Chanjmulla: Surrounded by small hills and divided by a narrow stream, the remote village of Chanjmulla in north Kashmir’s Handwara was largely calm over the past decade.
The last time a gun battle took place here, say villagers, was in 2010-11, an encounter that led to the death of a local militant. But that was until this weekend, when a search operation for militants and the ensuing crossfire left the village reeling under a familiar fear amid Ramzan festivities.
Speaking to ThePrint, the villagers described a scene of utter chaos — how the security forces took position, asked the residents to flee for safety, and then launched a gun battle with two militants holed up in one of the houses.
The gun battle, which continued until 12.30 am Saturday night, led to the death of the militants but also exacted a heavy toll on the security forces.
Five security personnel, including an Army Major who got married just four months ago, died — Col Ashutosh Sharma, who was commanding the 21 Rashtriya Rifles battalion, Major Anuj Sood, Naik Rajesh Kumar, Lance Naik Dinesh Singh, and J&K police sub-inspector Sageer Ahmed Qazi.
The militants remain unidentified, police sources said. However, news agency ANI quoted inspector general of police (Kashmir range) Vijay Kumar as saying that one of them was a Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operative named Haider. Meanwhile, The Resistance Front, an alleged LeT offshoot, has alleged that the two were local residents
Fleeing for safety
Chanjmulla is located around 80 km from Srinagar.
The stage for the encounter was set Friday, as a team of security personnel launched a search operation in the Rajwar forests nearby following intelligence about a group of militants.
The team finally managed to locate the duo in Chanjmulla, at a house that lies on the edge of the village, surrounded by a boundary wall made of tin, tree trunks and large stones.
The house belongs to the family of Abdul Khaliq, a local carpenter, who lives there with his wife Saleema Begum, their two sons and a daughter.
Saleema Begum told ThePrint that none of them was home when the militants took refuge in their house. Her husband had left early in the morning Saturday with their sons and she had dropped their daughter at a relative’s house before setting out to buy vegetables for iftar, she said.
When she returned home around afternoon, she added, she looked out the window and noticed the “Army taking position outside”.
“When I saw the Army taking position, I just ran out and didn’t stop running until I reached a safe place,” she said. “All my neighbours were running towards safety too. The security forces were asking us to leave the vicinity and so we did,” she added, seated beside her house, its walls standing testimony to the intense battle that took place in the village.
As the residents crossed the bridge and passed by the security forces, the first shots were fired, villagers said. Moments later, both sides were exchanging fire. It stopped within an hour or two.
“The noise was relentless. It was as if lightning was striking our village again and again but it stopped all at once,” said Mohammad Abdullah Lone, the village head.
After the initial bout of gunfire, multiple villagers told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity, Army and police personnel led a JCB excavator towards the house to tear it down.
The excavator had started its assault on the boundary wall, the villagers said, when the two militants emerged from the house and started firing. Some of the bullets they fired hit security personnel, while others hit the excavator.
The Army statement issued after the encounter makes no mention of the purported excavator.
“A joint operation was launched by the Army and police on Saturday. A team comprising five Army and police personnel entered the target area occupied by the militants to evacuate the civilians,” Army spokesman Col Rajesh Kalia said Sunday.
“They successfully extricated the civilians. However, during the process, the team was subjected to heavy volume of fire by the militants,” he added.
The day after
Chanjmulla native Rashid Lone said the firing then continued until 12.30 am. On Sunday, he added, the security forces sent five villagers, including the village head, to check whether the militants had been killed.
“I pleaded with them not to do this as it was risky, but they were relentless,” said Abdullah Lone. “Finally, we came to the house and saw five bodies of Army men lying next to the house. The bodies of two militants were lying at some distance from the house,” he added.
The gun battle has sent shock waves within the security apparatus, given its toll. The worries only deepened Monday evening as another shootout between suspected militants and CRPF troopers — triggered by a militant attack on a CRPF patrol team — claimed four lives. The fatalities included three CRPF troopers and a 15-year old differently-abled boy believed to have been killed by a stray bullet.
On Tuesday, the Army conducted an area domination exercise in Langate, where the three CRPF troopers were killed, leading to heavy security deployment in the area and frisking of local residents.
Police also took down details of each vehicle using the national highway connecting Jammu and Srinagar.
The 21 Rashtriya Rifles camp, which lies on the national highway, disallowed any vehicle to move past by it by blocking a patch of the road. The vehicles were directed to take a detour through a village.
‘See what has happened’
Back in Chanjmulla, Saleema said she had no idea when the militants entered her home.
“As far as I was concerned, I was alone (when I returned), waiting for my family to return,” she added.
Saleema’s family lived on the ground floor of their house, which is painted light green. The second storey, Saleema said, had been under construction for several years.
“We have been trying to build a second storey by saving money… now see what has happened to it,” she added, pointing to the bullet holes that dot its facade.