Aijaz Ahmad believes that his 13-year-old son, Basim Aijaz would not have ventured towards the site of the gunfight if he had been able to reach home. The family lives in Karan Nagar, in Srinagar’s old city. It is about 2 km away from Nawakadal, where a gunfight between militants and security forces had started in the early hours of May 19 and raged till the afternoon.

Two Hizbul Mujahideen militants, including the son of a senior separatist leader, were killed. The confrontation also left a trail of destruction in the densely packed downtown area, where gunfights are rare – the last one took place in October 2018. At least three houses were razed to the ground and several others burned or damaged.

Around 7 pm on May 19, a loud bang near the debris of a destroyed house threw up a ball of dust in the sky, residents say, leaving at least five people injured. Over the next five days, three of them died. The first to die of his injuries was Basim Aijaz.

‘He is nowhere’

Ahmad holds the local Central Reserve Police Force camp personnel responsible for his child not being able to return home before the fateful blast on the evening of May 19.

“He had left home around 4 pm-5 pm,” recounted Ahmad, who drives a cargo truck for a living. “There is a broad lane in our locality where children usually hang out. It is off the main road. Basim was also there that day.”

Every evening, according to Ahmad, CRPF personnel guard a chowk that has to be crossed on the way to their house. Anyone on the road or travelling in a vehicle is beaten up, he said. “On the evening of May 19, they were beating up pedestrians,” said Ahmad. “Basim’s mother had called him to say he should not try to come home. She was afraid they might beat him up as well.”

According to Ahmad, his son then drifted towards the ravaged houses in Nawakadal along with the other neighbourhood boys. A large crowd had gathered there in the evening. Around 8 pm, the family got word from neighbours that he had been injured. By the next evening, he was dead.

According to the family, he had 90% burn injuries. “Even though he talked to me continuously at the hospital, doctors told me he was critical and would not survive,” said Ahmad.

A Class 7 student, Aijaz was the only child of his parents, born nearly six years after they got married. On April 28, he had celebrated his 13th birthday. “I had really begged Allah for him but now he’s dead,” said Aijaz. “I had bought him a mobile phone so that we could remain in touch and we would know where he was. Now, his phone is with me but he’s nowhere.”

The CRPF spokesperson, Pankaj Singh, denied allegations that its personnel manhandled civilians passing through the chowk. “All of these allegations are without any evidence and facts,” he said. “We love Kashmiris, we are here to protect them.”

Policemen guarding an area near the site of a gun battle between militants and government forces in downtown Srinagar on May 19. Credit: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP

‘The ground beneath them sank’

Among the crowd in Nawakadal that evening was 50-year-old Manzoor Ahmad Khan. Less than half an hour before iftar on May 19, Manzoor Ahmad Khan had stepped out of his house in the Hawal area of Srinagar’s old city. He was not fasting on that day so he would not be taking part in the ritual breaking of the Ramzan fast in the evening. He told his family he would be back by the time they finished their post-iftar prayers, in time for dinner.

“We were still preparing for iftar when a neighbour told us that he had been injured and taken to a hospital,” said Javeda Bano, Khan’s wife. Till then, the family did not know that Khan, like many others in their locality, had gone to Nawakadal.

“My father and many others were standing on the debris of the house when suddenly the ground beneath them sank and there was an explosion – he told me that everything went dark,” said Gousia Manzoor, Khan’s daughter.

He had suffered 70% burn injuries, she added. He died on May 24 at Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital.

The helping hand

In the Jamalatta area of Nawakadal, almost everyone is mourning the loss of 27-year-old Fayaz Ahmad Bhat. Of the five injured at the site of the gunfight on May 19, he had the least burns. “Only his legs and arms had suffered burn injuries,” said Umar Malik, one of his cousins. “He didn’t have any other injury but doctors kept telling us that he’s suffered a shock and there’s some heaviness on his heart.”

Bhat had walked towards the debris, about 400 metres away from his house, to help. “Some of our relatives live near the site of the gunfight,” said his father, Mohammad Hafiz Bhat. “My son told us that he would check on them. He also said that he would try to bring their children to our place, so that they could get some reprieve and have Iftar.”

According to his father, his son would not have ventured towards the spot had there been any public announcement warning people away. “He was very mature and thoughtful,” said Bhat. “If he had seen any trouble near the spot, I am sure that he wouldn’t have taken a single step towards the site.”

Fayaz Ahmad Bhat died at the Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in the afternoon of May 24.

In Jamalatta, there are stories galore about Bhat’s concern for the poor during the current lockdown. “He was not a rich man but would do anything to help a person in need,” said his friend, Zubar Ahmad. “During the month of Ramzan, we bought dozens of food kits and distributed them among the poor. We still have some kits to be distributed.”

A picture of Fayaz Ahmad Bhat on the phone of a relative. Credit: Masrat Zahra

‘An explosion under debris’

Initial reports had suggested that the civilians were injured when a damaged house collapsed on them. But the victims’ families believe it was no wall collapse but an explosion under the debris that killed them.

“If a wall collapses on a person, his bones will be crushed and that will be visible to the naked eye,” said a grieving Ahmad. “Tell me, how did my son have 90% burn injuries due to a wall collapse?”

Authorities at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital confirmed that all civilians injured in Nawakadal had burn injuries. “They were treated at the hospital’s burns ward,” said Nazir Choudhary, the hospital’s medical superintendent.

All three families said they were yet to get a death certificate from the hospital authorities. Aijaz and Bhat’s families, however, said they had been handed handwritten notes on plain paper. They contained brief case histories and said the teenager and the young man showed signs of “blast injury”.

Choudhary said the formalities would have to be completed by the police. “Since it’s a medico-legal case, the police have taken all the documents and it’s their job to complete the formalities like death certificates,” he said.

Residents of Nawakadal say that security forces did not clear the area of explosives after the gunfight was over. “As soon as the forces withdrew from the site, thousands of locals descended on it,” said one elderly resident who did not want to be named. “There was no controlling who was going where.”

According to him, banners advising caution near the site came up two days after the incident on the evening of May 19. On May 26, when this reporter tried to visit the spot, banners advising caution were still hanging near the site.

Mourning under watch

All three families said they were forced to hold funerals in the middle of the night, while security forces kept watch.

Gousia Manzoor said her father’s funeral was held after midnight on May 24. “After he passed away, they took his body to Government Medical College for Covid-19 test but then they didn’t give us body till late in the night,” she said. “The ward where my father and other patients were being treated was being monitored by cops in civilian clothes. When we pressed them, the policemen at the hospital told us that they would bury him in Sonamarg, if we didn’t relent.”

Sonamarg is a popular tourist spot in Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district, some 76 kilometers away from Hawal in Srinagar. Since the Covid-19 lockdown started, the authorities in Kashmir have buried local militants killed in gunfights there, away from public gaze. They claimed it was in order to prevent mass gatherings at public funerals which would increase the chances of infection.

Khan’s nephew, Showkat Ahmad, said he had to WhatsApp pictures of the dug-up grave to an officer at the local police station to convince him that the grave is ready. “But they were still not giving his body,” he said. “Ultimately, some elders intervened and they deployed many CRPF personnel around the area. When they gave us his body around 12 in the night, they didn’t allow us to bring him inside the house. His family saw his face for five minutes and then he was buried.”

Residents at their window during the gunfight on May 19. Credit: Tauseef Mustafa

Basim Aijaz’s body was handed over to his family immediately but funeral arrangements went awry. “We were preparing to hold his funeral prayers outside our home but people from the local CRPF camp came out and fired shells on the mourners,” said Ahmad. “This angered many local youths and they started marching towards the martyrs’ graveyard in Eidgah. We were planning to bury him in our ancestral graveyard in Malkha in Nowhatta.”

The “martyrs’ graveyard”, as it is locally known, is a burial ground for local militants killed in gunfights and civilians killed in protests. The police used tear gas on the funeral procession moving towards Eidgah, Ahmad alleged.

“Many boys were injured and they ran for cover,” he said. “This gave the police a window to seize his body. Then some of us negotiated with them. They returned his body only when we promised them that we will bury him in our ancestral graveyard in Nowhatta. The police monitored us until we finished the burial around 2.30 in the night.”

Umar Malik, Fayaz Bhat’s cousin, alleged the police told him an FIR would be filed against the family if they tried to take the body home for the funeral. “He breathed his last at 3.44 pm on Sunday [May 24] but his funeral took place only around 11:30 in the night,” said Malik. “They told us to bring his family members and parents to the hospital to see his face. Then his body was taken to Nowhatta [another neighbourhood in downtown Srinagar] under police watch. Only 10-15 people were allowed to participate in his funeral and we were surrounded by dozens of policemen and CRPF troopers.”

The CRPF denied allegations that it had used tear gas on Aijaz’s funeral procession. Calls placed by to both the local police and senior officials in the Valley to ask about the alleged delay in releasing the bodies, the funeral arrangements and alleged use of tear gas went unanswered. Written questions have been sent to the authorities concerned. This report will be updated when there is a response.

A banner near the site of the gun battle. Credit: Masrat Zahra

The breadwinners

With Manzoor Khan and Fayaz Bhat’s death, their families have been plunged into a financial crisis. A father of six daughters and the only earning member of the family, Manzoor Ahmad Khan worked as a bus conductor. The family hopes the government will provide some relief.

“We don’t want any compensation; the government should provide any of my daughters with jobs so that we can sustain our family,” said Javeda Begum.

Fayaz Bhat was also the only earning member of his family. “He was my eldest son and he used to work as a salesman at a dyeing shop,” said Hafiz Bhat, who has a son and two daughters.

Malik recalled how his cousin worried about the family’s future, even as he lay dying in the hospital. “I was with him the whole time,” said Malik. “He kept saying what will happen to his family if something happened to him?”

Hafiz Bhat also hopes for a government job for his younger son. “I am a heart patient and can’t work,” he said. “My elder son used to take care of everything. Now, I have my younger son, who’s still studying. They should provide him with a job so that he can feed us and look after his two sisters.”