On the evening of June 24, Amir Siraj went through his regular routine. After his evening prayers, 21-year-old Siraj picked up his football kit bag and left for practice at a ground in Aadipora village in North Kashmir’s Sopore town where he lived.

There was hardly an evening he wasn’t on the ground. Siraj played for two local clubs – Jalal Sports A and Musa Junior. A midfielder who sometimes doubled as a defender, Siraj was well admired. “He was really well disciplined and respectful on the ground,” said Sajad Ramzan, a football player from Sopore. “He would listen to instructions without any question.”

Rouf Ahmad, Siraj’s teammate from Jalal Sports A, analysed his approach towards the game. “He was not after scoring goals,” Ahmad said. “Siraj’s logic was each and every member of the team should enjoy the game and have some time with the ball. If we were able to do that, we would score goals automatically.”

But when the keen sportsman and final-year student of Bachelors in Arts at Government Degree College, Sopore, left home at the end of June, his family had no idea that he would not return.

Exactly six months later, on December 24, Siraj and another man were killed in a gunfight with security forces in Wanigam Payeen area of North Kashmir’s Baramulla district. A police statement after the gunfight said that two men were affiliated to the Jaish-e-Muhammad militant group.

It added that Siraj and the other slain militant, a Pakistani national, had been involved in “several terror crime cases including attacks on security forces and civilian atrocities”.

Siraj’s family were shocked. “I still don’t believe he’s been martyred,” said Siraj-ud-din Bhat, his father, who works as a carpenter. “He was a very hardworking and responsible child.”

There were three things that summed up Siraj’s life, said his uncle Irshad Ahmad: “Studies, farming and football.”

What makes his decision even more difficult to comprehend, his family said, was Siraj’s clean record. “In many cases of militants, we saw previous harassment or torture by the security forces,” said his father. “But nothing of that sort had happened with my son.”

Siraj-ud-din Bhat witha picture of his son. Credit: Safwat Zargar.

The disappearance

That evening in June, it took Siraj’s family some time to realise that he had disappeared. After playing football in the evening, Siraj would usually return late to the home of his mother’s family in Aadipora. “Since his childhood, Amir and his brother spent most of their time at their mother’s family home,” explained Bhat, who lives in Khawaja Gilgit area of Sopore town. “They grew up there.”

Late in the night on December 24, his parents in Sopore received a phone call from Aadipora. “My brother-in-law called me at around 10.30 in the night and told me Amir hadn’t returned home,” said Bhat. “I asked him to check up with his friends. When I called his phone, it was switched off.”

For the next two days, the family made desperate attempts to find Siraj. “When we enquired with his friends and teammates later, it turned out that Amir hadn’t gone to the football field that evening,” said Bhat.

When their efforts proved unsuccessful, the family filed a missing persons report with the Sopore police. After this, Bhat said, a group of army personnel visited his house and “checked around”.

“They also asked me to come to the camp,” he said. “When I visited, an army officer there told me that they has unconfirmed inputs that my son had joined militants.”

Bhat said that the officers in the army camp told him that if he managed to contact Siraj, he should urge him to surrender. “I told them I was not in touch with him,” Bhat said. “But I told them that if he was ever trapped in an encounter in their jurisdiction, I would make an appeal to him for surrender. They promised me they would call me if that happened.”

Months later, though the gunfight in which Siraj was killed took place some 20 kilometres far from the Bhat home, the family had no idea that one of the militants involved was their son.

“Our house was locked,” Bhat said. “We were busy attending a family function when I got a call from Sopore police in the evening, asking me to reach Police Line in Baramulla for identification of the dead body.”

When they arrived there, the family was told to travel to Sheeri village in the district. “It was there we saw him,” said Bhat. “He was dead. We buried him there.”

The practice of burying militants killed in gunfights in remote locations in the presence of only a limited number of family members, police and civilian officials has been followed since the outbreak of Covid-19. Officials do not hand over their bodies to the families for burial in their native villages for fear that the funerals will attract large gatherings.

Amir Siraj was an enthusiastic worker on the family's orchards.

A student and a labourer

Nearly a month after his death, the Bhat family is still mystified about the choice made by their son. The family recalled Siraj’s noticeable indifference to the situation in Kashmir and conflict. “He would never say anything about the situation in Kashmir,” said Siraj’s uncle, Irshad Ahmad. “It didn’t seem to matter to him.”

However, Ahmad noted that Siraj often attended the funerals of militants. “He was very religious and would ensure to participate in funerals of militants,” Ahmad said. “He would travel far to join them.”

Siraj was the second child of his parents. His two other siblings are in college too. Siraj’s elder brother is pursuing a B Tech degree in Chandigarh, while his sister, the youngest of three, is in college.

In March, Ahmad had finally yielded to his nephew’s desperate pleas to let him buy a tractor. “He took Rs 5 lakh from me and bought a tractor without telling his father,” said his uncle. “He had been asking his father long to buy one for him for a long time. Two days after buying the tractor, I informed my brother that Amir had bought it.”

Since the family owns large tracts of land and apple orchards, the tractor came in very handy. For months, Siraj toiled hard on the land with his new tractor. “I was usually busy with my own work but he would ensure that the orchard is really taken care of,” said Bhat, his father. “He didn’t need to be told what has to be done.”

When the farming season was done, Siraj would take up daily labour jobs. “There were times he paid me money from his earnings,” his father said. “He would hand me some money from his earnings and tell me to keep it. He was someone one can rely upon.”

‘An ace footballer’

But it was football that Siraj was most passionate about. “Three months before he went missing, he bought a pair of football shoes worth Rs 15,000,” recalled Ahmad, his uncle. At his home in Aadipora, Siraj’s old jersey, a pair of shoes and shin-pads. have become like relics for the family.

Rouf Ahmad, his teammate from Jalal Sports A, one of the two teams Siraj played for, recalled the last match in which they participated, in May. The team had won 2-1. “In early June, we called him as we had a match against a tough opponent but he said he couldn’t play due to a personal engagement,” said Ahmad.

Siraj was a fan of German midfielder Mesut Ozil, recalled one of his former teammates. ‘He would upload his pictures a lot,” Sajad Ramzan, a senior football player from Sopore, pointed out.

Ramzan said that he had played a season with Siraj in Aadipora village many years ago. “He would have been hardly 10-12 years old,” Ramzan said. “But I remember him to be an extraordinarily talented player.”

Amir Siraj's football gear in his family home.

The viral audio

After the gunfight in which Siraj and the other militant were killed, a call recording purporting to be of an exchange between Siraj and his father went viral on social media. In the clip, a person named Amir can be heard telling the other person that he was trapped in an encounter and his own companions aren’t allowing him to surrender.

“I made a mistake,” the person named Amir says. “I was manipulated. They [militants] forcibly took my picture with a weapon and made it go viral. I wanted to come home but they warned me they would kill everyone in my family, father, mother, brother, everyone, if I ever did that,”

The man expresses regret about joining the militancy and advises his brother and friends to “work towards building their future”.

While many media outlets reported about the audio clip, no security agency has confirmed its authenticity.

In Sopore, the Bhat family was aghast. Within hours, Amir Siraj’s father, Siraj-ud-din Bhat had issued a video statement denying that he had participated in such a conversation. “It was an attempt to defame him and his cause,” said Bhat. “Firstly, in the audio clip the person says that he was forced to pick up a gun and then pose for a photograph. But the fact is Amir never released any of his photos after he joined.”

It is the standard practice for freshly recruited militants in Kashmir to pose with a gun or arms. While these images are circulated for announcing new recruitments by the militant groups, they also serve as a message to the families of these recruits that they should stop looking for them.

Siraj’s family pointed to another problem in the viral audio clip. “The persons in the conversation talk in a South Kashmiri accent,” said his father. “We don’t talk like that.”

Siraj’s uncle, Irshad Ahmad said the family had no inkling about his choice to join militants but they respect it. “He never told us about his choice to pick up arms in Allah’s path,” said Ahmad. “But whatever he decided, we respect that. We are proud of his martyrdom.”