The Mothers Who Gifted Me Re-Takes

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BASHIR ASSAD

ON that fateful day, and unusually, I went to the local mosque at my native place to offer afternoon (Asr) prayers, totally unaware of what would follow. As I came out of the mosque, a tall, long-bearded notorious militant Gul Drange stood right outside the main gate of the mosque ready to pounce on me like a beast. No sooner than had I stepped out of the main entrance of the mosque, Drange hit at my scalp with the butt of an AK 47 rifle and immediately blindfolded me with the scarf he would usually wear to stand out as an Afghan terrorist. Scores of people stood watching this bizarre act from a distance, but no one dared rescue me. I had just returned from Delhi after finishing my PG in Mass Media with the intention of starting my journalistic career in Srinagar.

It was October 23, 1995. I discreetly remember it was drizzling. Drange and his two accomplices who I could not identify, dragged me blindfolded for some 3 kilometres from Chinar Chowk Marhama to his native village Waghama. On way to Waghama, the Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists stopped at Balyar, a small hamlet of Marhama revenue village. I was made to sit outside a house and my body was shivering with cold as rains continued to pour over my body when the terrorists went inside the house to sip noon chaai (salt tea). How did I know it was the Balyar hamlet? Well, the elderly woman of the house, known to the locals by the name of Mala Maasi (Mala Aunty), on sighting me outside her house, shouted at Drange over this inhuman treatment towards a young boy who was loved by one and all in the area. I was, of course, a favourite with Mala Maasi. She tried very hard to set me free but couldn’t. Mala Maasi was one among the few socially dignified elderly women in the area. I really didn’t know why the Hizbul terrorists would use Mala Maasi’s house frequently as a hideout, but she was the finest human being.

Anyways, from there I was taken to Waghama village and made to sit in an open area adjacent to the village graveyard, crowded by people – men, women and children. Waghama was a safe haven for terrorists and the village had earned notoriety of hosting terrorists. There was an undereducated but most dangerous Jamaat-e-Islami leader Ali Muhammad Thoker who would remote control the Hizbul terrorists. Thoker presided over dozens of civilian killings by the Hizbul terrorists. There was a method to their madness. They wanted to humiliate me first and then go for the execution.

Towards the sunset, there was shift in the roaster of the Hizbul terrorists. It was Jehangir Najar of Marhama and two others who replaced Drange and his accomplices. Jehangir hails from a humble background. His father Abdul Gani Najar was a poor man. Jehangir exfiltrated in 1992 to receive arms training in Pakistan and returned a year after, in 1993. He escaped many search and cordoned operations by the security forces and was finally eliminated in 1997 in Batpora Mohalla of native village Marhama. Jehangir, though a young boy of around 19, was very cruel inside but very sweet by appearance. I wanted to know the reason behind my kidnapping from Jehangir, but true to his character, he didn’t reveal anything, rather admired me throughout that ill-fated evening. As the darkness shrouded the area, Jehangir took the blindfold off my eyes. It was terrible. My eyes were sour and etching. Finally I was taken to a mud-house made of mud bricks and straw. As mentioned earlier, the entire Waghama village was like the Hizbul headquarters. Hizbul militants were welcome in every house. I couldn’t guess if the house owner was given prior information or not by the terrorists. The only thing I could visualise was that the ground floor was occupied by the family and the first floor was emptied for the terrorists and their hostage. I remember, there was no electricity and meals were offered under the candle-light. So it was a candle-light dinner. The only difference was, we were not love-birds. It was a dinner of a hapless, helpless abductee with his abductors. Water was brought in a plastic bowl for hand-washing. When I put my hand in the bowl, the water turned red. I had no idea that the blow delivered by Drange on my head had caused an injury and it was bleeding. The fear of the injury was much intense than the pain caused due to it. I asked for more water to remove blood from my hands but my request was not accepted. So I was forced to eat food with blood in it. Poor Bashir, what could you do? Taste your own blood, I told myself, with tears trickling down my cheeks. It was a candle-lit dinner – rice mixed with blood and tears – a novel cuisine not experienced by many. I wish no one on earth is ever offered such a dish.

Right in front of this house was another mud-house. There were many lights in that house. I suppose, in every room, there were some lights -maybe candles, lanterns or something. There was some hustle and bustle there while in the house I was held hostage, it was completely dark and frightening. Very gently, I attempted to crawl towards the window to have a look at the house in the front but the notorious terrorist sitting next to me pulled me back. “Please allow me to sit close to the window, I cannot breathe in the darkness,” I requested. He roared, “I will pierce all the bullets into your head if you try to go near the window”. Soon, the house owner, who was in his 60s, opened the door and threw some mattresses and blankets into the room. The three terrorists guarding me, jumped at the material, and laid out beds for themselves. One among them moved and told me: “Take a mattress for yourself”. I silently took the mattress and laid it out. Oh God, the smell emanating from the mattress and the blanket was terrible. It was like an open sewerage. I couldn’t bear it. But there was a stroke of luck there too. The terrorists left the space by the window for me to sleep. I did spread the mattress and the blanket but never slipped into the bed. There was a pillow left for me. I pushed the pillow gently towards the window, crawled swiftly, placed it against my back and started watching the activities in the adjacent house. The house was well maintained, at least from the bucolic standpoint. It was bustling with activity although it was midnight. I could clearly see a woman frequently doing rounds from the ground floor to the first floor, talking to someone, at times lovingly, and on certain occasions, loudly, in anguish. There was something the woman was upset about.

Not sure about the exact timing, the lights went off in the house sometime between 1 and 2 am. Now there was silence of a graveyard. I could hear the snoring of the terrorists sleeping next to me. Several thoughts started running in my head. Sometimes I would think of jumping out of the window to escape. Another time I would think of snatching the gun from the terrorists and shooting them while they lay snoring. But I had no idea how to fire. Soon my head was heavier – both because of the many thoughts running, and also due to the open wound in the scalp. However, I was running out of time. I did not know what the terrorists were up to but it was certain they had dangerous plans. They either wanted to kill me or demand a ransom against my release from my parents. Beyond that, was the ulterior motive to silence me. I had earlier spearheaded a couple of campaigns against the killing of civilians on the pretext of being police informers famously known as mukhbirs, political workers and others. I had strongly argued that killing unarmed civilians was un-Islamic and worst kind of human rights violation. I took to mosques and shrines in South Kashmir to condemn civilian killings. However, at the same time, I would very honestly argue that dialogue was the only panacea to all problems. I would not hesitate in condemning the alleged human rights abuses committed by the security forces. In fact, I restricted my writings to the human rights issues, certainly with a difference. I would argue that one who espouses violence and provokes people to be violent can’t be a human rights champion. There was a culture of single flow. The security forces were held responsible for every act and would conveniently brush off the killings by terrorists under the carpet. In most cases, the security forces were blamed for the killings perpetuated by terrorists. I always raised my voice against this dichotomy and hypocrisy. And it had consequences.

Anyways, as the Muezzin called for the prayers towards the morning that night, lights went on in the adjacent house and the woman again started talking to someone loudly. Soon she came out of her house and I saw her walking towards the house I was held hostage in. She knocked at the door very hard. The house-owner opened the door after a while and she walked up to the room I was in. The angel-like lady told the terrorists that she had got the permission from the commanders to take Bashir to her house and offer him something to eat before he was taken for execution later in the day. The terrorists couldn’t say anything to her, which meant she wielded some sort of influence over them. She took me to her house. As we were about to enter, the notorious Hizbul commanders Hasan-ul-Bana and Abid Baba, along with five other terrorists, walked out and said to me harshly: “Le lo chaai Madam ke haathon, marne se pehle (Take tea from the hands of Madam, before being executed)”. And then they left me alone with the woman, reflecting on the kind of trust they had in her. And then, oh my goodness! I recognised her! She was Lateefa Mam, wife of my school teacher Ghulam Qadir Najar and I was no less than a son to her. She loved me like my real mother. Actually, I was the favourite of my teachers during my school days and there were many interesting anecdotes related to me that the teachers would lovingly share with their families back home. This motherly lady was actually from the Mysuma locality of Srinagar city, and was married to a very smart teacher Ghulam Qadir Najar. She was this very polished, educated and disciplined and a soulful woman.

Proximity with terrorists in Waghama village was not something unusual. As mentioned earlier, the locality was the hub of the Hizbul outfit, a green pasture. And then the house of a polished woman like Lateefa Mam could be the first choice of militants.

So what happened next? Well, Lateefa Mam didn’t offer me tea. She, instead, took out her burqa from her almirah, put it on me, held my hand and started running towards the main road. It was just 200 or 250 metres from her house. The darkness had not faded away. Anxious and frightened, we were just hoping some vehicle would come from any direction. We must have been there barely five minutes or so when a beaming light started appearing from the far end. Some vehicle was coming towards Marhama. Lateefa Mam, without caring for her life, went to the middle of the road, and stood there firmly. The tipper coming from the far end was forced to apply brakes and stop. Lateefa Mam bundled me up at the backside. The tipper was full of brick dust. I conveniently laid myself over the dust, waved off at this ‘mother’ and the tipper drove away.

(What happened next? Well, the story will continue in the edition to follow).

 

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