The last time Hajin’s Mir Mohalla was in the news, two underage militants from the village had been killed in a gunfight with security forces on the outskirts of Srinagar. That was in December. On March 22, another child, a 12-year-old boy, from this restive area in Kashmir’s Bandipora district died in a gunfight. He was not a militant but a hostage.

On March 21, security forces launched a cordon-and-search operation in Mir Mohalla of North Kashmir’s Hajin town after receiving “credible inputs” about the presence of militants in the area. “As the searches were going on, the hiding terrorists fired on the search party,” said a police statement issued on Friday.

Till then, it sounded like the story of almost every gunfight in Kashmir. But then events took a different direction. The two militants hiding in businessman Mohammad Shafi Mir’s three-storey house had taken two civilians hostage: his brother, Abdul Hameed Mir, and his 12-year-old son, Atif Mir.

When the search operation started on March 21, 50-year-old Mohammad Shafi Mir was in his shop in another area of Hajin. With the army not allowing civilians to move towards the area that had been cordoned off, Mir was stuck. Until evening, he had no idea that a gunfight had started at his house, that his brother and only son had been taken hostage. “Around 4.30 pm on Thursday, my brother had managed to escape,” he said. “My brother had just slipped through. They even fired at him when was fleeing.”

According to the police, the security forces had asked Atif’s mother and other local community members to appeal to the militants to free the hostages. Despite repeated appeals on loudspeakers outside the house and from local mosques, the militants did not relent. Mir said. After Abdul Hameed Mir’s escape, the family had hoped that Atif might also walk free. They did not give up hope until Friday morning, when the security forces blew up the house.

Three bodies were collected from the debris. The police identified the two militants as Ali and Hubaib, Pakistani members of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. The third body was of 12-year-old Atif. All had been charred beyond recognition.

‘Wanted to see his face one last time’

A Class 6 student at the Army Goodwill School in Hajin, Atif was going to try to get admission in the Sainik School in Manasbal, in the neighboring district of Ganderbal. He was to appear for an entrance examination on April 7.

“It was his choice to go to Sainik School. He was very intelligent and loved studies,” said Mir. “He loved computers and was very handy with mobile phone.”

Atif’s friend, 12-year-old Mohammad Uzair, said he had wanted to see his friend’s face for one last time but could not. “I hadn’t seen him in the last one month. We had become friends at a dargah [religious seminary] here,” said Uzair, a Class 5 student. “We would play cricket and kabaddi together. He didn’t talk much but he loved to hang out in the eidgah [open ground usually meant for prayer] with me. We would always take care not to go too far from home.”

Mohammad Uzair, a student of Class 5, was a friend of Atif Mir

‘Nobody knows why’

In past gunfights in Kashmir, militants have usually allowed safe passage to civilians trapped in houses where a gunfight seems imminent. Several theories now circulate about why this gunfight was different. According to neighbours of the Mirs, “Ali Bhai”, one of the militants killed, wanted to marry Atif’s teenaged sister.

“The issue is several months old,” said one local resident who did not want to be identified. “First of all, that girl is very young. Secondly, which family would agree to marry their child to a militant who could be killed anytime?”

According to local residents, early last week, a group of village elders had sat down in a separate house to “solve the matter”. “Out of fear, the family had shifted their daughter to her maternal home in Sopore,” explained one local resident who had participated in that meeting. “But there was no solution.”

The police believes Atif was killed in an act of “revenge” after the family refused the militant’s offer. “Based on the family’s account, he was adamant about marrying a girl in the family and he wasn’t relenting,” said Rahul Malik, senior superintendent of police, Bandipora. “There was some sort of standoff and before that the militant had beaten up the family members as well. That’s how we can connect the dots.”

On Sunday, the family refused to answer questions about the alleged offer of marriage.

A ‘famous’ militant

The police, for their part, said they had waited for a long while before proceeding with the operation but that they could not let Ali escape – he was too important a target. “There’s no doubt he was very famous in the area. For many years, Hajin had become his home,” said a local youth who did not want to be named.

Like most militants in the Valley, he was revered as someone who had given up “worldly desires” for a more religious quest. Now they are mystified about how a “paak admi”, or “pure man” could change into a “ruthless” child killer.

Hajin itself has gone through a transformation in recent years. In the 1990s, it was the hub of the Ikhwan, the counterinsurgency militia raised by the Indian Army, mostly comprising former militants who had switched sides. Over the last couple of years, it has been known as a hub of the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir. In 2017, Abid Hamid Mir became the first local militant from Hajin to die in 22 years. The same year saw the start of a series of beheadings and assassinations in Hajin.

Ali may have been regarded with awe but it was also mixed with fear. “He was equally ruthless as well,” said the local youth. “You can say people had started dreading him ever since several people were beheaded by him for allegedly being [state] informers. Locals don’t have any sympathy for informers, but the way they were killed raised eyebrows.”

Atif’s killing might finally make that criticism become more vocal. On Friday, when residents went to collect the 12-year-old’s body from Hajin police station, nobody demanded the bodies of two militants. Atif’s family decided to inter him in their ancestral graveyard rather than the “martyrs” graveyard traditionally reserved for militants and others killed in the conflict. Militant groups have also avoided “paying tribute” to Ali and his companion so far.

Atif’s killing has been condemned across Kashmir by mainstream as well as separatist leaders. For the family, however, separatist leaders of the Hurriyat were too mild in their condemnation. “The Hurriyat should amend their statement and be harsher and stricter in their criticism of what militants did to our child,” said Mohammad Sultan Mir, uncle of Atif’s father Mohammad Shafi Mir.

Meanwhile, the Mir family has also lost their home in the gunfight. Mohammad Shafi Mir, his brother and their two family’s are now staying at their uncle’s house in the neighbouring plot. Friday’s nightmare is still fresh in their minds. “We just want to forget about it,” said Mir.