On October 21, three militants were killed in a gunfight, followed by a blast consuming seven civilians in Kulgam’s Laroo village. Three days later, unknown gunmen kidnapped the house owner, leaving his wife anguished and making his 8-year-old daughter, who sits on her mother’s lap holding a picture of her smiling father, to ask: “Mouji, where is Abbu?”
In the restive Laroo village, cordons and gunfights are not uncommon. Every night, the villagers here sleep with the fear of not waking up to any midnight knocking from the armed men, be it the militants or the armed forces.
At a distance of some 400 meters from the village entrance, resides the Bhat family comprising of headman Sheraz Ahmad Bhat, his wife Nasreena Bano and three small children – two daughters of age eight and six, and a 2-year-old son.
It was the night of October 20 which was to change their lives forever.
Sheraz was making the necessary arrangements to beat the chilling cold, while wife Nasreena was busy convincing the kids to go early to bed. But, if only she knew it was going to be a long night.
“At around 10:00 pm, three militants knocked our door for shelter,” Nasreena recalls. “All of them were heavily armed. We requested them to go elsewhere, as I did not want my little kids to get scared. However, they refused and ensured leaving before sunrise.”
The Bhat family eventually agreed and the three insurgents occupied one of the rooms of the top floor. Nasreena served trio the dinner and then put off the house-lights. Her three children and husband went to sleep, but, she couldn’t.
Just in a matter of few hours, Nasreena’s fear came alive.
Armed forces launched a search operation and the village was cordoned from all ends. The trapped militants tried to escape, but, there was no way out.
As the clock hit 2:00, the gunfight triggered and the trio affiliated with the Jaish-e-Mohammad outfit were killed inside Nasreena’s house turned smoking rubble.
But that was not it.
Soon as the villagers entered the site, a shell that remained unexposed during the gunfight, exploded and claimed seven more lives. The gory episode caught on cameras further broadcasted the grotesque backlash on ground. The burnt-down house still serves as a testimony to the bloodbath Kashmir Valley had witnessed that day.
Three days later, on October 24, as the episode was still the centre of discussion for the entire village, the Bhat family had moved into a rented single-storey residence right next to their charred house. Many had been coming to see the family and pay their condolences; Nasreena’s mother, who resides in one of the nearby villages, was one among them.
“At around 3:30 pm, I called Sheraz asking if he could drop back my mother,” Nasreena says, to which, he agreed. At that time, Sheraz was with his friend Waseem and cousin Aashiq.
Aashiq owns a private four-wheeler, and so, on Sheraz’s request, he drove his car outside the village where Nasreena and his mother were waiting.
As per Aashiq, Sheraz was going to join in and Waseem was about to leave. “When I had left, both were indulged in some serious conversation. They were outside a nearby petrol pump, which is stationed just at a stone’s throw distance from where we were waiting,” he recalls.
“A few minutes passed by, just when I was about to ring Sheraz, a lady came running towards us and said that masked gunmen have forcefully put him into a maroon-coloured car (Hyundai K10).”
Hearing this, Nasreena screamed, and in no time, the rather peaceful environment, once again, turned all chaotic for her.
The same car then drove past Aashiq’s. Alerted, he hurriedly asked Nasreena and her mother to sit inside. The chase, thus began!
On a two-way road leading towards Islamabad, passing through Khudwani area, Aashiq says, “The abductors were driving wildly, not any less than 90-kmph.” While Aashiq, who was “determined” to chase them, drove at a speed of 120.
“It wasn’t easy,” Aashiq continues. “After a point, the abductors had found out they were being chased. As and when I had a chance to drive past them, they blocked my way.”
Finally, after about three kilometres, “I overtook them and stopped my car right in front of theirs,” he says. The abductors, too, had to pull down the brakes.
Just when Aashiq was about to get out of the car and rush towards Sheraz, he says: “a gunman leaned out from the right side of the back window and fired three bullets in the air.”
“That scared me,” he exclaims. “And that is when I lost all hope.”
The abductors then paused for a few seconds and steered towards the left on a narrow village road.
“After that, another man from the back window volleyed 8-10 shots one after another, signalling not to chase them any further.” And so, Aashiq did not.
The abductors drove away. Where did they go? That no one knows.
The family filed an FIR at Kulgam Police Station. “But, the police,” claims Nasreena, “has not been showing any interest.” However, police said, “we’re on the job.”
On the day of his abduction, Sheraz’s phone rang till 11:30 in the night before getting diverted to a “wrong” number, she says. “Could they (police) not trace him on the basis of the location his phone had been ringing from?”
Since then, however, Sheraz’s 8-year-old daughter sits with a picture of her smiling father, while his wife kept hoping against hope.
“Do whatever you want to do with my husband,” Nasreena, in a helpless tone, pleads, “but please, just keep him alive!”
But some ten days after this interview, and 48-days after Sheraz’s disappearance, his bullet-ridden body was found in Awahatoo Kulgam on December 11, 2018. His tortured body was buried in an orchard.
Perhaps, now, Sheraz’s widow might stop hoping against hope, as their daughter finally learns the fate of her father: Dead.
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