My Home, Now in Ruins

  • Majid Maqbool
  • Publish Date: Feb 23 2016 11:48AM
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  • Updated Date: Feb 24 2016 10:51AM
My Home, Now in Ruins

In Astan Muhalla, Kakpora village of south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, Ishtiyaq Ahmad Sofi, a young and upcoming local entrepreneur, spends hours every day looking for things in the dusty ruins of mangled windows, doors and bricks which used to be his two storey bakery unit that provided employment to about 15 local youth. On the afternoon of August 6, soon after a local militant was killed by the government forces near a mobile tower closer to the unit, two powerful IED blasts –  carried out by the forces who suspected militant presence in the building  – ripped through the building, raising it to the ground. Overnight, the building was reduced to a heap of rubble.

 

The surrounding houses were also damaged by the IED explosions, their walls and ceilings cracked, the windows and doors and glasses smashed to pieces.

 

“I have lost everything now,” says Sofi, his hands and arms covered in dust, standing close to the rubble of his building that was, till that afternoon, buzzing with activity. Some pieces of burnt containers, bakery trays and broken machine parts are kept on one side of the debris. This is all that he could recover from the blasted building. The shutters are down in his flouring bakery shop in the main market.

 

“Everything is destroyed. I could not take out anything from the building,” he laments as his young employees also lend a helping hand in picking up the broken pieces. “They have been helping me here since that day despite knowing that they have also lost their source of income for now.” All his costly machines and bakery products were inside the building when troops suddenly showed up that afternoon, and asked him to leave. He ran for his life along with his workers and later heard some blasts from a distance, little knowing that the troops had destroyed the building with explosives after killing the militant.

 

Situated at a short distance from the ruins of his bakery unit, the front portion of Sofi’s double-storey home was also damaged by the powerful blasts. The military forces had also taken positions on the second storey of his house. “All the windows of our house were broken,” says Sofi, adding that the forces had also stolen a cash of Rs 17000 and his mobile phone which he had kept in the cupboard of his room.

 

Sofi contradicts official and popular narrative of a ‘fierce encounter’ near the site, saying that he heard only a “few shots” that were fired within a few hours that afternoon. “I couldn’t understand why the building needed to be blasted when the militant was already killed by the forces near a mobile tower by then,” he says. “If they suspected militants presence in the building, they could have checked the buildings and not blasted it without informing us.”

 

Closer to the rubble of his building, the front portion of the single-storey house of Lasa Sofi has also suffered heavy damages from the blast.  His wife says they had just finished renovating the house and spread out new floor mats that day. All the walls of the house have developed cracks from the impact of the blasts, the front windows and doors all broken. The family has been confined to a single room which is in a somewhat livable condition.

 

“This house is not safe to live in now,” says Sofi’s wife who had a narrow escape that day as bullets flew past her and she ran away from her house. “All the window glasses and even doors were damaged due to the blast.”

 

The rare compensation for the completely destroyed building and the surrounding houses that were damaged that day is not forthcoming from the district administration. “The Pathwaris came next day and took some notes and assessed the damages to our houses,” she says. “Since that day we have not seen them again.”

 

At the other end of the rubble the front side of another three storey house of Ghulam Rasool Wagay, who works in the police department and often stays away from home for days on duty, was completely damaged in the blast. Its front walls collapsed, and its roof was detached from the impact of two explosions. The family members say the military personnel had also entered and fired from their house which bears many bullet marks in almost all rooms. The family on their return to the house after the encounter found all the doors and lockers in rooms broken and riddled with bullets as the troops had taken positions to fire from the house. The fear stricken family had to run for their lives that afternoon when the firing started.

 

“Our house is not safe to live in anymore,” says the wife of Wagay. “We had only recently finished construction and interior work of our home, but all that was damaged in a few hours,” she says as her eyes well up with tears.

 

The family had recently finished construction work of the third storey of their house and decorated it with expensive curtains and mats. “We had invested all our saving to make this home,” she laments. Outside their damaged house, in a small garden lies a heap of broken windows, doors and bent steel sheets that covered their roof. The family of seven cooks in a small storeroom as the kitchen was also damaged in the blast. They have now again started construction work as carpenters and masons try to seal the cracked walls and make new windows and doors.

 

“I have toiled hard to build my house,” she says showing her fingers to convey how she had worked over the years to make her dream home. “See what is left of my home now”.

We’ve lost everything

In Hef Shirmal area of Shopian, Muhammad Hassan Padder was a proud owner of a two-storey house – until January 24 this year. That day, two militants, who were pursued by the army, came running in and were trapped in their neighbourhood. One of the militant was shot dead immediately in a lane closer to their home, and another took shelter in Padder’s home. This was the beginning of a 48-hour-long encounter between the sole militant and the forces surrounding him. Having taken up positions in surrounding houses, troops rained bullets on the house. The militant fought back from the house and gave a tough fight to the troops surrounding him.

 

“I was told by one of the army officers that if the militant doesn’t surrender, we will have to blast the house,” says Padder who, along with his elder brother Ghulam Hassan Padder was made to stay back near his house so as to convince the trapped militant to surrender.  “I was sent many times to convince the militant for those two days and I must have approached him about six times inside the house in those 48 hours but every time he refused to surrender.”

 

The house was eventually brought down after two RDX explosions were carried out to collapse the building. The body of the militant was later brought out from the rubble with a dozer brought in by the army. “One of the army officers later told me that they used 97 Kgs of RDX costing about one crore to bring the house down,” says Ghulam Hassan Padder, a retired government employee whose house adjacent to the completely destroyed house of his brother also stands damaged in the encounter. “It was like doomsday,” he says as tears fill his eyes. “I have never seen such devastating scenes in my life. I will never forget that day.”

 

Padder says they were not able to take out anything from the house whose value, he says, was later estimated to be about Rs 35 lakh.  “I couldn’t even take out a single important document from the house,” he says. “The district officials did come here next day and took reports of damages but we haven’t received any compensation yet.”

 

Sarra, an elderly woman living in their neighbourhood, shows the damage and bullet marks on her two storey house near the encounter site. One of the rooms in the second floor was used by the army to fire at the militant holed up in the nearby building. The door of the room was broken and the walls have been perforated with bullets. A glass room in the second floor was completely shattered during the encounter.  When she returned to her home after two days, she says they had to wash blood off the floor and walls in one of the rooms in the second floor, where some troops had received bullet injuries during the encounter.

 

Living in a tin-shed

Muzzafar Ahmad Dar, a mason from Redwani Balla village of Kaimoh Tehsil in Kulgam district has only recently finished construction work on the new plinth where his single storey house once stood.  His house was blasted with explosives by the army in early July soon after two militants were killed in an encounter that broke out here. Broken bricks and pieces of burnt doors and windows – all that remains of his previous home – lie on the side of the newly constructed plinth.

 

“The militants were outside the house and they were yet to be killed when my house was brought down with explosives,” says Dar who along with his seven family members has been living in a nearby tin-shed that was put together with the help of local villagers who collected some funds for the family after they lost their home in the encounter. “That night we brought out our kids in our lap and ran for our lives before the encounter started,” says his mother. “We could not take out anything from the house and only the clothes we were wearing that day are left now.”

 

Like other affected families, this family is also yet to receive any compensation for the destruction of their house.

 

 

 

 

Three families, all homeless

In Chanapora village of Frisal area of Kulgam, three houses situated close to each other in a narrow lane were completely destroyed by the army in November 2014 when two militants came running into this locality. They were being pursued by the army. “They were caught in our lane and they couldn’t run further as the army had surrounded them by then,” says Muhammad Jabbar Dar whose two storey house was raised to the ground that day with explosives. “The militants didn’t enter our homes and yet the army blasted our homes.”

 

The two militants were soon killed in the lane outside their houses.

 

The blasts were so powerful that the steel sheets covering the roofs of the houses were ripped off, and later spotted on treetops lining the street. Even now some burnt clothes can be seen atop trees standing close to the remains of the houses.

 

“Nothing was left of our home,” says Sanullah Dar whose single storey house was also razed to the ground on that day. He says they have been living in their relatives’ house since then. Only a few weeks ago they started laying a new foundation of their house.

 

Dar says they had to themselves clear the rubble of their destroyed home as the local police refused to sanitize and clear the encounter site. “When we went to the police station and asked them to clear the rubble, they said that they are afraid and that they can’t clear it,” says Dar. “Then we and our relatives had to clear the rubble ourselves in the subsequent days although there was risk involved in this.”

 

Several months after the encounter, the three families whose houses were completely destroyed by the forces received one to two lakh rupees as ‘compensation’ from the district administration.  But the families say the amount is too little too late. “We can’t even make a new plinth from this money,” says Dar.

 

Official narrative

 

Deputy Commissioner Shopian Ghulam Ahmad Dar says it takes only one month for the entire process of assessing the damages to the houses. “The concerned Tehsildar after carrying out the assessment prepares a report which is then forwarded to Assistant Development Commissioner for the compensation money to be paid to the affected people,” the DC says. However, he adds, “in case of a police reports points at any involvement in militant activity, no compensation is paid to the house owner.”

 

An informed district administration official from Kulgam says in the past six years about 30 homes have been destroyed in various encounters in this district. “We have recommended almost all the cases for compensation but FIRs should be filed for getting compensation,” he says, adding that from their end they clear all such cases for compensation. “But most of such cases in this district are pending and the affected families have not received any compensation.”

 

Off the record, the concerned district officials say even though local administration clears such cases and recommends the affected families for compensation, “there’s pressure from the police and army authorities not to clear the compensation cases because it will act as a deterrent against militant presence in such areas.”

 

Deputy Commissioner Pulwama Neeraj Kumar says they have an assessment and evaluation committee in place that looks into such encounter cases in the district. “They give us the report and usually it takes some time for compensation to be awarded,” says Kumar. “I have also cleared some old cases for compensation that were pending in this district and we are taking up more such cases,” he says, adding that usually the police doesn’t have any role in giving compensation. “In case there is direct involvement in militancy, no compensation is awarded.”

 

Lives lost near encounter sites

 

In the past few years there have been incidents of grievous injuries and even death of few kids who had come closer to the encounter sites which were not properly sanitized by the local police authorities and Army after the encounters. For example, in the summer of 2011, 19-year-old Adil Yusuf and 9-year-old Obaid Yusuf died when a grenade exploded near the encounter site in Rathsuna village of South Kashmir’s Tral area. Locals had said that the duo had picked up “a round shaped object” near Mominabad, Rathusna, where two militants of Hizbul-Mujahideen were killed in a gunfight with government forces. The local residents had also accused the police and army of not clearing the site after the gunfight. “They started fiddling with the object and it went off outside the gate of one of the deceased killing both the boys on the spot,” the local residents had said.

 

 

More than eight months after his house was razed to the ground, Dar has been living in his cowshed closer to the site of his destroyed home. His cows take shelter on one side of the shed, which was somehow left intact that day, while on the other end, his family lives in a cramped space. “Where else could we live,” Dar says, smiling as he opens the small, wooden door of his cowshed where he’s living these days. “The cows live on one side and I live on the other side of this cowshed with my family,” he says, almost laughing at his tragedy. It will take many years for him to make a new home.