Gariend Kalan (Budgam): The quiet at the quaint Gariend Kalan village, some 25 km from Srinagar, was shattered on the morning of 27 February, when an Indian Air Force (IAF) Mi-17 V-5 helicopter crashed here, killing six IAF personnel and a civilian.
Now, some two months later, the village is back in the spotlight as the IAF suspects that the black box of the helicopter was taken away by its residents.
The black box is at the heart of the latest controversy, stemming from a perceived delay in the Court of Inquiry, probing the crash, releasing its findings. There is rising speculation that the chopper, which crashed when Indian and Pakistani air forces were locked in a dogfight some 100 km away, was brought down by friendly fire.
Top IAF officers had told ThePrint that the black box, which could shed more light on the crash as it stores communication and other vital information recorded during the flight, has been missing since the day of the crash.
At Gariend Kalan village, however, there is near unanimity that none of the villagers took anything from the crash site and that parts of the chopper, which had fallen into nearby homes, were returned to the “men in uniform”.
“So many people have come looking for the daba (black box), but we will tell you what we told them, the men from another helicopter took whatever fell into our house,” said Fatima Ganie, the oldest woman in the Ganie household where a major chunk of the crashed helicopter had fallen on 27 February.
“There was a box in a bag but we didn’t touch it thinking it might explode. The men took it away.”
Her son, Mohammad Yusuf, like most villagers here, told ThePrint that he knew nothing of a black box or what it looked like.
“There was a bag with a box inside. I am not sure if that is what you are talking about but that was the only box I saw,” he said. “The men from the chopper took the bag.”
Villagers here say that IAF personnel who took the bag were accompanied by police officials. They added that the last time anyone had come looking for the daba was around two weeks ago.
“We returned everything,” Yusuf said. “There were some documents and the IAF personnel told us that some pages were missing from it. We looked for the pages together and luckily found them lying nearby. Some children had taken pieces of steel with them but they were returned as well.”
‘Thought Budgam was being bombed’
Fatima’s neighbour Fahmida told ThePrint that when the helicopter crashed, most residents fled their homes thinking Budgam was being bombed.
“We came back later to find parts of the helicopter strewn all over the place as well as on the Walnut trees,” she said.
Mohammad Jaffar, 52, was at his shop when he saw, what he described as “a star-like object” hitting the tail of the chopper.
“A fraction of second later there was an explosion. I saw the helicopter descending uncontrollably towards my home that is at the edge of the village,” he said. “I ran towards it and a friend who was talking to me at the moment accompanied me. On our way, I told him that I thought the war had begun.”
He said that he was relieved to find that the chopper had crashed some distance from his home. “God was kind to us but I feel bad for the people who lost their lives in the crash,” Jaffar said. Other villagers too narrated a similar sequence of events.
Jaffar also spoke of a family of a killed IAF personnel visiting the crash site. “I don’t remember their name but they visited our village in March,” he said. “They broke down on seeing the crash site. They also visited the house of the Qifayat (the civilian killed in the crash) and offered their condolences. Most of the time they spent here, they were crying.”
Yosuf Ganie (not related to Fatima), who was near his residence at that time, claimed that he saw at least two jets flying above the helicopter. “I thought the Jets had brought down the chopper,” Yosuf said. “There were so many explosions emanating from the crash site soon after. Only ashes remained.”
Both Yosuf and Jaffar too said they knew nothing of the black box and said that parts of the chopper and “things falling out of it” were returned to the uniformed men.
Probe on to find black box: J&K police
The J&K police told ThePrint that a probe was underway to find the black box.
“The IAF had officially filed a complaint with the J&K police in Budgam about the missing black box last month. We have dispatched teams to find it,” said a police officer privy to the details of the case.
When told about the villagers’ claims of handing over “a bag with a box”, the officer said, “That matter is being looked at by the IAF. They took possession of the recovered items soon after the crash. At our end, we have facilitated their investigation.”