Silent fields

Walking the unmarked graves of Jammu & Kashmir.

Surankot is a small dusty frontier town of Poonch district in Jammu & Kashmir. A row of decrepit concrete constructions – the town's marketplace – stand face to face on the both sides of a narrow, potholed road. At the end of this line of shops, a bend in the road leads to the police station and an Indian Army cantonment. A stone's throw further is a graveyard containing unmarked graves, with bodies unknown to the residents.

Unmarked graves in J & K made international headlines in September, after the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) asked the government to initiate investigations to identify over 2100 unidentified bodies at 38 sites in Baramulla, Bandipora and Kupwara districts of the Kashmir Valley. Poonch came into news after another complaint was filed with the Commission, asking the SHRC to extend its investigation to Jammu. The complainants submitted that they have credible information about the existence of 2717 and 1127 unmarked graves in Poonch and Rajouri districts of Jammu, respectively.

Sofi Aziz Joo is the nonagenarian caretaker of the Surankot graveyard. Locals say Joo is the man 'who has seen it all'. He sits cross-legged outside the compound's gate, busily attending to visitors, most of them young women. Adjacent to the graveyard is a small roofless walled shrine containing the grave of a saint, Syed Haider Shah, revered by locals. Five women are also squatting on the concrete pavement facing the shrine's wall, rolling the cotton to be dipped into earthen oil lamps. 'The lamps will be lit during the evening,' says one of them, Maimoona Jan. 'I have faith that the saint buried here will intercede with god to end our miseries.' A middle-aged woman interrupts Jan to offer us some dried dates. 'Her wish might have been answered,' Jan tells the visiting journalist, 'and in satisfaction she is distributing dates.'

I ask Jan about the unmarked graves, and she tells me to talk to Joo. The old man's wrinkled face sports an untrimmed white beard at the chin. Thinking I am a pilgrim to the shrine, he rises up to greet me, his hands noticeably frail as we shake. When I tell him why I have come, it takes a few minutes of persuasion before he agrees to show me the unmarked graves. Anonymous bodies began to be delivered to Joo's graveyard soon after insurgency broke out in J & K, in 1989. So far, Joo reports, he has buried more than 2500 unidentified bodies on these grounds. 'Police and Indian Army soldiers would bring those bodies and direct me to bury them,' he says. 'The bodies were usually bullet-ridden, mutilated, faces disfigured and sometimes without limbs.' Today, just seven graves in Joo's graveyard bear plaques – said to hold the bodies of policemen, killed while fighting militants. The others have no identification.

Treading cautiously around the cemetery for fear of cave-ins, Joo points out at some of the older plots. 'The bodies could arrive at any time of the day, and burials were to be made without involving the local people – for fear of provoking anti-India protests,' he says. In J & K, burials for those killed by army and police personnel have typically led to public demonstrations and calls to end New Delhi's rule in the state.

Joo also shows me a few mass graves, seen as raised ground several metres in width. 'Here I buried 16 unidentified bodies that police said were killed in Modpichae village,' he says, apologising for being unable to remember the date. In certain cases, he was forced to bury only a corpse's head, because the rest of the body parts were unavailable. 'Only heads, bodies were missing,' he says, heaving a sigh. 'Wrapping a lone head in a shroud is a real horror.' Eventually, he refused to do so. 'First the police brought six heads; the next time, seven. I wanted to ask questions but fear prevented me. I just carried on with the burial. Finally, when they turned up with some 15 heads, I protested, demanding whole bodies – that made them leave!'

11 to a row

The next morning, I travel to another unofficial graveyard, on a steep patch in a village called Mandi. The weather was pleasant, with a gentle breeze coming down from the mountain tops, rustling the grass and caressing the rough face of Mohammed Farid. Farid holds a fistful of grass in his left hand, slicing through it with a sickle. With every handful he shifts forward on his haunches to grab another handful, and then stops and peers keenly downward, as if the ground beneath the grass holds a mystery.

Farid has won the bidding to cut the grass in this field after the local village committee announced an auction. The field is not a plain one, but holds deep furrows. Farid tells me that these are all unmarked graves. (In Kashmir, while not all graves are typically marked – in line with Islamic tradition elsewhere, those who have been killed in violence are typically buried in marked graves.) Though there are no plaques, it is easy to see where the bodies are buried, as dotting the field are plots of raised ground. 'I don't know who lies buried underneath, but I distinctly remember that people used to bury the unidentified bodies at this place,' he says. 'They are martyrs, and I have been told they don't die – anything can happen, so I tread cautiously.'

Farid recounts how, in 1990, the local police carted to the village some 33 unidentified bodies, said to be those of youths. Then, the officers simply handed the bodies over to the village elders, for burial. 'The police approached the village elders claiming the youths had been killed in a gunfight with the Indian Army at Biden village near the Line of Control,' Farid says. He was 12 years old at the time. 'With the exception of a few, all of them were teenagers; their bodies were buried in three rows, 11 bodies to a row.'

The issue of unmarked graves dominated the recently concluded assembly session in J & K. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said his government would carry out DNA testing to identify all bodies found in unmarked graves. 'We are not here to hide the facts or conceal the truth,' he said. 'Our endeavour is to dig out the facts and bring these before the public.' Abdullah also said decried the media's tendency to refer to 'mass graves', which he said was false creating more anger. 'Most of the graves have only one person and a few are with two persons but no grave is having more than two persons,' Abdullah said on the floor of the house. However, this was quickly denied by a legislator from his own National Conference, Kafeel-ur-Rehman, who stated that in his own constituency of Karnah there were deep gorges containing many corpses.

Back in Srinagar, I go to meet Praveena Ahanger, the highly regarded chairperson of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). Ahanger's son, Javid Ahmad, was picked up by Indian paramilitary troopers in August 1990, when he was 16. Since then, she has had no word on his whereabouts. Wearing a headband bearing her son's name, Ahanger sits silently in a park in the heart of Srinagar, surrounded by other women. On the 10th of every month, parents of the missing assemble in this park in protest against enforced disappearances. The APDP puts the number of disappeared persons in J & K at around 8000. (Rights groups claim that around 70,000 people have been killed in the last 22 years of conflict; the official figure is around 45,000.)

Do the recent promises for investigation mean anything to her? 'Let them ask those guilty troopers and erring policemen where they have taken our dear ones,' she says. 'If they have laws for militants, why can't they have laws to nail the men in uniform who have picked up our dear ones?' Ahanger says she is not comfortable in giving the state samples of her DNA, which is to be used for identification purposes during the new investigations of mass graves. 'That will be a futile and time-consuming exercise,' she says. 'Why can't they come to us and say they took our loved ones and then killed them?'

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