Littered Shells In Kashmir5 November 2011
Kupwara: The festive season of Diwali brings with it the familiar deafening sounds of fire crackers, signifying the driving away of evil spirits, a celebration of the victory of good over evil. The converse is true on occasion, where blasts signify not festivity, but devastation, even death. The Kashmir Valley has been home to several campaigns, domestic and international, advocating the alleviation of trauma in the midst of the prolonged conflict. International attention towards those who lost their lives or became physically disabled in stray landmine explosions is aplenty. It has led to positive initiatives at the national level as well. A lesser known, but equally lethal, issue is that triggered by littered shells - the small lustrous brass pieces scattered on the ground, often around a scene of gun-battle or near firing practice ranges. The dawn of 20th September was no different for Ali Mohammad Bhat, 45, a scrap vendor by profession. After collecting scrap from the vicinity of the settlements, he returned to his shop in Maidanpora Village of Kupwara district. Half an hour later, he started to pound the scrap, as was his practice to prepare it for sale. Some school children, including Mudasir Ahmad Khan, 14, and a few locals sat near the shop, watching him with idle curiosity. Moments later, sources say, a shell went off. Bhat, the scrap dealer; and Khan, the student, lay dead. Among the six injured, two - Rayees Ahmad Mir, 14, and Shaheena, 30, suffered critical injuries while four school-girls were lucky enough to escape with minor scratches. The incident occurred less than 500 meters from a village which had been the scene of a gun battle where security forces claimed to have killed three top militants. Heavy mortar shells were said to have been used to level the house in which militants were hiding. 'To clear the village of such shells, six combing operations were carried out,' said Noor Mohammad, SDPO, Sogam. 'Our department had impressed upon the people to inform their nearest police station in case they find any abandoned material without touching it. The deaths were caused due to human error,' he concluded. The necessity to earn a living for their families often makes people overlook such precautions. Bhat paid for it with his life. Poverty and acute unemployment set the tone for such incidents. To earn their bread, they lose their lives and are blamed for it. What could be more tragic? To make matters worse, people employed to clear the debris of houses and structures damaged in gun-battles are at added risk. Who bears the blame for such deaths? Are the combing operations done by the forces after an encounter thorough enough to detect live shells? Unlike landmines, shells are visible to the locals; the forces cannot possibly be blind to them. Quick to take note after the recent casualties, the Minister of State, Home has asked the police, security and other paramilitary forces to draft a Standard Operating Procedure to avoid human loss after the IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) remain hidden due to non-clearance of debris. He also asked all the District Magistrates and senior police officials to make people alert and avoid venturing into any post-encounter site until the debris is fully cleared. That will help, as people in the Valley themselves look forward to putting an end to such unfortunate incidents. If guided and supported resourcefully, they will come forward to help avoid such incidents. As things stand, they are trapped between the acts of the militants and the forces. Every time they hear a blast or firing, they rush to the spot, with prayers and fear on their minds, a fear that has taken root over two decades of this routine. In the past, most of the explosions have taken place near the gun-battle site. On July 24, two teenagers, Ashfaq Ahmad Khan, 21, and Babar Khan, 20, were killed while playing with unexploded explosives in a forest in the Rafiabad area of north Kashmir's Baramulla district. Earlier that month, two teenagers were killed while another was injured due to an explosion from an unattended explosive picked up by the teenagers from the rubble of a house damaged in a gun-battle between militants and security forces in Tral town of Pulwama district in South Kashmir. In April, two persons were killed in Akhnoor area of Jammu when a shell exploded in a scrap shop. A month later, another youth was killed in the same area in a similar incident. Abdul Hamid, a daily wage labourer was killed in South Kashmir's Islamabad (Anantnag) district when a live shell inside dead stock went off in the same month. In February, three children of Muhammad Maqbool of Maloora on the outskirts of city were killed when they were playing with a live shell, after a gunfight in the area. With the recent deaths of Khan and Bhat, the death toll due to littered shells in the Kashmir Valley, since the beginning of the year, has reached fifteen. The most recent case where one Ali Mohammad Malik, 40, was injured was registered on 10th of October. Statistics don't measure the loss of faith. For the local communities, this loss is irreversible. They want the government to learn from what they have lost and take concrete steps to improve the situation. The Charkha Communication Development network feels that the government should come forward with high-level action plans which should be applicable to the ground reality.