On 28 March 2017, security forces in Kashmir conducted an operation in Budgam district’s Chadoora village that resulted in the death of Touseef Wagay, a member of the militant group Hizbul Mujahideen. Three young men who were civilians—Ishfaq Ahmad Wani, Zahid Rashid Ganaie and Amir Fayaz Waza—were also killed during the forces’ encounter with Wagay. Several news reports of the encounter stated that the three were part of a group of protestors who had surrounded the site, and were pelting stones at the security forces.
Ishfaq was an 18-year-old mechanic who had gone to an encounter site to protest for the first time, according to his friend, who was with him that day and did not want to be identified. “The forces directly fired at Ishfaq’s chest,” the friend said. Moin Bilal, 21-year-old Zahid’s cousin, told me that before Zahid was shot, he was standing at a distance from the site and was streaming the events taking place near the encounter site on Facebook Live. Bilal added that he had watched the live stream: he said he did not see any protests and only “saw CRPF personnel and spectators.” Zahid was taken to Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital after he was shot, where the 21-year-old was declared brought dead. Amir was a 16-year-old student. His family did not allow the doctors to conduct his autopsy. “Forces killed Amir. He had a bullet in his chest. Do we have to prove that?” his uncle, Abdul Rashid asked.
The encounter in Chadoora was the result of a joint operation between the police, the Central Reserve Police Force, and the army. The exchange of fire between the security forces and Wagay began in the early hours of 28 March. The militant had occupied a house in a paddy fields located near the Doodh Ganga stream in the Chadoora town, and was surrounded by the security personnel. While Wagay was trapped, many young men reached the site to aid his escape. A photojournalist covering the event told me that the “youth surrounded the encounter site from all sides.” The young men were protesting, and some threw stones at the security forces. As the protests intensified and the protestors did not relent despite the use of teargas shells and pellet guns, the security forces opened fire at the protestors. At around 3 pm, Wagay was killed, bringing the encounter to an end, more than ten hours after it had begun.
The following day, a shutdown was observed in Kashmir to mourn the killings of three young men. That day, passing through the empty roads in Sanat Nagar—otherwise home to Srinagar’s busiest intersections—I went to Rangreth, around 20 kilometres from the Chadoora encounter site, to meet Ishfaq’s family. A flex banner hung on the wall at the entrance to Ishfaq’s house. It read: “Shaheed Ishfaq Wani,” and featured two photographs of the young man—one from when he was alive, and one of his body, after he had died.
As I entered the compound of his house, a man squatted near the entrance directed me to the room in which the male mourners were sitting. The crowded room was silent except for the intermittent sounds of cellphone ringtones. A short while later, a frail 54-year-old man, Abdul Rashid Wani, Ishfaq’s father, entered the room.
Seated against the wall, Mehrajdin Wani, the second of Abdul’s three sons, who works as a daily-wage labourer, broke the mourning silence by asking his father whether he had taken his medicines. “I am okay. I feel slight irritation in my chest because of the smell of the scent somebody has applied,” Abdul said. He suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—an oxygen cylinder meant for his use occupied a corner of the room. Abdul told me that he used to work as a mason, but stopped in 2014 due to his ailment. “I sit at my home along with my wife who is suffering from a heart disorder,” he said. Their monthly medical bill—which he said reaches around Rs 6,000—is borne entirely by their unmarried sons. Abdul said that Ishfaq, who was earning more than Rs 12,000 per month, bore a major share of the medical expenses.
The young man who had accompanied Ishfaq to the encounter site told me that the news of a civilian’s death during the encounter reached their neighbourhood in the afternoon of 28 March. The friend said that he and Ishfaq had decided to go to the site to protest the killing along with five other men. He told me that as they made their way to Chadoora, Ishfaq had joked about his friend’s thin physique. “I can carry your body on my shoulders if you collapse in the protests,” his friend told me Ishfaq had said.
According to the friend, the group was not protesting and standing at some distance from the encounter site, in a nearby paddy field, when Ishfaq was shot in the chest. His friends carried Ishfaq to a nearby government health centre, from where he was shifted to Srinagar’s SMHS Hospital in an ambulance. “He was declared dead at the SMHS Hospital,” the friend told me. He added that although they had participated in stone-pelting protests before, “it was the first time we had gone to an encounter site to protest.”
Abdul told me that the last time he saw his son was at around 11 am that morning before Abdul left the house. “Ishfaq asked me to get one-kilogram minced mutton because he was going to have a ‘party’ with his friend at home that night,” Abdul said, adding that Ishfaq had offered to pay for the mutton but Abdul had refused. He said he had just finished buying the mutton when he received a call from an unknown caller who told him to “immediately reach SMHS Hospital.” “A bullet had pierced the left side of his chest,” Abdul said, as his eyes welled up with tears.
Ishfaq had been collecting machinery to run his own automobile shop outside the neighbourhood in which he stayed. “With the money from the shop, he wanted to repay the entire loan of Rs 50,000 that we took last year to construct the first floor of the house,” Abdul said. “Mera kya hain,”—What is mine? He continued, “Ye ous khuda sobun amanat me nish”—He was god’s possession with me.
A week after the encounter, Chadoora’s roads were still empty and its shops shuttered in protest against the killing of the three civilians. On 4 April, I traveled through these empty roads, cutting through blooming mustard fields, to visit the families of Zahid Rashid Ganaie and Amir Fayaz Waza, the two other men who were killed during the encounter.
According to Zahid Rashid’s father, also named Abdul Rashid, Zahid left his home at around 8.30 am on the day of the encounter. He left after having his morning tea with his family—his parents and five sisters. Moin Bilal, who told me that Zahid had gone to live stream the situation in the area on Facebook Live, said he “watched it [the live stream] for five-ten minutes at around 9 am.” A video recording of Zahid being carried away after he was shot appears to be in a similar spot, at a distance from the encounter site.
Rashid, Zahid’s father, is a jeweler who owns three gold shops in Chadoora market. He told me that he had been desperate to have a son before Zahid was born. He offered a prayer for a son at a shrine in Kashmir, dedicated to the mystic Sheikh-ul-Alam, who is commonly known as Alamdar, in Char-e-Sharief, a town in Budgam district. “He was Alamdar’s gift to me,” Rashid said. He claimed Zahid had never participated in protests and was never arrested. “He was a pious boy and would assist me at the shops,” he told me. “I would not have been sad if my entire property would have been reduced to ashes by fire,” he continued. “All my desires have finished with my son’s death.”
According to Rashid, when Zahid was hit by bullet, he was first taken to Chattergam Hospital and then referred to SMHS Hospital the same morning. At the SMHS, he was declared brought dead, Rashid told me. Bilal said that an ambulance then left the hospital to take Zahid’s body to his home in Chadoora. He, along with his father and his cousin’s wife, were in the ambulance with the body. At Srinagar’s commercial hub Jehangir Chowk, Bilal said, police officers stopped the ambulance. The police directed the ambulance driver to get out of the vehicle, and a police officer got into the ambulance and drove Zahid’s body to the nearby police control room, less than 500 metres away. “Police stopped the ambulance as if we were militants,” Bilal said. “They beat my father and me and fired a teargas shell [to disperse passers-by]. My cousin’s wife fainted in the ambulance,” he added.
I went to a city police station and spoke to a senior police officer who was part of the team that intercepted the ambulance. On the condition of anonymity, he told me that “the purpose [of stopping the ambulance] was to prevent more protests as the encounter was going on.” “Also, post mortem helps in getting ex-gratia [compensation],” he added. The officer denied that a teargas shell was fired, and said that it was “a teargas canister to disperse the stone-throwing mob.”
The officer also said that the police took Zahid’s body “to the PCR for an autopsy but the family did not allow it.” “It would have helped to establish whether the youth was hit by a bullet, pellet or shell,” he continued. Zahid’s body was released to the family in the evening, around three hours later.
Along the road to Chadoora lies an incomplete, small one-storey house, home to Amir Fayaz Waza, the third young man killed during the Chadoora encounter. Amir was a tenth-standard student. I spoke to his mother, Shaheena in the front yard of their home. Her sister sat next to her, consoling her as she spoke.
On 28 March, at around 7.30 am, she recalled, her son left the house to buy some books from the market. She claimed that Amir “never protested and was never arrested.” “I don’t know how he reached near the encounter site,” she said.
At around 1 pm that day, she told me, her neighbours told her that Amir had been hit by pellets. She promptly went to SMHS Hospital, accompanied by her brother. At the hospital, they were told that Amir had died and that the police had taken his body to Srinagar’s police control room. Shaheena and her brother immediately left for the Srinagar PCR.
She told me that the policemen did not let her enter the station premises.“I waited outside the PCR for two-three hours to have a last glimpse of my son’s face,” Shaheena said, amid sobs. Eventually, she said, she raised a hue and cry and began to kick the gate of the PCR. “I am ready to sacrifice my life if my son can be brought back,” she told me. After waiting another few hours, she finally saw her son when the police officials brought out his body. “It was covered in a shroud,” she said.
Amir’s father, Fayaz Ahmad Waza, sat in front of a fruit shop, at the entrance of the lane leading to his house—a stone’s throw away from the graveyard where Amir is buried. That day, he said, he left home at around 7 am to take his flock of cattle for grazing nearby. Six hours later, he told me, an unknown person called him and told him that his son had been shot. Fayaz told me he rushed home to find that a “huge number of people had assembled outside the road.” He said,“I was told Amir was killed in Chadoora but I could not believe it.”
According to Amir’s grandfather, Abdul Gani Waza, protestors had assembled on the road outside his house before Amir’s body was brought home, and were shouting anti-government and pro-freedom slogans. As a cavalcade of vehicles belonging to the security forces passed by, they fired teargas shells at the protestors to clear the area so that the vehicles could cross. He said, “A CRPF bunker vehicle almost ran over me. I got hit on left side of my head by a teargas shell and fainted.” His head was swathed in bandages because he had received four stitches on the wound.
Fayaz said his next course is to seek justice and he would approach the police to register a case against the “killers” of his son. Fayaz’s brother-in-law Abdul interrupted him as he spoke.“It is cold-blooded murder,” he said.
On the day Amir and the two other civilians were killed, Javid Mustafa Mir, the elected member of legislative assembly of the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party (PDP) from the Chadoora constituency, echoed the Waza family’s demands for filing a case against the forces. He claimed that the three civilians were killed in a “target fire.” However, Mir’s statements have not pacified the family, whose members told me that they had been staunch PDP supporters since the party contested its maiden election in 2002.
“We won’t vote from now onwards,” Fayaz said. “This vote has not fetched anything to Kashmir except for killings. We were stupid for voting for sadak, bijli, paani”—roads, electricity and water. Shaheena, who said she voted for Mir in the 2014 assembly elections, told me, “If Mir visits our neighbourhood, I will greet him with a garland of slippers.”
After I spoke to him, Fayaz visited Amir’s grave, while his youngest daughter, Mansi Fayaz, a student in the third standard, watched through the iron mesh wall of the graveyard. “Baye chu jantus manz”—My brother is in heaven, she told me.
Moazum Mohammad is a reporter based in Srinagar.