Jaffna peninsula, in northern Sri Lanka, has been much in the news since the mid-1980s when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) started their war against the Sri Lankan state and then, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). Its recurrent mentions in the news had made it a recognisable name, a place known to be a Tamil rebel’s stronghold, doggedly defended even as their endless war carried on.
In 1995, even as the Vale descended into a horrendous bloodletting fifth year of the insurgency, the back streets of Noor Bagh – a suburb of Safa Kadal, three miles from the Srinagar city centre where my family lived – emerged as a veritable militant stronghold. Usually invisible, this new lot of militants, buttressed by a motley group of Pakistani and Afghan fighters, held sway over a swathe of this western end of Srinagar downtown. Operating from this base, the insurgents regularly carried out deadly IED and machine-gun attacks on the army and the paramilitary soldiers.
The entry point, the first few furlongs to this intersection that connected the locality to the Eidgah area, was nicknamed Jaffna Street by the locals.
The area was notorious, having earned its violent spurs in the previous years. On 8 October 1990, the entire Nalamaar Road belt, located in the downtown area, erupted in armed clashes. Starting from the Kawdor area, two miles east of us as the crow flies, pitched battles erupted; the day commenced with a broad daylight ambush on Indian paramilitary vehicles that left many soldiers dead. The clashes lasted the whole day, spreading to the western end of the road by evening.
The clashes in Kawdor died down even as flames consumed the neighbourhood after enraged soldiers allegedly torched many houses. The insurgents then regrouped and opened up a new front in our area where they took a stand and fought the army and paramilitary tooth and nail till the afternoon of the next day.
The old city awoke, not having slept. Its motionless streets vibrating in a crescendo of grenade explosions, incessant machine gun clatter and assault rifle fire. By noon, the smoke engulfing the environs and the decreasing volume of gunfire meant that our locality too was up in flames. Gun-wielding militants were scampering for safety through the fields running parallel to the road, their Kalashnikov metal stocks still open. The whole population of Noor Bagh, apprehensive of the impending carnage, fled towards the peripheral villages.
My mother, a remarkably brave woman, was stoic and silent, alarmed furrows marking her face. But dad spoke with a curious strained confidence, which I had never heard before. His voice betrayed a blend of caution and fear. Both of them had decided that if we were to die we would prefer to face our fate at our own hearth. So we stayed put.
It was on that day that I went through a surreal experience; facing a sort of entr’acte between life and death. A nauseating panic fuelled by mortal fear – that would reprise itself many a times in later years – was so overwhelming that it was hard to retain one’s wakefulness, it was something I read years later that afflicts soldiers fighting in the trenches. Eventually the insurgents retreated and the Indian army troops moved in inch by inch. A neighbour’s half-open window aroused the suspicions of an advancing troop column, which repeatedly machine-gunned the house from the boundaries of our farmhouse. Luckily no damage was inflicted on us.
By dusk of that ill-fated day, twelve civilians had been killed in our area. Feral dogs mauled the strewn corpses – there was no one to pick them up as the locality’s populace had migrated to safer confines. Everyone had run away except us.
The desolate old city, now awash in blood, was handed over to the army and put under strict shoot-at-sight curfew.
The troops not only put up roadblocks but also billeted themselves in scores of abandoned houses for the many days to come. The soldiers were billeted in every downtown locality. The curfews were interspersed with incidents of olive-green jeep patrols dispersing assemblies of people busy in exchanging gossip and garnished accounts of watching insurgent fighters fighting pitched battles with the soldiers. General Zaki was the Indian Army Corps commander at the time.
The curfew was lifted three days later. As we ventured out into its silent motionless streets, we discovered to our horror that the hundred-odd metres of the Noor Bagh locality front had been reduced to a big mound of smouldering rubble. The houses had been levelled and incinerated by the fire that had consumed them in the absence of a fire-fighting intervention. I realised that we had been lucky compared to these neighbours who had been left with nothing but what they were wearing.
But I also realised that the frenetic pace with which the ruined houses and disembowelled shops were rebuilt demonstrated a deep-rooted nature and the permanence of a sense of belonging to their hearths felt by the denizens, even if lifespans were ephemeral.
Many known to us, both acquaintances and friends, became casualties as combatants and bystanders that year. A puny and soft-spoken fruit vendor, Imtiaz Tabardar, who had attended a Quranic school with me when I was a preteen, was killed on Eid morning at his cart-shop as paramilitary soldiers shot their way out of an ambush. Kaiser and Nazir, two stand-up lads, high school acquaintances, both still in their teens, from downtown. I came to know of their ingress into insurgency only after their deaths, when their pictures were featured in vernacular newspapers.
The previous year, 1989, before the war broke out, several of us, them included, had been cornered and outnumbered in the downtown by-lanes by the backers of a wannabe boxer who had been whipped so badly as to be left unrecognisable by one of our buddies. I remember the nimble-fisted Kaiser taking the initiative, furtively removing from my back pocket and then donning the only knuckleduster we had between us and confronting the attackers to save the day. He was brave and hopelessly in love with a Kashmiri Pandit girl from Habba Kadal.
The cordon and search operations made their way into our area too. My family was forced into the confines of a Kashmiri Pandit cremation ground by the riverbank with the rest of the locality’s population. We were face-to-face with men in camouflage fatigues riding olive-green jeeps loaded with spotters, their Kalashnikovs sleeker and of better design than those carried by the insurgents.
The locals treated it like an unwanted picnic, kids trudging to and fro carrying kettles of warm tea and locally made oven bread. I tried to drown out the mix of boredom, unease and panic by delving deeper into Robert Ludlum’s The Aquitaine Progression, which I had carried with me. Before the day ended, the soldiers guarding us had been fired upon from the opposite riverbank and they had called in reinforcements and were firing back. Another day of school life had gone to waste.
The dreams of making pleasant adolescent memories had no space to come true.
The city environs seemed writhing; my mum perpetually feared that her children might end up being part of the calamity around, I hated to see her tearful and angry at the same time. There was no mental or emotional solace, the book shops were running empty, the newspapers reported and rhetoriced around the dead and the dying. The music shops sold nothing new, three days a week we switched on BBC’s Multi-Track to catch up with the saner world.
The following year, in the autumn of 1991, unable to control the insurgency, the paramilitary soldiers transported the entire able-bodied population of the localities abutting the north embankment of the river, especially the Nalamaar belt, to the notorious Papa 1 interrogation centre situated in a frosty meadow next to the airport. In the grey autumnal cold, the fog of free- floating fear, suspicion and hatred permeated the agonising hours that would decide our depressing fates.
In this infernal absurdity I noticed the reflexive nervous gestures, the hedging and hesitation, the pervading diffidence, all a consequence of our self-preservation urges as we were forced to undergo identification parades in front of jeeps occupied by masked spotters or cats.
In the following years, the city descended into a sanguinary Byzantine atmosphere, its core and ethos besieged by the onslaught of cycles of military crackdowns and insurgent violence.
The more motivated insurgents started to go deeper underground or shift to zones under their control. In the city, by 1993–94, the Batmalyun area emerged as a no-go zone where any attempt by Indian armed forces to go in or mop up was met with stiff resistance from the local boys who were known to be tough lads even before the war erupted. The clashes would last for days and many casualties were sustained.
But this defiance had a price. In 1994, during one of the many troop incursions into the locality, I watched scores of ambulances going in and out of the area even as machine gun and grenade fire rent the air. Both sides had sustained heavy casualties. The following day, as I stood talking to some of my friends in the Gow Kadal area abutting the city centre, I counted at least three coffins carrying the bodies of local boys who were militants embedded in that area being brought in. As I discovered, some were neighbours living near my grandmother’s home.
That day, at least eighteen local fighters belonging to various localities of the city-side area were taken to their final resting places.
On the other hand, guns also empowered previously proven poltroons to run their writ in the streets and localities of many downtown and civil lines areas. Many racketeering sorts added such big heists and deeds to their portfolios as would make Lucky Luciano proud. Some became hired guns for settling scores, others skimmed money from every deal going around.
One day, as I walked to and fro in our garden, wondering how life would recompense these long days misspent, I heard a loud commotion outside the gate. A boy was cringing in pain whilst trying to ward off and shield himself from the blows being rained on him by a group of hoods carrying guns. This skinny strabismus-afflicted teen shoeshine had protested their constant incursions into the nearby sweeper council estate. The fact that they picked on and beat this harmless individual to a pulp made me realize the kind of sickos this lot were.
Excerpted with permission from Jaffna Street: Tales of Life, Death, Betrayal and Survival in Kashmir, Mir Khalid, Rupa Publications.