Kutroosa: The five labourers from West Bengal were preparing for a trip back home when suspected militants barged into their rented accommodation at Kulgam around 7.15 pm Tuesday.
They were asked to climb down the stairs of the one-floor building, walk towards a meat shop around 200 metres away and line up, police said. Then, hours before they were to depart for home, they were shot dead.
An eerie silence hung over Kutroosa village in south Kashmir’s militant hotbed of Kulgam Wednesday, the day after the killings, as ghosts of a violent past seemed to be rearing their head again.
The villagers were in shock, relatives of the victims were wracked by survivor’s guilt, and a sixth labourer, also shot at, was undergoing treatment a Srinagar hospital.
On the street where the killings took place, shops bore bullet holes. The blood of the victims had mixed with water leaking from a broken tap outside the meat shop and formed a red stream down the road.
The region of Kulgam is known for heightened militant activity. A senior Army officer said around 20 militants were active in district Kulgam alone.
The six men killed Tuesday night were the latest victims of an alleged militant offensive against non-Kashmiris that began 14 October. So far, 11 non-Kashmiris have allegedly been killed by militants looking to stoke terror over the scrapping of Article 370 in August and the ensuing lockdown in the Valley.
Authorities, however, haven’t revealed who the assailants might be.
A senior police officer identified the latest victims as Rafiq ul Sheikh, Rafiq Sheikh, Kamar ud Din Sheikh, Musalim Sheikh and Naem ud Din Sheikh. After he was shot, the sixth labourer, Zahoor ud Din, managed to approach some local residents who administered first aid and tended to him until police arrived and took him to the nearest hospital.
“The families of the deceased have been informed. The bodies have been taken for an autopsy,” the aforementioned senior police officer said. “The deceased were shot in their vital organs. We are now trying to establish the identity of those responsible for the act.”
According to the police officer, the village had a total of nine non-local labourers, seven of whom were living together in the rented accommodation. They were all relatives, police said.
The seven who lived together worked in the apple orchards of one Haji Ghulam Rasool Bhat, the officer added. Besides a salary, Bhat is said to have also provided them with lunch and dinner.
When the militants struck, Bashir ud Din, one of the seven men, was on his way to fetch dinner from Bhat’s home in the same locality, police said.
According to police, when Bashir returned, he did not find any of the men home. A commotion near the meat shop lead Bashir towards the street where the killings took place.
Two of the remaining non-local labourers, Abu Bakr and Sadar Sarkar, were supposed to leave for Bengal with the five men. However, as they waited with packed bags, they instead discovered that they had been killed. Both broke down.
“We were supposed to leave today,” said an inconsolable Abu Bakr. “We are alive, how will we explain to our families that the rest aren’t…. and that we survived and they didn’t,” added Sadar. Local villagers looked on in sadness.
Grief and fear
Local residents also appeared to be in deep grief when approached by ThePrint for comment. The men, they said, had been working there for 12 years.
“They had gone home after the scrapping of Article 370 but came back three weeks ago,” said village head Abdul Salam. “They were supposed to leave today,” he added. Local police confirmed the information.
“They would eat with us, shop and interact with us regularly,” said Mehraj, another local resident. “It is unfortunate that this has happened. We don’t know where Kashmir is headed.”
There was also fear as multiple teams from J&K Police, the Army and the CRPF cordoned off the area and launched a manhunt. Local residents said they were asked to pick up the bodies and load them onto police vehicles.
On Wednesday, when this reporter visited the spot, security forces asked the local imam to make an announcement — all males above the age of 12 were asked to reach the 9 Rashtriya Rifiles camp in Chawalgam. Residents said the summons immediately reminded them of the “crackdowns” witnessed during the peak of insurgency in the 1990s.
In a “crackdown” — as residents refer to cordon-and-search operations conducted by security forces — residents were rounded up in their village or locality and paraded before police or Army informers, who would then identify suspected militants and their sympathisers.
“The last crackdown here took place in 1998-99 when a prominent religious leader named Mohammad Ramzan was captured and killed by Ikhwan (pro-government militia),” said a resident. “I hope we are not returning to those days.”
“Last night, the Army took five phones from us. I have been told to collect the phone from the camp,” said a second resident, adding that they were anxious about visiting the camp.
However, the Army changed its mind just as villagers began the walk towards the camp. They were later questioned one by one in the village itself.
Army officers posted in the area said they were trying to find possible eyewitnesses, but residents claimed to have been inside a mosque when the killings happened. “We have been told by locals that they were in the mosque praying. They heard bursts of multiple fires and discovered the bodies later,” said an Army officer posted in the area.
Another Army officer said any eyewitness was probably scared to come forward with information. “They might be fearing reprisals from militants for giving out information or they simply do not want to talk,” the officer added. “They need to be convinced.”