On Monday night a commotion on the streets of Vehil village, in restive South Kashmir’s Shopian district, startled residents who had just gone to bed. Residents say the commotion was caused by an unknown number of security personnel, who entered the village at around 11 pm, damaged homes and cars, and broke open and vandalised shops.

That night, Bilal Ahmad Rather’s two young nephews barely escaped the stones that landed inside their bedroom after shattering a windowpane on the first floor of their home. The toddlers, along with their mother, crawled to the side of the bed to protect themselves from any more projectiles.

Midnight raid

Vehil is a village not unlike many others in South Kashmir. A signboard, painted over as Pakistan’s flag, lies perched atop a tree at a crossroad at the beginning of the village. The flag is also painted on the shutters of shops, and on electricity poles in the area. An Army camp is situated barely a kilometre from the village.

Bilal Ahmad Rather said that around 10.30 pm on Monday, a band of about half-a-dozen preteens burst crackers after Pakistan won a cricket match against Sri Lanka during the ongoing ICC Champions Trophy. The Army personnel arrived shortly afterwards. “All of us slept in the lobby the whole night,” said Rather.

Local residents alleged that the Army men were accompanied by paramilitary soldiers of the Central Reserve Police Force, and that the local police were not involved. The residents alleged that the security personnel went on to damage at least a dozen automobiles, including commercial vehicles. The windowpanes of few houses were smashed with stones while at least two shops were broken into. The residents added that the soldiers left the village by 12:30 pm and headed back towards their camp.

On Tuesday morning, Umar Hussain, who runs a small shop in Bandpora mohalla in the village, found vegetables from his shop strewn on the road. A day later, two broken locks lay in a corner outside his shop, while grains of rice and packed items were seen strewn across the floor inside. “They stole 11,000 rupees from the shop,” alleged Hussain. He also claimed that goods “worth one lakh were stolen” from his shop.

Across the village’s main road, in the Hardandar mohalla, residents said the soldiers appeared at midnight. The soldiers “said nothing, they only yelled abuses and damaged property”, said local resident Showkat Ahmad.

Some residents believe the actions were a response to the bursting of crackers. Others suggest that the “khauf ki lehar [wave of fear]” that may have led the soldiers to panic, misconstruing the bursts of cracker for gunfire. “The situation is like that these days,” said Javaid Ahmad, a resident.

Village residents say that this is the second time that soldiers have entered the village and damaged property.

An elderly resident, Gulzar Ahmad, rued that the people were caught between two extremes of violence. “Last year, in October, the Army entered the village as an ijtima [congregation] was scheduled,” said Ahmad. During the unrest that broke out in 2016 following the death of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in an encounter, several gatherings were organised under the banner of Itehad-e-Millat – a grouping of various religious organisations and schools of thoughts in South Kashmir. Ahmad added: “That night they [security personnel] damaged houses, stole 50 crates of apples and a television from the village.”

‘My heart almost gave up’

Vehil village was not the only village to be subjected to a raid by security forces in the past week. Residents of Turkwangam, another village in Shopian district, say that Army personnel arrived at around 11.30 pm in their village on Monday, damaged property, and also barged into at least a dozen houses and beat up young boys and men. A similar incident occurred in Frisal in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district on Tuesday night, according to newspaper reports.

Just last month, on May 4, Turwangam village was one of several villages in the area that were subjected to a massive cordon and search operation by security forces hoping to find militants after a series of attacks on banks and bank vehicles transporting cash. That day, Turkwangam reverberated with the shattering of glass and shrieks of women. By the afternoon, the windowpanes of many houses in the village had been broken.

Attempting to reason why their village was raided again, Turkwangam’s residents say that on the morning of the latest raid, an officer of the local Army camp had been attacked by stone pelters.

Abdul Hameed Lone, who runs a shop, says that it was robbed during the last rampage. This time he watched helplessly as inmates of the house across from his were dragged out on the main road. “I was numb,” he said. “My heart almost gave up seeing it all again.”

Lone said that the Army had “surrounded the mosques to prevent announcements from the speakers. That was the first thing they did.”

He added that the soldiers did not indulge in vandalism or looting this time, but beat up people mercilessly.

Bilal Ahmad, a young resident of Turkwangam village, said that the soldiers “had demanded the identities of the stone pelters” but when no one came up with any names “they told us to keep our heads down while they beat us up”. Ahmad added that he was dragged out of his home and beaten up on a shopfront on the main road. His back and face still bear injuries of the beating.

Mushtaq Ahmad Lone, a 40-year-old government employee, has a fracture in his left leg, and bandages on the right leg. Mushtaq says that six soldiers beat him with sticks. “They were yelling abuses, they had barged into my room while I was asleep,” he said.

Shakir Ahmad Sheikh, 18, said that he was also asleep when the soldiers came. “We woke up due to a loud noise outside,” said Sheikh, a student of Class 12. “The Army men had kicked open the door and barged in. They tried to drag me out but my parents held on to me.”

His mother, Hajira Begum, added: “The Army men pounced on him. They started beating him while we were trying to drag him towards us”.

The beating left Sheikh with a fractured arm. In the fracas, his mobile phone was stolen from his bedroom.

Mushtaq Ahmad Lone at his home in Turkwangam. He did not want his face to be photographed.

The Army has denied that its personnel were involved in any raids in Shopian recently. Its Srinagar-based spokesman Rajesh Kalia told the Greater Kashmir newspaper: “The Army neither damaged any property nor beat up anyone there. This is only allegations.”

Shakir Ahmad Sheikh's left arm was fractured.

‘It’s better to pick up the gun’

Back in Vehil, Bilal Ahmad Rather said: “We don’t know what stone pelting is. We study and we work. We have no FIR against us, no records of any such activities. Why, then, did they do this to us? They attacked us, just like that”.

In Turkwangam, on Thursday afternoon, Riyaz Ahmad lay on the floor under a blanket, recovering from Monday’s beating. During the last rampage, Ahmad had told this reporter that he “had come face to face with malik’un maut [angel of death]”. This time he spoke little.

His father, Abdul Rashid, however gave vent to his frustrations. “None of those beaten up were stone pelters,” he said. “The stone pelters are happy and healthy to pelt stones again. Is this what Mehbooba became the chief minister for, to trouble people?”

A woman, who did not want to be identified, said that she had come to Turkwangam village 10 days ago from Pulwama. “It has been 10 days but it feels like a year now,” she said. “We are villagers and that is why no one cares. There is still much restraint in the city.”

She added: “The boys now say it is better to pick up the gun than go through this again and again.”

Meanwhile the residents of Turkwangam seem to have come to terms with the violence. Sitting in a group, they cracked jokes about the beatings. However, its young boys are preparing for the next raid. “We will keep chilli water ready for whenever they come again,” a college student from Turkwangam said.

All photographs by Rayan Naqash.