On August 9, three families in Jammu’s Rajouri district went to a local police post with a missing persons complaint. Each family had a boy missing. They had not been heard from since July 17, said the complaint filed at the Peeri police post in Kotranka tehsil.

The three young men were related to one another. They were 20-year-old Imtiyaz Ahmad and 16-year-old Ibrer Ahmad, both from Dharsakri village, and 25-year-old Mohammed Ibrar of Tarkasi village. Both the villages are in Kotranka tehsil. They had gone to South Kashmir’s Shopian district, about 160 kilometres away, to look for work.

“Imtiyaz had left on July 2 to find work as a labourer,” said his maternal uncle, Lal Hussain. “Ibrer and [Mohammad] Ibrar left for Shopian on July 15 on foot. Around 7.30 pm on July 17, I spoke to Imtiyaz and he told me that they had reached his place and all of them were together now. When I tried to call Imtiyaz again next morning, his phone was switched off.”

For three weeks, the family waited. “We thought they might have been taken into quarantine in Shopian by the administration and that’s why they didn’t call us,” said Hussain, a shepherd in Rajouri. “We had heard the quarantine period is for 21 days.”

The missing complaint was formally lodged on August 10. Soon afterwards, pictures of the three missing youth went viral on social media. It was not long until many were circulating it along with another grim picture. It purportedly showed the dead bodies of three “unidentified terrorists” allegedly killed in a gunfight with security forces in Shopian on July 18.

“When we saw the dead bodies of three men, two were clearly identifiable – they look like our relatives,” said Naseeb Ahmad Khattana, who was related to the missing youth. “We ask that their dead bodies be handed over to us and demand an investigation. Why did they kill innocent labourers?”

‘Rajouri is militancy free’

According to Hussain, Imtiyaz and Ibrer had recently passed their Class 12 examinations. Mohammad Ibrar was married with a young son. “He had worked as a labourer in Saudi Arabia in the past,” Hussain added.

A police official in Rajouri confirmed that the families had identified two of the three dead men in the picture as their kin. “All investigations in the case will take place under the first information report registered by the Shopian police on the day of the encounter,” said a senior police officer in Rajouri.

He also said that the Rajouri police had shared the families’ concerns with the Shopian police. “We told the families that the only way to establish they [the dead men in the picture] were their kin is through a DNA test,” said the officer. “And since the DNA samples of the slain men have been already collected by the police, it will be done at a proper time. They were saying they will go to Shopian and we have assured them all possible help if they want to go.”

So far, the Rajouri police had not found that the missing men had links to militancy, he said. “Rajouri is militancy-free and even if there was militant movement in this area, it would have been in 2010,” said the officer. “We have done a background check of these youth and so far, we haven’t found any militancy link. The village where they lived has a mixed population of Hindus and Muslims. There’s no trace of militancy there.”

A gunfight and a burial

The gunfight on July 18 had taken place in Shopian’s Amshipora village. According to a statement issued by the Jammu and Kashmir police on that day, a search operation was launched there on a “specific input by 62RR [Rashtriya Rifles] about the presence of terrorists”.

“During search terrorists fired upon Army personnel and encounter started,” said the statement.It claimed that the police and the Central Reserve Police Force joined later.

The bodies were taken to North Kashmir’s Baramulla district and buried after “medico-legal formalities including collection of their DNA,” said the police statement. Should any families claim the dead were their kin, they could “come forward for identification and participation in last rites at Baramulla”. No photographs were released by the police at the time.

Since April, after the lockdown to contain the coronavirus was imposed, security forces have introduced a new protocol to avoid large funerals after gunfights. The bodies of local militants are not handed over to their families in their villages. Instead, they are buried discreetly in faraway areas, with a limited number of family members allowed to attend.

On July 18, the Shopian police had registered a case under FIR No. 42/2020. According to the police statement, “incriminating materials, including arms and ammunition were recovered from the site of encounter.”

On August 11, the police released another statement: they had provided “sufficient time” for families to claim the dead bodies at the police station in Srinagar, since no one had turned up, the bodies were buried in the presence of a magistrate. The Shopian police would “examine the claimants and carry out DNA sampling for matching purpose”. “Police will also investigate all other aspects as per the law in due course of time,” the statement said.

In Srinagar, the army also said it had taken note of “social media inputs linked to the operation at Shopian on 18 Jul 2020”. Defence spokesperson Rajesh Kalia said the “three terrorists killed during the operation have not been identified”. The army, he said, was “investigating the matter”.

Mohammad Yousuf Bhat at the storehouse where the gunfight took place on July 18.

Shooting in the orchard

The alleged gunfight took place in a storehouse deep in an orchard in Amshipora. Local residents estimate the nearest habitation is about 300 metres away. “Locals told me that the first shots were fired around 1am and then another round of firing started at 2am. They said firing continued till 5 in the morning,” said Mohammad Yousuf Bhat, who owns the storehouse.

Bhat, who lives in the nearby Jamnagiri village, recalled getting a call from the army at 7am on July 18. “When I got here, it was all in flames,” he said. “Even the trees were burning. The army accused me of giving shelter to militants. They also abused me. I told them this was a storehouse to keep wood, charcoal and other farming items. I also explained to them that I hadn’t been to my orchard in two or three days so I didn’t know anything.”

Bhat said when he arrived he saw soldiers loading dead bodies into their vehicles. “One of them was a very young boy,” he said. “He didn’t even have a beard yet. The other two bodies were already in body bags.”

On August 11, Bhat had been summoned by a local army camp in Reshipora. Amshipora village is flanked by two army camps – one in Reshipora and one in Chowgam.

Rooms on rent

As the images of the three missing youth went viral on August 10, Touseef Ahmed Lone also recognised one of them immediately. “It was Imtiyaz,” he said. “He worked on our orchard for a year in 2018 and even stayed with us that year.” Lone, who is the grandson of the Chowgam village numberdar, or headman, said that he couldn’t identify Imtiyaz Ahmed in the picture of the three dead men.

According to Lone, Imtiyaz had stayed with them for 10-12 days this July. “After that, he told us that more men from his village were coming and he would rent a room somewhere,” Lone recalled. Later, they heard he had rented a room in a house on the Chowgam main road. “But I didn’t see where exactly he was putting up – I saw him last around July 15,” Lone added.

On the evening of July 16, a young man had approached Shakeel Ahmad in Chowgam village, asking to rent a room in a building he owned. “He said he had been putting up and working at the numberdar’s house and had been coming to Shopian for the last two years,” said Shakeel Ahmad. “When he gave me his reference, I didn’t ask him for any identity proof. Two other boys were accompanying him and I gave them the keys. The rent was fixed at Rs 1600 per month.”

The next morning, when Shakeel Ahmad’s wife went to their room, she found it locked from inside. “When I had given them the keys, they had taken a broom and a bucket to clean their room,” he said. “When my wife found the door locked from inside, she started banging on a window to get them to respond but there was no one there. When she kept banging on the window, it flew open. She went inside, collected the broom and the bucket and came home.”

According to Ahmad, he did not worry about the three men being absent from their room. “When they had rented the room, they told me that they might go to far off villages for work, sometimes for 10-20 days at a stretch,” he said. “I thought they might have gone for work and would be back after some days.”

The rented room is less than 100 metres from the 62 Rashtriya Rifles camp in Chowgam.

When the images of the three Rajouri boys went viral on social media, Ahmad said, he did not recognize any of them. “But my wife said she recognized one of the boys from viral images,” he said. “She said he was among the three we had rented our room to.”