Izhar Wani, Agence France-Presse (AFP) bureau chief in Kashmir reported on the separatist conflict in the region for more than two decades. He died of cancer on April 4, this year. Today, he would have turned 47.
Izhar and I watched helplessly for the second successive morning as jets took off over the skies for attacks on “armed infiltrators” in Drass and Kargil near the Pakistan border.
We desperately wanted to reach Kargil to report one of the biggest stories of Kashmir, a forgotten conflict now, since we both joined journalism in 1989.
The sound of explosions resounded through the deserted town, as we entered Drass Valley. The smell of cordite hung in the air.
Villagers fled their homes and fields. Our driver stopped the car. We too were worried, but there was someone who was calm. He broke the silence in the car.
“Don’t worry, Allah is with us,” Izhar told me and other four journalists in the car.
There was lull – as artillery duel between two armies stopped for some time.
A line of army trucks, packed with soldiers and field guns, snaked down a road from the mountain. Izhar and me hurriedly opened our laptop and satellite phones.
And as soon as we started typing stories a shell fired by Pakistani troops whistled overhead and slammed into an army camp nearby, wounding many soldiers.
The Indian soldiers from this side replied with heavy artillery and the explosions thundered around the Drass valley nestled deep in barren mountains.
Only army ambulances and vehicles scuttled about, trying to dodge the shells. The helicopters buzzed overhead evacuating casualties.
Two more shells slammed onto a highway – one hit an army truck, another left a huge crater near our car. One voice consoled me. ”Don’t worry”.
It was Izhar again holding my hand tight.
Terrified policemen jumped into the underground bunkers and we followed them. As the ground shook with loud explosions, I saw the worried faces of the all the journalists hiding in the bunker.
“Izhar is missing,” someone cried.
Everybody was looking for Izhar in the ridiculously suffocating dark room (bunker), but he was not there. I was worried. I moved out of the underground bunker. “Izhar where are you,” I shouted as loud as I could in the din of thundering explosions.
“Mushi I am here still alive,” he responded and waved his hand from behind a huge boulder. “I have finished story, I am waiting for you”.
As the sun set, suddenly, the Azaan, call to prayer, rang out from a distant mosque. With it, two more shells slammed into the town -one hit an electricity pole behind the police station and tore foot off a pedestrian, the other left a huge crater in a hotel lawn.
But Izhar was clam, performing Wadhu in a nearby stream. “These are unfortunate people like many of Kashmiris, nothing is left here,” he whispered a prayer rug in his hand and staring at the damaged town - many of Drass’ flat-roofed mud homes, designed for the harsh Himalayan winters, were damaged by Pakistani shells.
That evening he prayed for a long time.
Gun fire and ground-shaking artillery explosions would light up the night sky.
“We will survive this … we have in past, you don’t remember when bullet almost hit me,” he asked me showing me a bullet scar on his nose.
Bullet brushed Izhar’s nose in early 90′s when soldiers guarding a United Nation’s vehicle opened fire on protesters in Sonawar area.
He did survive.
And yes he is surviving in our memories.
Happy birthday Izhar
(Author is Kashmir-based Journalist)