Sunday, March 3, 2024

In pictures | One year of longing in Kashmir

Shahid’s brother, Zubair, dropped out of school after his brother’s killing. He wants to work and help the family financially. But Firdausa says she is scared to keep him away from his eyes. Photo: Zainab

A year has passed since Firdausa’s eldest child was killed. In the living room, she looks at her other children, and says “I have four more children, but there is a hole in my heart that longs for him.” 

Shahid’s sister, Mehvish, brought an album inside the living room. The viral image of Shahid lying dead against a vehicle is the opening photograph in this new family album that his siblings have made. Firdausa kisses that photograph everytime she sees it. 

The album is full of collages and montages that the siblings edit, print, and slip each memory into the laminated pages of the album.

When Shahid died

In Kashmir’s village of Aerwani, the pale leaves had silently departed from the tall and slender poplar branches. It was early October, and the weight of raindrops had made the leaves fall earlier than time, decorating the edges of the shabbily macadamized road. Alongside, the men, women, and children from Aerwani and the neighboring villages had gathered outside a single-storey house.  

“Did you see the bag of apples in the photograph?”

“Yes, and did you see the greens? He must have purchased that to feed his family?”

“His hands were still tucked inside his pheran and he was shot dead?”

In-between sobs, amidst the slight drizzle, the women whispered to each other the details of a photograph that flashed on their mobile screens on the mundane autumn morning of 2021. It was a picture of a twenty-one-year-old boy, Shahid Aijaz, who was shot dead near a checkpoint in South Kashmir’s Zainpora on the 24th of October. 

Shahid’s eighty-year-old grandmother, Aezz, stood on the porch of their single-storey house and sang lamentations for her shaheed grandson. 

Widowed thirty years ago, she overcame the grief of raising her grandchildren, unaware that she would outlive the eldest of them. 

It had been hours since the news of Shahid’s killing broke, and eagerly the village waited to catch the last glimpse of the martyr’s face. 

Women waited with candies and henna; Shahid was to be welcomed as a groom. But even as dusk had approached, Shahid was yet to return to embark upon the final journey to his hometown. 

In the crowds were kids as young as Ifra and Farhan. The two siblings had come from a nearby house and were schoolmates of Shahid. 

“We came to see his face,” said Ifra, not letting the grip of her eight-year-old brother loosen. 

“Our mother allowed us to go on the condition that I won’t leave my brother’s hand,” the twelve-year-old Ifra said. 

Funerals in Kashmir are celebrated and honored. As much grief as there is in a village that loses young blood, there is pride, in the belief that they have attained martyrdom. Even as the evening grew darker, the villagers waited for Shahid. 

When the coronavirus pandemic hit Kashmir, in April 2020, the police put a ban on funeral processions— mostly of militants, some civilians, and resistance leaders. 

Initially, it cited the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason, but later on, in various statements to the press, the police said the move was to “prevent a breach of law and order situation.”

In Arwani too, patiently waiting, groups of people exchanged their thoughts about whether the body would be given for the funeral or not.

In Frisal, about 4 kilometers from their home, Shahid’s parents spent an entire day demanding their son’s body be handed over to them.

“They agreed to give us the body in the evening. They kept us waiting till 8:45 PM,” Firdausa said, recalling the day.

As the body reached the village, it was already dark. People gathered around in large crowds, and the village welcomed its martyrs with dozens of slogans.

“Dekho dekho kon aaya

Sher aaya sher aaya 

Shahid aaya shahid aaya”

[See who has arrived

The tiger has arrived

Shahid has arrived]

Beaming flashlights, the villagers hoped to see their shaheed’s face for the one last time. 

Shahid’s youngest brother, Umaid, who was playing cricket all day could not make any sense of the arrival of the crowd at his home. It was only after he saw Shahid’s lifeless body being carried by the crowd, he broke down screaming. 

The crowd of mourners screamed with him. 

Shahid’s funeral prayers were held in the playground of his high school, and he was buried in a graveyard next to his school. 

Making the last journey home.

It was the season of apple picking in Kashmir, and most households in the southern part of the valley were busy gathering the harvest. Knowing that he would easily part-time in the orchards and earn some money, Shahid left his home a week before he was killed. 

Shahid’s father, Aijaz Ahmed too worked as a laborer but spent last autumn in bed after injuring his hand at work. Being the elder son, Shahid was contributing to the family financially. 

“He also wanted the money to pay his remaining school fee,” Shahid’s mother said. 

“I had some savings, but he refused to take the money from me. His conscience did not allow him, so he left to do the labor work,” she added. 

“His phone display was broken, so we weren’t able to speak to him properly during the time he was away,” Shahid’s brother Zubair said. 

On the day of his killing, Firdausa was making tea for her family and her sister-in-law came to her informing her that a boy had been killed. Before the two women could contact Shahid and inquire about his well-being, Shahid’s uncle came and broke the news of the death to the duo. 

Shahid was shot dead near a checkpoint in the Babpora area of Shupiyan’s village of Zainpora when he was coming back home. The CRPF said he was killed in the crossfire.

Haunted by questions

“But why did the crossfire only hit my son’s chest?” Firdausa asked, adding, “there were no other people killed or injured, and no bullet marks on the moving vehicles.”

A year later, Firdausa finds it hard to sleep, and her son’s killing has weakened her heart. 

“I keep thinking about the day I spent in the police station. We were asked if we wanted a job or compensation for my son’s killing,” she recalled. 

“How can a mother trade her son’s blood?” Firdausa asked, saying she spent hours pleading with the officers to give her son’s dead body back. 

“For the last year, I have been waiting for my son’s belongings to be returned. I don’t want anything that is theirs. I want the clothes that Shahid was wearing that day. I want his pheran. Why did they not return me his amaanat?”

“I keep staring at the ceiling and wondering about all these things. Then I take some medicine and try to sleep,” she says. 

A sister’s ode to her brother

In her diary, Shahid’s younger sister, Mehvish, had pasted his photograph and decorated the spread with stickers. 

Mehvish recalled the last day she spent with her brother. 

“We had tea together and he asked if I needed anything,” Mehvish recalled. 

“I said no, and left for my grandmother’s house.” She added. 

“He walked with me to the street and handed me some money,” she said. 

“That is how he cared. That is how he would always care for everyone. 

He made tea for me, he cooked rice for everyone,” she said. 

Shahid’s contribution to the housework was uncanny, as it is usually the women who are the primary caregivers in the Kashmiri households.

“But he was my arms,” Firdausa said, recalling her son’s absence.

Living with a lifelong grief

After Shahid’s death, his family now lives a threatened life. A knock at the door makes everyone anxious and scared for their lives.

“Everyone in this house is struggling. Sometimes I wish we could all stand at the same checkpoint and get fired upon. That would put us at peace and unite us with Shahid,” she added. 

“I will not overcome this loss till I am alive,” she says. 

Zubair dropped out of his school after his brother’s death.

“He wants to work and help financially. But what if they kill him too? I don’t let him be away from my eyes, Firdausa said fearing her son’s life.

“I don’t expect any justice from them. I am a Muslim, and I believe in Almighty’s justice,” Firdausa said, putting away the album and Shahid’s other belongings.

Located 50 kilometers away from the city center, the villagers started gathering near Shahid’s home, grieving, and hoping to see the martyr’s face. Photo: Zainab
In her 80s, Shahid’s grandmother, Aezz, lamented, pleading innocence for her grandson. Wailing, she stood like a witness in the crowd of women mourners and spoke of Shahid’s hardworking nature, and how he was killed. Photo: Zainab
Men, women, the young, and the elderly, all were skeptical if they would be allowed to bid farewell to the shaheed. The ban on funeral processions had dimmed their hopes, yet hundreds waited, standing tall like the chain of poplars that fenced the Aerwani road. Photo: Zainab
Amongst the crowd were many of Shahid’s schoolmates and friends. Ifra too was among them, and with her younger brother waited to see Shahid for one last time. Photo: Zainab
In the corner of Shahid’s room, Zubair was incosolable on the day of his brother’s killing. He fainted, and everytime he regained consciousness, he opened his phone to kiss his brother’s photograph. In the same room, a cousin of Shahid pointed to the initial of his name that he has pasted on the wall. Photo: Zainab
After a long wait, Shahid arrived. He was welcomed as a groom. Women showered his funeral procession with candies, and the villagers carried him to his grave shouting slogans of his bravery, “for he had received bullets in his chest.” Photo: Zainab
The village bid a sobbing farewell to Shahid. His funeral prayers were held in the playground of his high school. Photo: Zainab
Shahid’s brother, Zubair, dropped out of school after his brother’s killing. He wants to work and help the family financially. But Firdausa says she is scared to keep him away from his eyes. Photo: Zainab
In the new family album, the photograph of Shahid’s lifeless body lying on the road is also the last photograph that Firdausa has of her son. She kisses the photo every time she sees it. Photo: Zainab
Shahid’s name now has “shaheed” prefixed to it. The same reflects on his belongings, the collages in the album, or the diary that his sister maintains. Photo: Zainab
“Shahid Babu tro on his way to home, His heart longed for martyrdom, And this wish of his was fulfilled in Babpora,” Mehvish wrote in her diary spread dedicated to her brother. Photo: Zainab
“The bags that hang on the wall carry scores of medical reports, these are the proof of what his killing did to us,” Firdausa said. Photo: Zainab
 
“I will not overcome this loss till I am alive,” Shahid’s mother says, breaking down. Her only hope is that the Almighty will deliver justice one day. Photo: Zainab

Zainab is an independent photojournalist in Kashmir.

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