I keep thinking about jail a lot: 15-year old Kashmiri boy who spent 72 days in jail

Saleema Bano holds a photo of her son Umer Bashir Naikoo.

This is a third installment of Stand With Kashmir’s Voices from Kashmir series. Here, a 15 year old Umer Naikoo narrates his tale of being detained days after the abrogation of Article 370. Stand With Kashmir is a Kashmiri diaspora-led international solidarity movement.

SHOPIAN, Kashmir — Umer Bashir Naikoo’s legs hurt. For nearly three months, the 15-year-old boy was locked inside a small jail cell — a thousand miles from where he lives in south Kashmir.

“One’s legs get tired if one sits at one place for a long time,” Umer, who is lanky with a bony and frail face, said at his home in the town of Shopian recently, almost apologetic as he stretched his limbs.

Bashir is among hundreds of youth who have been detained since August, when the Indian government abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution, ripping Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomous status. Since then, authorities have subjected the region to a siege, including a communications clampdown and mass arrests. They’ve lodged minors into jails across India, according to news reports, with most still under incarceration. Those who have made it out, like Umer, now live a life of fear.

On Aug. 7, Umer said he was taken by personnel from the Jammu and Kashmir Police and Indian Army, stationed at Chugam, from his home at Meemander, in the Shopian district. The police accused him of stone-pelting.

School records claim that Umer is a minor, but the police argued that his birth certificate was not a valid document. He had been his family’s literal breadwinner, working as a baker.

The family filed a habeas corpus petition in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court challenging the detention of their son, after which the court ordered his release from the Varanasi jail where Umer was incarcerated for 72 days. Varanasi is a city in northeastern India, more than 1,000 miles from Kashmir.

Indian media reports say the armed forces and police have detained more than 144 minors in Kashmir since Aug. 5. As per one report, 144 children under 18 years of age had been picked up by police between Aug. 5 and Sept. 23, 2019. Eighty-six of these children were picked-up under preventive detention provisions of the criminal procedure code.

The remaining children were arrested under allegations of “rioting, stone-pelting, causing damage to public property, wrongfully restraining movement of persons and attacking police personnel.”

Umer is frail and walks with a limp. He looked at us journalists with apprehension, sitting down cautiously in his room. He let out a feeble moan, and reclined back on a pillow. He stretched his legs out and paced the room every few minutes as he chronicled being locked up for weeks.

For the first two days, he was kept at the Shopian police station before being shifted 30 miles away to Central Jail in Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital. After nine days, on Aug. 26, Umer said he and his fellow prisoners were asked to come out. He thought they would be released. Instead, authorities stuffed them into a truck.

“Next I saw light was at an airport, and we were again lined up and ordered to board a Dakota aircraft,” Umer said. “My heart sank after I saw the aircraft. Its monstrosity overwhelmed me, and I began to cry. The fellow prisoners, who were all older, consoled me, and one young man held my hand and helped me to board the aircraft.”

After two hours, Umer and 30 fellow prisoners found themselves inside the compound of the Varanasi jail. Umer says that he was unable to fathom the size of the jail.

“There were dozens of buildings,” Umer said, while trying to sit straight. “I was simply dazed by the size of the jail.”

Umer was led through a “maze of corridors.” With each step, Umer says, the light receded and darkness increased. The prisoners were paired off. Accompanying Umer to his final lodging place was a 50-year-old prisoner from the Baramulla district in north Kashmir, and four prison guards. His mother’s image came to him.

“I began to think of her, like I would do when I was a child and was afraid. I wanted to hold her tightly like I would do as a child,” Umer said. “Strange thoughts were coming to me, and I thought that I may never be able to see my mother’s face again.”

According to Umer, his cell was small. There were two old blankets on the floor. A toilet in the corner emanated consistently foul smells. A tiny window brought in the only source of light. It was the only way they would tell that the day had arrived and the night came. Umer learned his cellmate had also been orphaned at a young age, like himself.

“His story seemed to be my own. I felt I knew the man from a long time,” Umer smiled.

At the age of nine, when Umer was in class 5, his father died. With no one else to earn, and with four sisters and a mother to feed, Umer dropped out of school and became an apprentice to a local baker. After three grueling years of long days and deliveries, Umer opened his own bakery in his village in April last year. His sister worked as an assistant. Finally, the family’s financial condition began to improve.

“I thought that the days of poverty are over,” his mother, 61-year-old Saleema Begum, told us at their home. “Little did I know that he will be detained…since then everything has gone to where it was,” she said, sobbing.

Seeing his mother in tears, Umer got up with some effort, and consoled her. He led her out of the room.

At the jail, Umer remembered hearing a voice calling out. They were unable to locate the source. The voice called out again, and it took them an hour to realize that it was coming from a nearby cell. The voice was of a fellow prisoner who had been brought with them from Kashmir to Varanasi.

“The voice seemed like it was coming from above and from everywhere. The voice asked how we are doing. And I replied back that we are doing fine,” Umer said. That voice would be his only contact outside of his cell.

“At times of despair, I would shout out too for hours and talk to the voice. I came to know his name, and he mine. We would just shout everything at each other, sometimes things that didn’t make any sense,” Umer said. They sang their favorite songs.

Umer and the voice promised to meet someday. But he doesn’t know what that man looks like or if he’s still in jail. “But I will wait for him,” said Umer, staring at the floor.

In jail, Umer fell ill. He had jaundice, lying in fever for days. His fellow prisoner took care of him, giving him water, and medicine. Then one day, after more than two months, a guard told him he was being released.

“I didn’t know how to react. I wanted to shout and cry but couldn’t; I didn’t want to celebrate my release when so many others were still there,” Umer said.

But before he left, he hugged his fellow prisoner, and called out to his friend in the other cell that he was getting out. They asked him to pray for their release. Outside the jail, he took a deep breath, and began to weep when he saw sky after two months.

After two days, he was at home. And he soon realized that he had changed as did the way his family looked at him. When his family asked about his jail time, he didn’t say anything.

“He’s become very quiet, and doesn’t talk much. Something is eating him from inside,” Saleema, his mother, said. “I see he has changed drastically, both physically and emotionally.” She fears the police will come and take him away again.

For days, Umer didn’t venture out of his home for fear of being detained again. He’s abandoned his baker’s shop. Restless, he now wanders from village to village to hide from the police, coming home in the evenings.

“I can not tolerate when people ask me questions. I don’t know what to do with my life,” Umer said. “I keep thinking about the jail a lot, and its memories don’t let me sleep in peace.”

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