Shopian: In the early morning of July 18, Lal Din Khatana was called by army personnel to a nearby orchard, close to his house in Mirzapur Chak area of Shopian in Kashmir. The army personnel asked him to bring along his motor pump to douse the flames raging from his neighbour’s apple orchard after a brief operation against suspected militants.
When he entered the orchard, Khatana saw three bodies laid on the ground and was asked to identify them. He couldn’t. He said he was stuck with doubt as he looked at the three slain youth, which the armed forces claimed to be militants killed in the encounter.
“They appeared more like civilians. One of them was wearing slippers and the other two had torn shoes. They were also wearing worn-out clothes. So I thought may be they are just poor civilians,” Khatana told NewsClick.
The 60-year-old says he heard a loud bang before he was called to the spot. Khatana had heard a gunshot in the night before at about 2:30 AM. “Then there were a few rounds (fired) in the early morning but, we did not go out until we heard the loud bang,” he recalled.
The orchard where Khatana went was surrounded by armed forces and belonged to Mohammad Yousuf Bhat, a resident of Chak Mirzapur. The orchard is dense and a few hundred metres away from a motorable road. In the middle of the orchard, Yousuf had constructed a single-storey makeshift house overlooking scores of tall apple and walnut trees.
The 60-year-old renal patient Yousuf used it for camping during his work in the field and as a storage house. When Khatana arrived in the orchard, he saw Yousuf’s storage house on fire. The house hasn’t been repaired since and bears marks of bullets and an explosion nearly a month after the operation was carried out.
Yousuf was also asked to identify the militants, but he couldn’t. “They asked me if he was a local militant. I didn’t know who they were and that is what I told them,” Yousuf said. Following the encounter, he was called by the Reshnagri camp and questioned about his storage house.
Nearly a month after the encounter took place in Yousuf’s orchard, three families from Jammu’s Rajouri district filed a missing report at a local police station about three relatives – Imtiyaz Ahmad, Ibrar Ahmad and Abrar Ahmad – who had left their home for Kashmir to work as labourers. The family had last spoken to them a night before the Shopian encounter was carried out. They now believe they may have been killed in a staged encounter after they saw the picture of the slain youths, which was circulated on social media.
The army has since launched an investigation in the matter.
On July 17 evening, the youths had talked to their families informing them that they have reached the Valley. The youths, according to family members, had travelled from Rajouri to Shopian on foot in an arduous journey along the Pir Panjal mountain range that connects the two valleys.
Earlier, one of the missing youths, Imtiyaz, had rented a room in Chowgam village of Shopian, a stone’s throw away from an army camp. The room was rented by Shakeel Ahmad, a local of Chowgam.
“He came a day before to rent the room but we were apprehensive at first, mostly because of the COVID-19 pandemic but he had come with the reference of village head so we rented the room for Rs 1,600 per month,” Shakeel’s wife Fareeda said.
The room, on the main Chowgam road some 10 km from Mirzapur leads to Mughal Road – a highway connecting Kashmir valley with Pir Panjal region including Rajouri. The next morning, Fareeda said, she went to the room – only yards away from Shakeel’s residence – and found the door latched from inside but a window was open.
The room, not more than 120 square feet, had a kitchen with a heating coil. There are a few utensils and a bottle of cooking oil, she said, that the missing youth had bought. Their mobile phone charger is still plugged and a black trouser is still hanging on the wall. Fareeda has not touched any of their belongings including a blanket spread on the kitchen floor.
“We didn’t hear from them since then, until someone told us yesterday that they may have been killed in the encounter at Shopian. It is heartbreaking,” Fareeda said.
The family of the village head confirmed that they knew Imtiyaz. “Many people know him in the area as he used to work for us sometimes for over a year now. He left a few days back saying he is expecting relatives and therefore needs to rent a room,” a relative of village head Touseef Ahmad told NewsClick.
The three suspected militants, who remain unidentified, killed on July 18 in Mirzapur close to Amshipora, were buried over 100 km away in North Kashmir’s Baramulla district as a part of a procedure to give discreet burials to all the militants killed in operations since the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic. This incident of the missing youths and the July 18 militant casualties has not only raised doubts over the Amshipora encounter but also raised questions over the procedure of burial.
A social activist from Rajouri, Guftar Ahmad said that they have met with senior police officials of the district including SP and DIG Rajouri and demanded for investigation. “We have asked them for the DNA test of the youths and a probe in the incident. We are also demanding the bodies to be returned back to the families,” Guftar said.