What do you remember about him the most?

“Uski khoobsurati [his beauty],” said Jasim Gulzar, touching his own cheek. He was talking about his friend, Zubair Ahmad Khanday. The two boys grew up together in Kulpora village in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district. From the ninth standard, they had also been classmates at the Chawalgam Government Higher Secondary School. This year, they would have written their Class 12 examinations together. But the fury that broke out after Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani’s death claimed Zubair for its own.

Around 6 pm on July 8, news broke that Wani had been killed in an encounter in neighbouring Anantnag district. The fury hit Kulgam district almost instantly. In sleepy Kulpora village, residents started pouring out on the streets, Zubair and Jasim among them. No, they had never discussed Wani much, Jasim said, they preferred movies to politics. But everyone was rushing out that evening.

“When we heard, around 100 to 150 of us gathered at the mosque,” Jasim said. “Then we went to join the protests on the main road leading towards Qaimoh [a nearby town].” The crowd on the road swelled, pushing towards Qaimoh. A police post lay on the way. “We got separated, then we ran into each other again,” Jasim recalled. “We hugged and I said let’s go home. He said no, you go, I want to stay here.”

So Jasim went home that night and was preparing to go to bed when he heard “something had happened”. As the crowd reached the police post, he was later told, security forces had fired on it. A bullet hit Zubair. At the Kulgam police station, officers said forces were aiming towards the ground but Zubair had crashed into a railing and fallen, so the bullet hit him above the waist. He died the next day.

There were four friends who always stuck together in school, Gulzar said. Apart from himself, there was Zubair’s cousin, Shahid, who was also a neighbour, and Junaid, who lived in another village but went to the same school. Then there was Zubair Ahmed Khanday, who loved volleyball and Jackie Chan movies and was painfully shy with girls. It is because he was very pious, explained Zubair’s uncle, he would not even get into a car if there was a girl in it.

This November, his three friends wrote their board examinations. Zubair had filled up his forms too. “His roll number comes up every time,” said Shahid, “his attendance is still called.” Both Jasim and Shahid know the number by heart: 4610233.

Jasim Gulzar (left) and Shahid Khanday (right) visit their old haunts.

A roll call

After months of protest, most of the boys manning road blocks or shouting slogans have gone home. Early in October, the state government had announced that examinations would go ahead as planned in November, drawing fresh public wrath. Classes had not been held since Wani’s death in July, syllabi remained incomplete.

While the younger children attended so-called curfew-schools that had come up in some places, students writing their board examinations relied on furtive tuitions. There was talk of an exam boycott among angry students. To add to tensions, school buildings across the Valley mysteriously started going up in flames.

Eventually, the government softened. Students had the choice to write their exams in November, when they would be tested on 50% of the syllabus. Else, they could sit for exams in March, having studied all of the syllabus. November arrived, and news outlets reported high turnouts at the examination centres: nearly 95% for Class 12 and nearly 99% for Class 10.

Yet, especially in South Kashmir, there were empty seats in classrooms, there were roll calls that were answered with silence, there are games and routines that will never be resumed. The parents of dead children almost invariably tell the same story, of teachers coming to their house and weeping that their student would never write another exam. Nearly 100 people were killed in the protests and hundreds more maimed or blinded by pellet guns. Many of this number were teenagers who would have gone back to school.

Every morning, Zubair, Shahid and Jasim would walk to the main road and take a shared Sumo taxi to their school, 7 kilometres away. Shahid remembered old stories – an Urdu teacher who exiled them from his class, a physical education teacher who had wind-blown hair so they called him “Engine Driver”, the time when they got late for school and were not allowed in, so they took off for a picnic instead.

As small children, Zubair, Shahid and Jasim had played marbles and gilli danda in their mohalla. Later, they graduated to a field, half a kilometre away. It is a patch of bare earth in the middle of paddy fields, screened by poplar trees and edged by a shallow brook. “We used to bathe here during Ramzan,” said Jasim as he crossed it.

In the haze of a late-November afternoon, younger boys were playing cricket. There are grooves in the earth where posts had once been dug in and a volleyball net strung up. They had got the net just two days before the fury struck, and it has vanished since then. “We could only play for one day,” said Shahid.

He joined the cricketers on the field, borrowing a bat from someone and testing out a few shots. They have not played since Zubair died.

Remains of a chart made by Irfan Maqsood.

Diagram of a neuron

A few kilometres away lies Tulinowpora village, which boasts its own high school. One of the buildings lies disused. It had been built on the initiative of a “colonel from Kerala” way back in the 1990s. Since then, the classes have migrated to newer buildings. But these have also been deserted for months. Some of their denizens were locked up for taking part in protests. Others will not return again.

In Class 10, three chairs are stacked together, even in desolation. They bear the names Ummer Rasheed, Shahid Nazir Naikoo and Irfan Maqsood. On the afternoon of July 11, Irfan and his younger brother, 12-year-old Faizan, were watering apple trees in their orchard, recounted Maqsood Rasool Dar, their father.

“The police and the CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] were patrolling the area,” he said. “They came towards Faizan, who started running away from them until he hit a wire fence. The forces caught up and beat him until he started vomiting and fell down. When Irfan came to save his younger brother, they hit him on the head with a brick.”

In Dar’s account, Irfan was dumped outside the Kulgam district hospital while Faizan, who had regained consciousness, was taken to the police station. “When they did not come back for tea, we started looking for them,” he said. Faizan was found at the police station and taken back to the district hospital for treatment. There, he learnt that his elder son had been referred to the Sher-e-Kashmir Institute for Medical Science in Srinagar. Dar set off with an ambulance.

They stopped him at Wanapoh, on the way, and asked to see his Aadhar card, he said. “When they saw I was from Tulinowpora, they started beating me up,” continued Dar. “The ambulance could not go to Srinagar. I came back to Kulgam, covering 10 kilometres on foot.”

Dar never saw his son again. While he recovered from the beating, his brother was sent to Srinagar with an ambulance later, and Irfan died on the morning of July 14. According to his relatives, the first information report filed by the Kulgam police said Irfan died because he was running and had hit his head on a railing. In the Kulgam police station, the dispensation has changed since the chaotic early days of the protest and the particulars of the FIR lie forgotten.

But there seem to have been witnesses. Ummer and Shahid Naikoo, who were Irfan’s constant companions, said they were also in the orchard that day. “The forces were there, we could not get away,” said Shahid Naikoo. It was only in the evening that the boys ventured back home to tell everyone what had happened.

Irfan loved to paint. His best charts still have pride of place in the school office. In his old classroom, there seemed to be no trace of his work at first. Then Shahid pointed to a biology chart high up on the wall. “He was my friend so he made that chart for me,” he said in a small voice. The green chart paper bore the drawing of an animal cell and a plant cell, neatly labelled. At the bottom, almost torn off, were the remains of a neuron. “The neuron was the best,” sighed Shahid.

Danish Ayoob Shah's family say they will not file an FIR.

A long forgetting

In neighbouring Anantnag district, another ambulance was allegedly attacked around the same time. It was carrying 14-year-old Saqib Manzoor, who grew up in Khundroo village in the Achabal area.

Saqib’s life was shaped by conflict. When he was five, a fire broke out in the ammunitions depot, killing 15 people and damaging the houses around it. One of the houses belonged to Saqib’s aunt. Soon afterwards, relatives went over to help, taking Saqib along with them. “There were shells still lying around and one of them burst,” said his uncle, Feroz Ahmed Mir. Saqib was critically injured. Though he survived the blast, his intestines were damaged and, for years afterwards, he had to pay a weekly visit to the doctor.

The day after Wani’s death, Saqib was going for his weekly check up at the hospital in Achabal, according to his uncle. “There was a protest there, and he got trapped between the police and the crowd,” claimed Mir. “A bullet hit him in the back of the head.”

As in many cases, the local hospital did not have the resources to treat serious injuries. Saqib was referred to the district hospital at Anantnag and then to Srinagar. “When we reached the bridge at Sangam [about 42 kilometres from Srinagar], the CRPF stopped us,” continued Mir. “They beat us for about 25 minutes and tore out his drip. By the time we reached the hospital, he was dead.”

In the years after his injury, Saqib had regained his health. He did well in school and was a cricket enthusiast. But the child who had once been so close to death was always pampered, at home and at school. “We would give him more food and milk, his teachers never beat him,” said Mir. After his death, residents of the village claimed they knew the policeman who had shot him. They set fire to his house, Mir said.

There were more deaths in Achabal on that first, frantic day after Wani’s death. In Magraypora village, the family of 15-year-old Danish Ayoob Shah had guests for Eid. That morning, he was sent out to buy curd for the yakhni (a meat preparation), said his sister-in-law. According to other reports, however, Danish’s friends said he had been keen to step out of the house because he wanted to join the protests.

Whatever the object of his trip, Danish never returned. Local witnesses said they had seen police bullets hit him. He was the only son of the family. His parents had insisted on sending him to a private English-medium school, while his cousins and neighbours went to the local government school. He was to become a doctor, said his father, Muhammad Ayoob Shah, who spends 10 months away from home selling bed sheets and other goods to make a living.

According to the police version, both Danish and Saqib were killed when a crowd tried to storm the Achabal police station.

South Kashmir, where the tide of fury first broke and the security forces lashed out in panic, is strewn with these stories of loss. Yet most families say they have not filed FIRs or sought justice for their dead. Not Irfan’s father, whose younger son barely speaks anymore. Not Saqib’s uncle, who demanded, “What will we do lodging an FIR? It has no meaning.” Not Danish’s father, who must now put away his ambitions for his son.

These losses now join the ranks of 2008 and 2010, when young protesters were killed across the Valley and no one was prosecuted. As winter descends across Kashmir and the examinations wind up, the furies of summer turn into memory. Apart from stories told among friends and families, the dead have left few records. Printed on Danish’s gate, in letters already fading, are the words, “Forget me not.”