Squares painted in the colours of the Pakistani flag, shop shutters painted with pro-Pakistan slogans – there are tell-tale signs of intense dissatisfaction everywhere in Kashmir’s Kulgam district.

But on May 1, it was not the Indian security forces that left seven families devastated, three in Kulgam in South Kashmir. That day, five policemen and two unarmed bank guards were killed after militants intercepted a cash van of the Jammu and Kashmir Bank near Pumbai village.

The two guards, Muzaffar Ahmad Laway and Javaid Ahmad Bhat, and one of the policemen, Farooq Ahmad Bhat, were from Kulgam. Of the other victims, three were from Qazigund in neighbouring Anantnag district and one from Srinagar.

The policemen, seated on a bench in the van, were shot as soon as the attackers breached the rear door.

The circumstances in which the bank guards were killed are more unclear. In a video shot by a relative of Laway, the body of one policeman is seen lying by a deserted road as the camera moves towards the van in the distance, while Laway’s body still shows signs of life. In another video, Laway breathes his last as the pickup truck carrying him speeds through the streets towards a hospital.

The driver of the cash van was spared. He is now in protective custody of the police.

The Hizbul Mujahideen claimed responsibility for the attack and announced rewards for the attackers. The militant organisation, however, distanced itself from the killing of the unarmed guards, instead blaming the Central Reserve Paramilitary Force for it.

The police said that although the matter was under investigation, the attack in all likelihood was a cash heist. They pointed out that the next day, on May 2, gunmen robbed two banks of about Rs 2 lakh.

As for the Hizbul Mujahideen’s claim, a police official in Kulgam said that “there is no truth to the claim” that the CRPF killed the guards. “The CRPF was not there for half an hour before the incident and half an hour or so after,” he said. “We [police] reached the spot in ten minutes and the CRPF arrived half an hour or so after we did.”

The official argued that if the CRPF had been around, they would have killed the militants as well. “They would have retaliated,” he said. “Why would they let the militants go scot-free?”

The official attributed the attack to Usman Majid of Hizbul Mujahideen, a resident of Kulgam. “Umar Majid has a past record of killing civilians,” he claimed. “This is the same militant who, during a cordon and search operation, resorted to indiscriminate firing when he was trapped, killing a fisheries department guard. He has a history of killing civilians.”

Majid is also believed to have carried out the attack that left two policemen dead at Yaripora in Kulgam last year.

Muzaffar Ahmad Laway's brother shows his identification card. Photo credit: Rayan Naqash

‘I will be back’

A pall of gloom and fear has descended upon the villages in which Laway, Javaid and Farooq lived. Residents mourn their loved ones but are wary of acknowledging their killers.

Two days after the attack, on May 3, at Javaid’s single storey house in Vass Batpora, his wife Maroofa was inconsolably wailing as women gathered around her in helpless silence.

Javaid’s meagre salary of Rs 6,500 a month wasn’t much but he made sure to send his 8-year-old daughter to a private school so she could get an education he never could. His 3-year-old son started school only a few months ago. The children’s future is uncertain now.

A newly constructed part of the house, attached to the older pale brick structure by a ramshackle roof tells of Javaid and his brother’s struggle to build their home, brick by brick.

For Sheeraz Ahmad Bhat, Javaid’s killing has not only deprived him of a “selfless elder brother” but a father figure. Javaid was barely 18 when their father died, 10 years after their mother had. Javaid, then a carpet weaver, took on the responsibility of raising his brother.

Sheeraz, too, was a carpet weaver before joining the same security firm as his brother to work as a bank guard. On that fateful day, he had not spoken to his brother. “We did not speak to each other whenever cash was to be transported,” he said, resting his head on his knees. “We always thought that if something happened to the cash, if it got robbed, we should not appear to be involved together.”

Sheeraz paused briefly and looked away before saying, “Only Allah knows who killed him.”

A few kilometres away, in Ladgoo village, Laway’s family was preparing for the visit of Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. Laway, 36, had tried his luck in the Army before taking up the bank guard job. Just last month, he laid the plinth for his new home, hoping to soon move out of his ancestral house, where his family had a single room.

Residents of Ladgoo and neighbouring villages assembled late in the night to pay last respects to the “soft-spoken and kind hearted man who helped anyone in need”. Laway’s cousin Kaiser Ahmad said the “people are afraid to come out of their homes given the situation here. But they came out for him.”

Farooq Ahmad Bhat's brother and father at their home in Nehama, Kulgam. Photo credit: Rayan Naqash

In Farooq’s modest house in Nehama, there was an incessant rush of visitors. Inside, the slain policeman’s 70-year-old father laid motionless in a roomful of visitors. The death of his oldest child has left him in a state of shock.

That morning, Farooq, 42, had called his younger brother Tariq Ahmad Bhat and told him “not to worry”. “I will be back home tonight and help you out if there is any spraying required in the orchard,” he had said, referring to the small apple orchard that the family jointly owns.

Farooq worked as daily wage labourer before securing a job in the police and went on to spend most of his career in Srinagar. He returned to his home district three years ago. “He had earned a name for us all,” said Tariq. “It was for his love that people came out, late at night to attend the funeral.”

Farooq’s job allowed his ailing father to stop working as a labourer in Delhi. “We lived below the poverty line then. Because of him, we moved forward,” Tariq said, referring to his brother. “He even took out a loan to support the family. His provident fund has also run dry.”

“I earn a mere Rs 3,500,” he continued. “Our younger brother is doing his masters only because Farooq supported him. Now I have to shoulder all the responsibility. I am broken.”

Like the families of other victims, Farooq’s relatives too said they did not know who killed him. Seated in a small and dimly lit room, Farooq’s cousin Bilal Ahmad added, “We only regret one thing: whether a bullet is Indian or Pakistani, it is only a Kashmiri that dies.”

“There is fear all around,” said a journalist in Kulgam about his district, which is fast becoming a bloodied battleground between the security forces and the militants. “Koi uff tak nahi karta,” he added. Nobody dares utter a word. Who is stupid enough to do so?