says Zaitoona Mir's brother-in-law, Mohammad Yunus, 'each was worth Rs. 3,000.' Manzoor Mir's family faces similar problems. Like most their neighbours, the family sold its livestock a decade ago, but was confident that the constable's salary would meet its basic needs. Now it is left with just a small apple orchard, which is slowly being destroyed. 'We are too scared to guard the orchard at night,' says Manzoor Mir's brother, Mohammad Yakub, 'and as a result, bears have decimated our apple trees'. As winter sets in, the fighting in Bandipora is likely to escalate. Since terrorists can no longer hide out in the hills, fire-contact with police and troops in villages like Chak Arslan Khan becomes more common. Bandipore police officials note that a welter of top commanders - the Lashkar's Amjad, Jamait-ul- Mujahideen chief Aslam Zulfikar, and al-Badr's Mohammad Faisal among them - have been killed this past month. But, both officials and local residents know, more will come: the Line of Control is just a day's walk away. This Id, 9-year-old Mushtaq Ahmad Gujjar bought himself a toy pistol with the money his mother gifted him: a shiny black weapon which, somewhat surreally, plays Hindi film tunes when the trigger is pressed. 'Here,' says Yakub, 'you need to start learning young.'


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