Srinagar: Shattered glass and charred wood were strewn around paths in Shopian district’s Rawalpora village Tuesday while some homes smouldered in ruin.
The past three days marked pure chaos for the village, as it became the site of perhaps the most intense violence Kashmir has seen since the clashes that erupted after the killing of Riyaz Naikoo last May.
On Friday, a joint team of the Army and Jammu & Kashmir Police arrived here to follow up on a tip-off about militant presence. The militants allegedly fired the first shots Saturday and a gun battle ensued. Soon afterwards, dozens of residents from nearby villages converged on Rawalpora and indulged in stone-pelting, in an alleged bid to aid the escape of the militants.
Amid this face-off, at least five homes were gutted, while some others bore the brunt of the violence in other ways.
The encounter was dubbed a success, with the security forces managing to kill two militants identified by local police as Jahangir Wani of the Lashkar-e Taiba and Vilayat Lone, one of the most senior commanders of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), with zero civilian casualties. However, in its wake, many villagers were left counting their losses.
One resident alleged his neighbour’s livestock — cows and sheep — had got buried under rubble, while a family claimed they were forced to help set their home on fire by security forces personnel who suspected a militant to be holed up inside.
With the violence now over, the village is now working to leave the clashes behind. In an effort to help their neighbours rebuild their homes, many families have joined hands to seek donations.
ThePrint reached Inspector General of Police (Kashmir range) Vijay Kumar by calls for a comment, but there was no response till the time of publishing this report.
A questionnaire emailed to the Army regarding an allegation that a family was forced to burn down their home to flush out militants also did not elicit a response till the time of publishing this report.
A police officer who didn’t wish to be named acknowledged the chaos, but noted that they “streamlined everything” and ensured no lives were lot.
A scary time
The three-day gun battle between the militants and the security forces was the longest so far this year. The clashes triggered by the arrival of stone-pelting residents of other villages lasted for two days and two nights.
The slain militants have been identified as Wani, a Shopian resident, and Lone, who is better known by his alias Sajad Afghani and was a native of Rawalpora. According to another police officer who didn’t wish to be named, Lone had arrived home to meet his family on the occasion of Shab-e-Mehraj, an occasion of significance to Muslims. His home was one of those destroyed in the encounter.
“On Friday evening, Army and police laid siege to the village and started to conduct door-to-door checks but it was only Saturday evening around 8.30 pm when the first shots were fired from the militants’ side,” said Shafi, a relative of a resident who, at the time ThePrint visited the spot, had been summoned by the Army for questioning.
“We all shut our doors and were holed up inside till the end of the encounter. When we finally came out Monday evening, everything was destroyed,” he added.
The encounter, he said, “left a trail of death and destruction”.
“I don’t know how those who have lost their homes today will cope,” Shafi added, as he and several other volunteers collected donations from visitors for the reconstruction of houses damaged in the violence.
Shabir Ahmed, another resident, said the people who lost their homes in the violence are not affluent.
He identified one of them as Shameem Lone, who he said “earns a decent living but lost his three-storey home and livestock”. “The animals are buried under the rubble. We can’t do anything to get them out,” Ahmed added.
The people who lost their homes included Sumaira Mir. The young woman and her three siblings — two sisters and one brother — had been living with their paternal uncle since their father Farooq Mir died of a tumour in 2018.
“The security forces did not give us a chance to leave Friday. Not only our family, but several neighbours who were vacated from their homes were brought into our house… Our house was filled with over 40 people, all of whom were in terror,” Sumaira told ThePrint.
“The guns kept on blazing from Saturday night. Sunday noon, we heard something drop by the window. The forces asked us to open the window and tell them if the person that had fallen dead was Vilayat. We couldn’t identify the body,” she said. “Next day, in the morning, they took us to the village head. Later the same day, Ziya (her brother) and our uncle were asked to return to the house and help pump kerosene inside before it was set ablaze. The forces said they suspected one militant had entered out home but they found no one here.”
Her aunt added, “In 45 years of my life, I have never seen a boy being asked to burn his home.”
Ziya Mir, a UPSC aspirant, said the family “couldn’t take out anything, not our gold, not the money and more importantly not even out educational documents”.
“Two of my sisters have a Master’s in arts. One sister is pursuing graduation like me. All our certificates our gone. My uncle’s shop is burnt as well,” he said.
Speaking to ThePrint about the gun battle, the first police officer quoted said the “search teams were fired upon”.
“By the time we took positions, there might have been some chaos but we soon streamlined everything and took out civilians so no innocent lives are lost. It was a successful operation,” the officer added.
A third police officer said the convergence of hundreds of stone-throwing protesters was a worrying sign, especially since “such incidents have been rare since August 2019”, when the central government scrapped Article 370 and the state was split into two union territories.