On the morning of May 4, Riyaz Ahmad sat in the lobby of his single-storeyed house, chalking out plans for his sister’s engagement that was just days away. Later that afternoon, the windowpanes of his home shattered.
Ahmad lives in Turkwangam, one of at least five villages in Shopian district that woke up that morning to find thousands of security personnel, including Army soldiers, paramilitary troops and men from the Special Operations Group – the counter-insurgency unit of the state police – swarming through the area. Through the day, members of the security forces conducted a massive cordon and search operation, hoping to find militants after a series of attacks on banks and bank vehicles transporting cash.
“I thought I had come face to face with malik’un maut [angel of death],” said Ahmad. “Twenty to 30 soldiers had surrounded our house...They tried to enter my home.”
Ahmad was cooped up inside along with his family, deafened by the sound of shattering glass as security personnel raided homes in the area. Ahmad said that soldiers managed to enter two older structures in his neighbourhood and when they came to his house, they hit his father at the door. “They thought he was dead,” Ahmad said. “I saw a soldier put one foot inside [to enter] but just as my father fell, he pulled it back.”
Five days since the operation, calm has largely returned to the villages, but they still bear traces of violence: windowless vehicles and buckets of broken glass, shattered windows covered with sheets of plastic, fabric or tin. The crackdown in Shopian came less than a year after the army allegedly went on a rampage in the villages of Pampore, in neighbouring Pulwama district, resulting in the death of a young lecturer.
Screams, scars and shuttered shops
During the combing operations on May 4, about 4,000-5,000 personnel combed through more than a dozen villages in Shopian district.
Around 7 that morning, a few shopkeepers in Sugan village opened for business. Within an hour, all the shops had downed their shutters. Bilal Ahmad, a shopkeeper, said that tensions rose the moment they saw the army.
“They did not say anything to us, we did not say anything to them,” said Ahmad, describing his first contact with the forces. “They had gone straight to the orchards. By 11.30, they exited the orchards and left through the outer roads of the village. Stone pelting began at two places just as the STF [Special Task Force] arrived. First near the school and later in the market area.” The Special Task Force was merged into the state police and then shaped into the Special Operations Group. Locally, however, the old name persists.
The troops, which moved in about a dozen vehicles, did not enter homes in his village, Ahmed said. People gathered at his shop said there must have been more than 200 personnel in the area that day. From Sugan, the soldiers proceeded towards Turkwangam, they said, where other troops were waiting.
Two days after the raids, on May 6, it seemed to be business as usual in Turkwangam village – but not for everyone. Mohammad Yunus Dar, 25, was sitting on a shopfront basking in the afternoon sun. His eatery in the main market was closed. “They stole all utensils, two gas cylinders, rista and gushtaba [two kinds of meatballs], and two stoves,” he liamed. “I don’t who took it but they were all together – the army, CRPF [Central Reserve Paramilitary Forces], STF.”
A short distance away from Dar’s eatery, shopkeeper Abdul Hameed Lone had a similar complaint. “They stole my belongings, too,” he alleged. “They took three carpets from my home. They also took chickens [from the shop], and left only four or five there.”
Down the lane from Abdul Hameed’s shop, Shabbir Ahmad Lone and his neighbour’s damaged pick-up trucks are parked. “We ran into the orchards [on seeing security personnel approaching],” Lone said. “There, we heard women screaming. When we returned home, around 2:30 pm, we saw the wreckage.”
Residents of Turkwangam said they had last seen military presence of this scale in their village in the mid-1990s, when the insurgency was at its peak. Even then, property had not been damaged, they said.
A two-storeyed house with tin sheets covering its windows greets visitors to Maldera. At another house nearby, all the windows are shattered. It all happened in a span of 20 minutes, residents said. In the bylanes, they narrate their experiences. Seventeen-year-old Saima Gul reluctantly removed her scarf to show a scar on her neck. Her mother, Saleema, alleged that soldiers had tried to strangle her when they entered their home. Gul’s sister’s fiance, they alleged, was beaten up and taken to the police station.
Further down the lane, teenager Shahid Bashir lay under a quilt, his bandaged forehead propped up on two pillows. “They hit me with the butt of a gun,” he claimed, candidly adding that he was laying out rocks for a roadblock when it happened. “The other four boys with me ran away. I got caught and beaten up.”
The soldiers, they said, arrived at 12 pm from Sugan village and moved towards Turkwangam. Residents in Turkwangam and Maldera said that two people in each village were picked up during the operation and remain under detention at the Shopian police station. In Turkwangam, residents said a 12-year-old had also been detained but released the next day.
‘Where do we complain?’
Army chief General Bipin Rawat has described the exercise as “a regular operation” to “make sure the situation is brought under control”. There were no reports of militants being caught in the raid at Shopian, the largest search operation in years. But a civilian was killed. He was driving a vehicle transporting army troops that was attacked by suspected militants.
Back in Shopian, Riyaz Ahmad has repaired his house and is looking forward to his sister’s engagement, Abdul Hameed Lone has reopened his shop and Shabir Ahmad has gone back to tending his orchards. They believe that recent killings and bank robberies spurred the operation, but they do not know why the soldiers attacked their houses.
“What can we do?” a neighbour of Riyaz Ahmad said. “Where do we complain? To whom do we complain? This is not the first time this has happened in Kashmir, why would anybody care about us today?”
Police officials in Shopian refused to comment when contacted by Scroll.in. The response of the Army’s Srinagar-based 15 Corps to queries by Scroll.in is awaited. The article will be updated when the replies are received.