Last week, shots rang out in downtown Srinagar again. At Fateh Kadal on October 17, two militants, a civilian and a policemen were killed in a gunfight, the first that downtown Srinagar has seen in years. Scores of demonstrators both old and young ended up in hospital with pellet injuries. At the peripheries of the gunfight, journalists were reportedly beaten up.
Watching the situation unfold, my mind’s eye hovered back to the downtown of the 1990s.
Between the third and the seventh bridge
Srinagar city’s settled history can be traced back to a millennia. It is essentially a borough comprising eight bridges; the Jhelum river cleaves the city into the north and south embankments. The centuries-old quarter popularly known as downtown lies on the river banks between the third bridge, Fateh Kadal, and the seventh, Safa Kadal. The adjoining localities are named after the bridges.
Downtown Srinagar contains a world within itself. Its houses are built close together. Its denizens are knit together by ties of blood and a distinctly sharp downtown accent to their spoken vernacular. Right from 1931, its highly politicised environs have shaped the contrarian and opinionated nature of its denizens. These factors contributed in their own way to propel downtown Srinagar’s younger residents into forming the militant vanguard in 1990.
For downtown boys like me, a mention of those years throws up images of deathly silent streets, hit by cycles of violence. I remember the ashen faces and glazed lips of friends and strangers, so characteristic of what biologists call the body’s “fight or flight response”, the limping of released detainees and the funerals of conflict victims.
I remember this particular three-storeyed building at the Safa Kadal-Eidgah intersection, taken over by paramilitary forces in the early 1990s and then subjected to so many machine gun attacks and rocket hits by the militants that its corrugated tin roof reminded one of a giant sieve. And the innumerable bullet holes in the houses and shops on both sides on the Nalamaar road, which runs through the heart of downtown. The locals jokingly referred to the holes as “air conditioning”.
Armed skirmishes were a daily fact of life in downtown Srinagar, where I still live. At every nook and cranny of those crocheted streets, one would bump into Kalashnikov-wielding militants looking to attack paramilitary men billeted in bunkers or passing through in vehicles or foot patrols, who in turn were looking for them. The night sky often lit up in Srinagar, pierced by countless tracer rounds, bullets or shells that left behind a trail of flame. But a few dates stand out in my memory.
The Battle of Kawdor
On October 7, 1990, the areas lining Nalamaar road erupted in armed clashes. The day commenced with an ambush on paramilitary vehicles that left many soldiers dead. The clashes started in Kawdor locality, about 3.2 km from Noor Bagh, where we lived, and then spread towards us by evening. Even as the fighting in Kawdor died down, flames consumed the neighbourhood. Enraged soldiers had allegedly torched the houses. The militants then regrouped and opened up a new front in our area, where they fought till afternoon the next day.
On October 8, the old city awoke, not having slept, its streets vibrating with grenade explosions, machine gun clatter and assault rifle fire. By noon, the smoke engulfing the area and the decreasing volume of gunfire meant our locality too was up in flames. Gun-wielding militants were scampering for safety through the vegetable 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 surrounding villages.
My mother, a remarkably brave woman, was stoic and silent, alarmed furrows marking her face. But my father spoke with a curious strained confidence, which I had never heard before. His voice was a blend of caution and fear. Both of them had decided that if we were to die, we would prefer to face our fate in our home.
By dusk, 12 civilians had been killed in our area. Feral dogs mauled the corpses as there was no one to pick them up. Everyone had run away except us. The desolate old city was handed over to the Army and put under strict shoot-at-sight curfew. The troops put up roadblocks and billeted themselves in scores of abandoned houses for days.
A cordon and search operation
Then in November 1992, while on my way to a friend’s place, I got stuck in a CASO – cordon and search operation – in Zaina Kadal, where he lived. These operations involved troops cordoning off the target area for door-to-door searches, while the male population was herded out for identification parades. Life in those days seemed to be bracketed between one CASO and another.
We cowered in the lower floors of Shahjee House, a landmark in Zaina Kadal and his home, as grenades and machine-gun fire raked the air. We dreaded that the raiding troops, having suffered casualties in the raging firefight, would break down the doors and drag both of us out to face a grisly fate.
The shooting died down after an hour or so. Announcements on loudspeakers from the nearby mosque ordered us out of the houses. The instructions were terse and clear: we were to assemble for the identification parade. That was when masked informers sitting in troop vehicles would mark out suspected militants for detention and interrogation.
Intermittent gunfire and grenade blasts were still rending the air as I changed into my friend’s casual pathani suit and ventured out of the house with him. Olive-green jeeps and armoured cars filled the streets. The glares of the soldiers swarming the streets made it fairly obvious that they were on edge. As we joined the crowd of residents, our fright dissipated, probably in the realisation that this hour of torment was not ours alone to bear.
We sat on the cold asphalt braving a winter drizzle as the soldiers eyed us scornfully. The derision was mutual, on one side, concealed, on the other, not so concealed. Embodying the anxiety, humiliation and bitterness was a slightly older, though wispy, lad sitting next to me. His clothes were spattered with blood and he casually talked of how the soldiers had forced him to move the bodies of two insurgents who had died in a firefight in one of the back alleys. It was their blood splashed on his clothes. On the evening of the first day, the local radio station announced the death of Hamid Sheikh, a senior insurgent commander. He had died fleeing the cordon on a boat. It capsized in the Jhelum when the ensuing firefight riddled his boat with bullets.
When the cordon was lifted the next evening, a tall, wiry officer addressed us. According to him, two of his soldiers, enforcing the cordon, had sustained injuries after an old woman had hurled a fragmentation grenade at them from a side alley. She had done so to slow down his troops and provide a breather to the insurgents. On his command, the rest of his troops had held fire. He informed us that the incident was not a freak accident, and he was fairly certain that the husband of the woman, who was inside the cordon, knew of it.
The officer then paused and delivered his punch line: the troops were now leaving the locality, but we were to be under no illusion that any such restraint would be shown in the future.
A shock wave
One afternoon in 1998, I had just returned home after attending classes at the medical school when a seismic wave seemed to hit our house. The word on the street was that a massive IED blast had hit a military convoy a mile away from us on the Eidgah Road.
A day later, I was driving through that road on my way to the hospital. The cratered tarmac had turned soot black, but the bustle and the traffic continued around it.
I thought of an article featured in the Newsweek’s year-end issue from 1985, which I had at home. It spoke of the ramifications of the violence raging round the world then. The commentator had concluded by announcing the advent of an age where everyday violence would become so terrifyingly banal as to be considered normal.
Looking around that morning, it seemed to hit close to home. I felt that downtown Srinagar was cast into a violent purgatory between its past and future that it would never wholly emerge from. Our beloved neighbourhood would never be the same again.
Mir Khalid is a surgeon and the author of Jaffna Street: Tales of Life, Death, Betrayal and Survival in Kashmir.