Commentary

The year of Burhan: A journalist’s account of what followed the killing

Reporting the conflict was not on my list when I pursued journalism as a passion. I wanted to travel, and write about food.

Despite being born and brought up in a conflict zone I did not want to report it.

Conflict is so deeply entrenched into our hearts and minds (it is funny that when I mention these words I am reminded of conflict yet again) that it has made us insensitive to what people in other parts of the world term as war crimes. Even I took these happening around me as normal, and went to explore other things around, to report and write about.

It felt that conflict was overrated and over-reported until I realized that it the other way round.

The 2016 uprising changed everything.

Nothing seemed to make sense other than the conflict, reporting about the conflict, talking about the conflict, thinking about the conflict, breathing the conflict, living the conflict, feeling choked, feeling helpless, feeling the conflict enter my blood, move through my veins, waking me up, like a drug infusing life into a dead person.

Protests, casualties, killings, heart wrenching scenes from every corner, days seemed to be quiet, and nights restless.

As a journalist who does not want to cover the conflict I felt that my passion was dying.

I had thoughts like, “active journalism is not for me”, “nothing other than conflict can work here”, “when so many people are dying how can I report about another issues”.

For the first three months, every day one thought that things will settle down in next few days, or weeks, or months, but predictions seemed to go the other way; the situation was turning from bad to worse.

Leaving the place to pursue my passion somewhere else was not something I wanted to do, as the feeling of being caged was impacting me, turning me into a unproductive entity, waking up, having breakfast, then lunch, then dinner, and then sleeping and repeating the same process over and over again, as each day the curfew got worse and more people kept dying, even journalists didn’t dare to step outside.

And then came a point when I finally packed my bags and went to New Delhi.

The past unproductive months had taken such a toll on me, that for the next two months I couldn’t pull myself together, it took me weeks to get used to people going about their normal daily lives.

The traffic and rush hour, which seemed abnormal to me after witnessing barren roads with an occasional burnt tire lying somewhere.  Until a call from one of my mentors changed the course I had thought was set for me.

 

 “Hello…Hello…Al-Jazeera is doing a documentary on the Kashmir uprising and I have recommend you as the local producer to them. Is that alright?”

“Yes, absolutely fine.”

 

Being a part of this project meant to be diving deep into the conflict which I had previously avoided and just escaped from, because I couldn’t take it. And here I was again, thinking about packing my bags, back to the place that had almost made me feel dead, to report about the survivors, or the dead. It’s hard to tell the difference anymore.

I along with my mentor from Delhi did a brain storming session, about what could be part of the documentary. We started collecting data, fixing appointments, contacting our sources on the ground.

From the Al-Jazeera crew, Karishma Vyas was to be the brain behind the film about the uprising, which became one of the best documentaries from the ground that would capture facts, and the mood.

Telling Burhan’s story was attempted, and done, but her approach of telling the story was to be a lesson for me. Being a woman, and getting a chance to work with another woman, a seasoned international journalist was rare and I wanted to make the most of this opportunity.

The film was to be seen by many, the making of it was experienced. But this is the making of the making of Born to Fight.

It wasn’t an easy task and assisting a Karishma was a challenge.

The film opened up, and answered, many questions which were yet untouched. Each field visit taught me something new, as I had left the conflict untouched, from a journalistic point of view.

From the ethics that I had read about in class, to protecting my sources, to make safe passages, everything was back in action.

The internet, smart phones, calls and communications, have almost peeped into everything, even our washrooms are on surveillance.

In an era where news is more like noise, it taught me how important it is to handle hard issues with sensitivity, like a visit to the pellet victim Ifra Shakoor’s house.

Before I met Ifra for the first time, I did realize that what was going on in my valley was wrong, but for the first time after hugging Ifra I felt it.

I could sense her calmness after seeing us, because by now she must have met many journalists and repeated her tale.

While interviewing her I felt like I was cheating on my own people, by not reporting what my primary job was.

Ifra’s graphical description of how she was beaten, dragged by her hair and showered with pellets from a close range, left me traumatized.

The incident has left Ifra’s family hopeless, her childless aunt who raised Ifra like her own daughter, is the prime psychological victim of the tragedy.

I learnt how to handle a sensitive situation, while feeling the pain of the victims, but not giving any hope that you offer a solution which the victim may wait for.

Collecting as much information as possible, no matter whether it will be used or not.

Now was the time to revisit ground zero, the place from where it all started, Tral.

I had never been to Tral but somehow I had a scary image of it, an area situated near a dense forest from where Pakistan would be at a stone’s throw.

The real picture was different.

Huge orchards on both sides of the road spread over hundreds of acres, leading to Sharifabad, Burhan Wani’s residence.

The trees looked gloomy, the orchids were colourless, as if mourning their son’s death.

A young boy in his teens, surrounded by a few other boys, was standing in front of a wall painted with graffiti that read, “Burhan our Hero”, “Burhan is still alive in our hearts”.

The young boy was Burhan’s younger, and the only brother left alive.

His soft tone and features resembled Burhan’s, and created a sudden uneasiness in my heart. He lead us to his home.

The house had a big hoarding on its first floor, with a picture of Burhan, and text, “Burhan Pride of our Nation”.

A girl wearing an Abaya, her face fully covered, walked in. She was Burhan’s sister. She made her way straight into the house, without giving us a second look.

Until Burhan’s father arrived we could hear whispers of female voices, coming from inside the window, we were standing next to.

Two pictures which I had seen, were crystal clear in my mind. One in which a Sikh man was captured, crying, near Burhan’s dead body, and the other, in which his brother was trying to capture the last glimpse of him before being buried.

The blue fencing of the Veranda was something I had seen in a lot of images, and recognized it the moment I saw it.

While interviewing Burhan’s father I could not make out even a single expression on his face.

No expression of grief or sorrow over losing two of his young boys.

As the women inside were trying to calm a wailing woman, a voice came, striking my ears, “See the courage and the strength of his mother! Look at her bravery! She has not dropped a single tear. Why are you crying?”

I felt heavy, thinking about a mother, beyond a wall, who did not cry, who did not vent out, who did not share her loss. I wanted to tell this mother to cry.

Please cry…

Shout! break the walls…

But there she sat, beyond that wall, silent, like a volcano, sighing, breathing, staring into emptiness, into the void, into the endless abyss.

When I reached home, I broke down.

I sat besides my bed and cried like a baby, pulling the sheets, as I slid into a whirlpool of thoughts. Looking at my comfortable bed, I recalled what Burhan’s father had said during his interview.

“My youngest son used to sleep between Burhan and Khalid.”

“Now he sleeps alone.”


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