Dispatches: At the Site of the Amarnath Attack, Witnesses Fearfully Recall the Violence and Subsequent Security Raids

By Aakash Hassan | 14 July 2017

Vehicles passed hurriedly, crushing the broken green glass that littered the part of a national highway leading to Anantnag town. The road is flanked by Batengoo village on one side, while the Jhelum river flows on the other. A crowd comprising paramilitary and military personnel, as well as media persons, had gathered on the side on which the village is located. Voices of journalists speaking into microphones could be heard, mixed with the sounds of the generators in the outside-broadcasting vans belonging to various news channels. On 10 July, at this spot, a group of armed militants opened fire on a police bunker and a passing bus that was transporting pilgrims on the Amarnath Yatra. As a result of the firing, seven pilgrims were killed, and close to 30 people were injured. The spot, which is located on the Srinagar-Jammu highway, is nearly 50 kilometers from Srinagar city. Several residents of Batengoo witnessed the firing.

I visited Batengoo the day after the attack. Around a dozen shops, located on the side of the national highway, were shut—local residents later told me that the shopkeepers had shut them on the night of the attack, and had been too afraid to reopen them the next day. I spoke to Ghulam Mohammad Pincho, a 65-year-old man, who was sitting by the side of a link road that leads from the shops to the village. Pincho runs a poultry shop located a few metres away, and is a resident of Batengoo. “Most of the villagers are sitting in their houses and don’t want to come out. It was a horrific incident,” Pincho told me.

The firing began at about 8.15 pm, Pincho said, and lasted only a few minutes. “There was no electricity in the village and I was closing my shop half an hour earlier than usual,” he said. “Before I could put a lock on the shutter, there were two loud bangs. I thought they were firecrackers.” Pincho continued: “After a few seconds’ pause, there was indiscriminate firing. I crouched on the ground, and saw two buses passing by.”

Pincho said that he then began running towards his home in the village. When he reached the link road, he continued, he saw that the grocery shop located next to it was open. “The shopkeeper was nowhere to be seen,” he added, gesturing towards the shop, which had a board that read “Showkat General Store.” “The shopkeeper lives just behind the shop,” Pincho said. He told me that he went to the residence and found the shopkeeper, Showkat Ahmad Laway, and his family sitting inside. “They were terrified. They refused to come out and close shop at first,” he said. “But after I assured them that the site of the attack was deserted, they came out and hurriedly locked the shop.”

Most of the residents of Batengoo whom I met seemed reluctant to discuss the attack. “We don’t know what happened,” a middle-aged man told me when I asked him if he had witnessed the violence. Two young men, both of whom were in their early twenties, agreed to speak to me on the condition of anonymity.

As the younger of the two men spoke, the older one nodded his head in agreement. The younger man told me that a little before the attack, they were sitting with a group of young men from the village and were chatting.“Two men were standing here,” he said, gesturing towards the wall of a shop not far from Showkat’s store. The younger man said that he and his friends were sitting about 40 metres away from the shop, and that none of them recognised the men that were milling about the shop. “Then, a Rakshak”—an armoured police vehicle—“passed by and there were bangs. There was a pause, and then, indiscriminate fire,” he told me. “After that, we ran towards our home.”

A 40-year-old resident of Batengoo who witnessed the attack as well and who also requested anonymity, said that he too was running towards his home in the village after the firing ceased. As he ran down the road, he said, three cars passed by him. “From one car—perhaps a grey Maruti Alto—two men fired a few aerial shots,” he told me. “I guess they were militants.”

I visited Showkat’s residence, where only the women of the family were present. They told me that at close to 10.30 pm that night, the security forces in the area had raided their home. “My husband came running after he heard firing, leaving the shop open,” Shahzada Bano, the shopkeeper Showkat’s wife, told me. “After two hours, our gate started buzzing. We didn’t open it, but [security personnel] jumped over it,” she continued. “We then heard profanities and an order to open the main door of the house,” Shahzada said. By this time, some other women from the neighbourhood had joined us.

“They broke open a window and entered,” Sadia Jan, Showkat and Shazada’s 23-year-old niece said. “They beat everyone inside.” She added that security personnel also ransacked their home. Shahzada led me into a living room on the ground floor of the house, where a cupboard lay open. Its lock had been broken. She pointed to an empty bag that lay in the cupboard, saying that it had contained the money that Showkat brought back from the shop, after the day’s sales. “[The members of the armed forces] took it away,” she told me. “Usually, the sale is between Rs 25,000 and Rs 30,000,” she said. She added that the personnel had also looted the family’s stock for the shop—a few crates of goods and cold drinks stored in one room of the house.

Shahzada told me that the security personnel beat up and detained the male members of the house, including her husband Showkat, his brother Mushtaq Ahmed, and their nephews. She added that later in the day, she and the other women of the family intended to visit a nearby police station and enquire about where the men were being detained. According to a report published in the newspaper Greater Kashmir, they were unsuccessful in obtaining any information.

I asked Altaf Khan, the senior superintendent of police in Anantnag, whether the members of the Laway family had been detained. He denied this allegation. When I asked him if the police personnel had looted or vandalised Showkat and Shahzada’s home, he denied that as well. “People from the army may have done that, but I cannot speak on their behalf,” he said. A spokesperson for the army refused to speak to me on the record.

Batengoo is at the periphery of Anantnag, and by the side of the highway. The area, especially the road leading to Anantnag and the highway itself, has a significant presence of police and military personnel. Close to 200 metres to the south of the site of the attack, on the road leading into Anantnag, is a joint interrogation centre, from where the Special Operations Wing—the elite counter-insurgency force of the state police—operates in Anantnag. On the opposite side of the road is the Army Goodwill School and the station for the 1st Armoured Brigade, a regiment of the Indian army. The area is one of the oldest garrisons of the Indian Army in Kashmir.

A little further down the road from the Army Goodwill School is Khanabal Chowk. After the firing, the bus carrying the Amarnath pilgrims had travelled for 500 metres and stopped outside the office of deputy inspector general, located by the highway, a stone’s throw from Khanabal Chowk.

The chowk was busy—it was crowded with vehicles, and stalls selling tea. Abdul Rashid , a tea-stall owner, told me that he had heard the firing as well. “We heard gunshots but we had no idea what had happened,” he said. “Within minutes, a bus stopped in front of us,” he continued. “The passengers were crying loudly.” Rashid said that the tea-stall owners and shopkeepers closed the shutters of their businesses in panic. In a few minutes, he said, “the policemen stationed nearby had assembled here.” “We were scared we might get into trouble, so we left.”

To the right of the joint interrogation centre is the area of Anantnag, perhaps, with the highest density of security forces: a kilometre-long stretch that includes the residence of the deputy inspector general of south Kashmir, the police headquarters, as well as the residences of lower-ranked officers. On the opposite side of the road is a government-housing colony, where ministers and local representatives reside.

At the police headquarters, I saw the bus that had come under attack. A tarpaulin sheet covered most of its body. On the right side of the bus, I counted nearly ten bullet holes.

I spoke with a police officer who has been a part of counter-insurgency operation and who asked not to be named. He told me that the senior police officials were facing pressure from the government. “This is a big attack, and it will have harsh consequences,” he said. “We had information that militants would attack the yatra.” According to the officer, the attack was an act of revenge. “Actually, in several encounters, the bodies of some militants were charred,” he said. “[The militants] were furious about this.”“I can say that the militants who are stationed around Redwani and Khudwani—which is the base in this area for militants—have carried out this attack,” the officer added. “I don’t know if they took permission from their bosses across the line.”

As I left Batengoo to head towards Srinagar, I met Pincho again. He was standing at the front of his shop, and appeared distressed. “We will not live a normal life now,” he told me.“We don’t know what we will have to bear.”

Aakash Hassan is a journalist working with the Srinagar-based weekly Kashmir Life.

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