From Greater Kashmir: “Surankote Massacre circa 1998”
Sailan (Surankote), Oct 2: Before tears would overwhelm him, Muhammad Shabir Sheikh lit a cigarette. We were told that he always puffs a cigarette when he narrates the horrors of the August 3, 1998 night. On that night his father, mother, four sisters, two uncles, an aunt, nine cousins and a sister-in-law were slaughtered in his uncle’s house, some hacked with a rusting axe and some mowed down with bullets. The dead included 13 women.
Shabir, 24, had seen the killers coming. He fled to a nearby maize field and fixed his eyes on the house as the marauders barged in. He heard the shrieks and “save us” cries of his kin.
“In less than 10 minutes all of them were silenced. In the morning when I went to the house I slipped over on the blood-splattered floors of uncle’s house. Father’s left wrist had been sliced off his arm; mother’s face had been axed; uncle and aunt had been hacked with an axe. I just ran away,” Shabir, then 16, recalls.
Among the dead was Shabir’s pregnant sister, Zareena, 24, married a year back. Her unborn child would round up the figure of the massacred to 20, if counted. The axe was found embedded in the ribcage of Shabir’s another sister, 12-year old Javeda, so stubbornly that villagers couldn’t free it. “The doctors removed it later during post-mortem,” Shabir told Greater Kashmir.
Seven years ago, this gruesome bloodbath was carried out in Sailan village in Surankote tehsil of Poonch district. One and a half kilometer uphill trek from Mughal Road leads to the village.
Shabir and the villagers said that they told every visiting dignitary, then Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, then Indian defense minister George Fernandes, top police and civilian officers, and Justice G A Kuchay, the then chairman of State Human Rights Commission that soldiers of 9 Para Unit of Army and relatives of an Army informer carried out the massacre.
“It is a forgotten chapter now. In the police records militants have been blamed for the massacre,” the villagers said.
Roots of the Sailan massacre could be traced to the ethnic divisions created by New Delhi by selectively arming members of a particular community to fight militants, luring them to become informers with incentives, and by viewing with suspicion the other communities. A day before the massacre, Surankote police announced that Imtiaz Ahmad Sheikh, a militant, escaped from their custody. Imtiaz was Shabir’s cousin. On August 3, bullet-riddled body of an Army informer Zakir Ahmad of Sailan village was found on Mughal Road.
The villagers said Sevak Singh, then Superintendent of Police Surankote (presently jailed on charges of involvement in controversial killing of his young subordinate sub-inspector), told the local Army unit, 9 Para that Imtiaz was behind the killing of Zakir, who was working as informer for the unit.
Fearing revenge, Imtiaz’s family ran away from their house and came to Shabir’s family soon after hearing about Zakir’s death. But the killers tracked them down in the house of Shabir’s uncle.
“The whole village saw them coming in Army vehicles in the night. They parked their vehicles and climbed up straight to the house,” said a villager, wishing not to be named.
Six members of Imtiaz’s family had distributed themselves in two houses, one belonging to Shabir’s father Ahmad Din Sheikh and another to his uncle Hassan Muhammad Sheikh. However, the killers herded all the 19 men, women, and children into the house of Hassan Muhammad Sheikh. “I was outside the house and when they came I ran to a nearby field and lay flat on the ground. They closed the windows and doors and whatever faint light was there went off. Then for seven to eight minutes I heard shrieks. They were crying “save-us,” and “please leave us.” Then there was silence. I remained there. At intervals the soldiers of the Army post located uphill focused the searchlight on me. Every time they did, I cringed on the ground fearing a bullet would hit me next but they didn’t fire,” says Shabir.
In the morning he went to the house and saw his father’s left hand severed from the arm. “Bodies of uncle and aunt (Imtiaz’s parents) were literally chopped off. The sight was unbearable,” Shabir said puffing cigarette on a grocery shop on Mughal Road. The villagers who gathered around him told Greater Kashmir they were so terrified that they fled the village, leaving the bodies unattended. The bodies were buried in Surankote later. However, most of the villagers didn’t return to village for two months. “Army had picked up a man (name withheld) during day and informed him they would kill 21 for one of their men killed. We feared more massacres so we ran away,” said a village elder.
As witness and survivor of the massacre, Shabir was simultaneously protected and traumatized by the state government and its security agencies. For two months he was lodged in government quarters, guarded by six police guards.
“One day a guard urged me to run away warning that my life was in danger. On that day I didn’t come to the quarters. The three-story building was blasted off in the evening. Their intentions were clear. They wanted to kill me. The guards had also left the building, they probably knew it was coming,” Shabir said.
Sevak Singh, then SP (now jailed for another crime) had asked the guards about Shabir’s whereabouts before the quarters were blasted, Shabir said. The State Human Rights Commission had directed the state government to provide security to Shabir.
“I was very suspicious and terrified. I spoke to very few people those days. A police officer, DSP Razak Khan said that I should stay strictly under their guard or I should sign an affidavit that I am safe. But I didn’t sign it. I would have been killed and blam put on militants,” Shabir said. “SP Sevak Singh,” Shabir said, “pressured me to persuade Imtiaz to surrender. I was running for life, had lost everything, and here was the police officer telling me to make Imtiaz surrender.”
Impunity, justice denied, assurances
Shabir said, Dr Farooq Abdullah (then chief minister) “called me to Dak Bungalow at Surankote. He told me ‘don’t tell anybody about it (the massacre). Your life is in danger.’ He also assured that killers would be punished. Indian Defence minister George Fernandes also made a similar promise.” “Punishment to the accused is a very distant dream,” said a villager, “police didn’t write in FIR even what we told them. They put the blame on militants. They were accomplices in crime so it was futile to expect fairness from them.”
An old villager said, “They are going to hang that Kashmiri man (Afzal Guru) in Delhi. Would they also hang those who brutally murdered women and an unborn child.” The villagers said a bureaucrat and the former Chief Secretary had hushed up the case in Civil Secretariat. The State Human Rights Commission had heard the testimonies of witnesses and the villagers. Then chairman Justice Kuchay along with many officials of the commission trekked the hill and recorded the statements of people. The SHRC report had indicted the troops of 9 PARA and Special Police Officers working for them. The team had found empty cartridges of SLR guns, the weapon used by Indian army, at the massacre spot.
By and large the Indian media and some sections of media in Jammu dished out the police version of the massacre, blaming militants.
Voice of conscience silenced
Villagers said that Ajay Gupta of Jammu, the sub-inspector of police had objected to the “murderous” ways of the SP Sevak Singh. “He had heckled Singh in front of many people and criticized him on his face that he was victimizing and killing innocent people. But we learned Sevak Singh got Gupta killed in a fake encounter.” Sevak Singh is presently in jail.
Three families perished in the massacre. Shabir’s family: Ahmad Din Sheikh (Father), 60; Saro Begum (mother), 50; sisters-Zareena (married and pregnant), 24, Yasmeena 17, Javeeda 12, and Shagufta, 8. Latif Ahmad, Shabir’s brother who was in Surankote that night survived. Both Shabir and Latif are married. They returned to the house after two years. During that period they lived in Poonch town. Shabir’s wife is expecting a child. “After the massacre brother Latif is short tempered and somewhat lost. He is working in Saudi Arabia,” Shabir said. What about you? “I completed 12th grade and did a short course in computers. As compensation for those killed I got a job as teacher.” Family of Imtiaz the militant: Father Lassa Sheikh, mother Zainab, teenaged brother Muhammad Iqbal and three unmarried young sisters, Shaheen Akhtar, Jabeena Akhtar, and Tanveera Akhtar. Imtiaz was killed a year later during a gunfight along with two other militants from Kashmir Valley in Pir Panchal hills. Two brothers survived him.
The villagers said killers had recorded the cries of Imtiaz’s parents on a recorder. “When they intercepted Imtiaz’s voice a on a wireless, they played those cries and asked him to surrender but he didn’t,” the villagers said. Shabir’s uncle: All the people were massacred in the house of Shabir’s uncle Hassan Muhammad Sheikh. Zaitoon Begum wife of Sheikh’s son Abdul Ahad along with her four children, sons Showkat Ahmad, 12, and Ikhraz Ahmad, 8, and daughters Shaheena Akhtar, 16, and Tahira Parveen, 6 were shot dead. The nineteenth victim was Tahira, cousin of Shabir, who was holidaying at her uncle’s home. “We will see what they (the government) would do. Besides, who is there to fight for justice,” Shabir said.
(With Arif Haleem and Shafiq Mir)