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Spring brings deadly violence to Indian-administered Kashmir Open in fullscreen

Umar Lateef Misgar

Spring brings deadly violence to Indian-administered Kashmir

Deadly violence in Kashmir left more than 20 dead last week [Saqib Mir]

Date of publication: 12 April, 2018

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The latest erupted at the start of April, when Indian troops gunned down 13 armed fighters, as calls for ending Indian rule in occupied Kashmir continue, reports Umar Lateef Misgar.
Kashmir has been embroiled in a brutal territorial conflict between two nuclear neighbours, India and Pakistan, for the past seven decades. Both countries claim the region in full but only control parts. In addition, the part controlled by India has seen frequent bouts of armed insurgency as well as mass uprisings against Indian rule since the 1990s.

The latest cycle of deadly violence erupted on April 1, when Indian troops gunned down 13 armed fighters, all local Kashmiris, in three separate gunfights in south Kashmir.

Civilians are often seen marching to the sites of gun battles between the rebels and Indian forces to provide the rebels a chance to escape. Five civilians were also killed during or in the aftermath of these battles, and hundreds more were injured, many of them shot in the eyes by pellet guns.

With the single biggest death toll in more than half a decade for Hizb ul-Mujahideen, the largest armed group operating in the restive valley, a commanding officer of the Indian army called it "a special day" for Indian forces, adding that "the kinetic operations against the militants in Kashmir would continue".

Anticipating large-scale protests, regional government officials ordered schools and colleges to be closed. The internet was shut down for days - a common tactic to hinder online organisation. Separatist leaders also called for protests and a general strike. While the United Nations secretary-general expressed concern over the civilian deaths, Pakistan's government called for a "day of solidarity" against "the brutal and indiscriminate use of force by the Indian occupation forces in Kashmir".

It was raining solidly when The New Arab was welcomed into Abdul Ahad Bhat's modest home in southern Kulgam district. The mourners were huddled in a dimly lit room. Outside, walnut trees surrounded the building.

Bhat's son, Zubair Ahmad, a civilian, was shot dead during the gun battle between the armed rebels and Indian forces in nearby Kachdora village.

His dream of becoming an entrepreneur was no more. "Zubair's new soap factory was set to be operational later in the day," Bhat lamented. "He was shot in the chest and died on the spot." 

He had gone to play cricket with his friends

A few houses down from the Bhats, the family of Muneeb Ahmad Wani was anxiously waiting for any positive news from the tertiary care hospital where the boy lies in a coma.

"He had gone to play cricket with his friends," Muneeb's mother, Fehmeeda Wani, said, tears rolling down her face. The 15-year-old was shot twice, in the gut and the liver, while playing cricket near the gunfight in Kachdora.

"When news about the gunfight spread, I called my son on his phone but only heard wails," Fehmeeda said. "Later, some stranger called us from his phone and informed us about Muneeb's critical condition."

Another recurring trend during these gun battles has been the deaths of civilians, miles away.

Aiza Iqbal of Khasipora village in southern Shopian district has no clue about his father's untimely death. The 18-month-old toddler looks inquisitively at every mourner making their way to her home through a path traced with mud.

The infant child's father, 27-year-old Mohammad Iqbal Bhat, was killed while returning home from his in-laws near Kachdora.

"He was walking back home, at least two kilometres away from the gunfight. The Indian forces deliberately targeted him," claimed Iqbal's brother, Nawaz Ahmad. Iqbal was remarried only two years ago, after his previous wife and two children died of natural causes.

Kashmiri civilians are left suffering as a result of the violence sparked by the Indian army [Saqib Mir]

The sight in Kachdora village - where five rebels were killed in one of the gunfights on April 1 - is eerily similar to many of the pictures emerging out of warzones in Syria or Iraq.

Using explosive devices, Indian troops levelled multiple buildings in the hunt for the rebels.

Without any help from the civil administration, residents today still desperately try to pry apart the concrete and rebar, searching for rebels' body parts or any intact belongings. The charred remains and bloodstains frequently appear underneath the rubble. Livestock, including cows and hens, were also burned to death during the battle.

"After the battle ended, Indian forces resorted to arson and looting," said Abdul Rehman Lone, a resident whose house was damaged. "The arson in the aftermath of the battle was purely an act of collective punishment," he added.

Students protesting against Indian rule in Kashmir [Basit Zargar]

About an hour's drive north-east of Kachdora lies Drager, a tiny hamlet nestled in apple orchards. The picturesque village became the site of a fierce gunfight at midnight on April 1, when a contingent of Indian forces came looking for armed rebels belonging to the Hizbul Mujahideen group.

Rafiq Ahmad Mengnoo hid in the storeroom of his house along with his family as seven rebels were gunned down outside.

"There were no rebels inside, but the forces still fired hundreds of rounds directly at my house," Mengnoo told The New Arab while we conversed in his living room, pockmarked with bullet-holes. "Except for a small window, the storeroom is surrounded on all sides by walls. That is what saved us."

The family, on the urging of a village elder, left town in the morning. "While we were being evacuated, some [Indian military] personnel thrashed and injured my younger son for unknown reasons," Mengnoo added.

A far greater tragedy befell the family of Raqeeba Akhtar, who lives a few yards away from the Mengnoos. Her husband, Mushtaq Ahmad Thoker, a farmer and a father of two, was taken away in the dead of night by Indian troops to lead them to the compound where they suspected the rebels had taken shelter.

A fierce gunfight ensued, lasting through the night, and Thoker's bullet-ridden body was found in the morning.

"Mushtaq was used as a human shield by the [Indian] forces," Akhter alleged. She has wept relentlessly in the days since she lost her husband. Along with her two children and Thoker's aging parents, Akhter hid in the kitchen until they were evacuated amid the gunfire.

"While I prayed for Mushtaq's saftety, our 11-year-old son consoled me throughout the night, asking me to put my faith in Allah," Akhter recalled. "Mushtaq was our sole breadwinner. Tell me this isn't oppression."

Overflowing with the injured from the April 1 gunfights, the main hospital in Shopian district was also raided by Indian troops, who opened fire in its casualty department and blood bank. The Doctors Association of Kashmir, condemning the act as shameful, said: "Geneva Conventions are being thrown into the trash in this part of the world."

As soon as schools and colleges opened on Thursday, students across Kashmir poured into the streets, protesting against the latest deaths, and demanding an end to Indian rule.

"The Indian state is killing Kashmiris every day. Where is the so-called international community? Are we lesser humans?" shouted one student protester.

While businesses reopened and transport returned to normality after almost a week, the region remains tense, with a fresh gunfight leading to the death of another armed rebel on Friday in southern Pulwama district.    

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