The following story has been sent by a Kashmiri local who tweets from @KashmirSource_. He’s an IT professional from Kashmir who also covers the conflict at home as a hobby. He was in Kashmir recently and sent out these dispatches.
I came home to Kashmir on August 11, 2019; on the eve of the Eid. When you travel home on Eid, you usually see happy Kashmiri faces in transit, those who live away from Kashmir and find time to travel to Kashmir from different corners of the world to celebrate Eid with their families and friends, one of the biggest annual Islamic festivals. However, the faces I saw at New Delhi airport looked gloomy, worried and restless. I spoke to a few people to understand what worried them. What worried them was the uncertainty of not knowing what would greet them at Srinagar. The feeling of not knowing how to travel from airport to their respective homes, gave everyone anxiety attacks. The flight took off from New Delhi and landed at Srinagar at around 2 in the afternoon. A few moments before touching down at Srinagar, cabin crew made an announcement asking everyone to pull down the window shades, a telling sign of what lied ahead for us. Per airline safety requirements you are required to have the window shades up while landing. However, in Kashmir, safety can take a break. The Srinagar airport is a military airport. The government fears that people will take pictures of the airport. Hence, the new safety rule! The airplane landed and approached the taxiway, the flight attendant made the usual announcement “Welcome to Sheikh-ul-Alam international airport. The temperature outside is around 26 degrees. Now you can use your mobile phones.” Everyone in the flight burst into loud laughter, immediately followed by even louder boos. The flight attendant laughed too while realizing that she made an awkward mistake by asking people to use their mobile phones when all forms of communication were blocked in Kashmir already for a week. She did not repeat the announcement in English language. I picked my luggage and headed to the exit gate. I did not see anyone waiting to receive their families and friends outside the arrival gate. I saw long queues of people waiting outside in the parking area trying to find a cab home. Cab drivers refused to go to most of the areas citing security issues. “Protestors will torch our cabs and us”, a cab driver told a group of desperate people trying to reach their homes. People were waiting for hours, some boarded government provided buses to Tourist Reception Center in Srinagar (TRC), hoping to find a ride home from TRC. Most of the people skipped government sponsored buses and were trying to convince the cab drivers at airport to take them home, offering them 3-4 times of the regular fare. There was chaos everywhere, a group of people started to fight over cabs; cops had to intervene and control the situation. In the queue, I saw some Indian security forces personnel too, who had arrived in Srinagar from their leaves and found themselves stranded just like Kashmiri civilians. They were not sure what to do, were asking Jammu and Kashmir Police personnel on duty around the parking area, who asked them to check somewhere else because the security personnel at the airport were not sure either! Everyone seemed to be confused and clueless.
Nobody had come to receive me either. I couldn’t call anyone; my family didn’t know about my plans to come home. I had to travel all the way to Anantnag in south Kashmir, some 50 kilometers from the Srinagar international airport. One of my friends works within the airport area. I waited for him to log off from work and escort me home. My friend came and we left the airport at around 4:00 PM. The usually busy airport approach road looked deserted with cars occasionally plying on it. There was unusual and heavy deployment of security forces as far as the eye can see. Srinagar resembled a ghost town caged in barbed razor wires. Travelling further towards the Hyderpora area, the number of cars plying on the road increased, less than 5% of the usual traffic on a normal day, I reckon. It was the eve of Eid, there was some movement of people on the roads, some shops were half-open since government had given relaxation in the restrictions for Eid. We went to Dal-gate, a popular tourist market place, hoping to buy some bakery for home. However, the bakery shops were shut. The busy market looked like it doesn’t exist. People were moving in cars, some were walking. I suddenly saw a police jeep making announcement on loudspeaker asking a very few working shopkeepers to shut their shops. I realized the relaxation was perhaps over, asked my friend to press gas and head home ASAP! In Sonwar area, I again saw some shops open, very few though. Sonwar is a defense area, very close to Kashmir’s biggest army garrison called Badami Bagh Cantonment. Sonwar is supposed to be safe, free from protests and stone-pelting. I was expecting the market to be open. However, Sonwar looked deserted too. We hit the rather deserted highway and headed towards Anantnag. I didn’t see a single shop open on the way, not even pharmacies or fuel stations. The highway and the areas on the either side of the highway were totally deserted. The popular tourist market in Pampore area looked like a ghost market. You could only see Indian paramilitaries, J&K police personnel and tons of barbed wires all over the highway. We reached home without any issues, were not stopped anywhere for checking or anything. My parents were fine and very happy to see me. I was relieved too. I had got medicines and other essential supplies for home. However, they were good and had already stocked enough supplies. Kashmiris are very good at stocking their provisions.
My father told me you cannot go to main road. People are not allowed to even walk on the road or open their shops. He told me a day ago a local shopkeeper in our neighborhood tried to open his shop, was immediately thrashed by Indian army personnel, they took a few packets of cigarettes from him and warned him not to open the shop again he added. The shop I know is located in the interior of Anantnag town. If there are such restrictions in the inner pockets of the town, imagine the situation in the main-town around the main road (KP road). I didn’t go outside the day I arrived, it was scary, didn’t go to mosque, offered prayers at home, had food and slept early. I woke up in the morning, went to offer Eid prayers in the local mosque, a few blocks from my home. Many offered Eid prayers within the confined walls of their homes. May did not offer mandatory Eid prayers at all. No prayers were allowed in many mosques and in Eid-gah, the dedicated open-place where people congregate for Eid prayers in Anantnag town. I offered prayers and came home, spent some time at home, took out my bicycle and told my parents I was going to meet my friend, who also lives in the interiors of the town, half a mile from our home. I headed straight to the main road, the junction that connects the main road with the link road was sealed with barbed razor wires, a large group of Indian paramilitaries and J&K Police personnel were guarding the junction, among them many officers. I asked them if they can allow me to pass since I have to visit my sister for something very important. They said, sure “there are no problems, however, we are not sure what is the situation in the town-area (Lalchowk)”. I asked them if there were any protests going on in the town, in that case I would head back home. They were unsure, like they didn’t care. They slightly moved the barbed wire and allowed me to hit the main road. I hit the KP road which resembled like a road in some ghost town from one of those Hollywood movies, heavily guarded by Indian paramilitaries. You usually see a lot of hustle and bustle on roads in Kashmir on Eid day. You see people on their bikes and in cars with baskets full of qurbani-meat (sacrificial meat), going from one place to another to distribute the meat and to greet the relatives. You also see happy kids in colorful clothes playing around, spending their money that they receive from their elders on Eid. There was nobody on the road. I was literally the only one plying on the road. It was very scary. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I was repeatedly telling myself I should have stayed home. There was an uneasy calm, a pin-drop silence all around. I had worn a helmet, knee and elbow guards, just in case I find myself caught in middle of violent protests. I reached the BSNL Exchange area on the KP road. Two JKP personnel from Special Operations Group (SOG), the counterinsurgency wing of J&K Police, asked me to stop. One of the two cops asked me to park my bike by the footpath. The cop came forward and started this weird conversation. He tried to trick me, but I somehow didn’t fall for his trap even though he was almost trying to force me to say ‘Yes’. I am sharing the conversation for you to know how tricky and risky it is to venture out in Kashmir these days:
Police personnel: Where are you headed?
Me: I am headed to my sister.
Police Personnel: It is curfew today. Why did you leave home?
Me: My sister had a daughter few months back and I am yet to see her. I live outside Kashmir, came yesterday and now I want to see my sister and my niece, since it is the first time, I am going to see her. I know there is curfew in place, but I couldn’t resist.
Police Personnel: Our people are dying in Kashmir and you are showing off your style on this ‘foreign bike’?
Me: How do you mean our people are dying?
Police Personnel: Mujahideen and stone-pelters are dying for us and you are riding your bike and live in ‘foreign’?
Me: I didn’t ask them to die for me. They don’t die for us. They can go abroad too. Nobody would stop them.
Police Personnel: What are you saying? They are important to us. They keep the fear alive in Kashmir. Don’t you see how army and police kills them, sometimes their families too?
Me: Army/Police doesn’t ask people to become militants. What else would you expect army/police to do if anyone picks up gun/stone against them?
Police Personnel: Umm, you should still support them.
Me: I don’t support anyone.
Police Personnel: Started to slowly hit the front tyre of my bike with the huge stick that he had in his hand. He looked dissatisfied, with a wicked smile on his face, asked me to go meet my sister and niece. I asked him if there was any stone-pelting happening in the town area. He said, “stone-pelting will happen, Insha’Allah”. I knew what he was trying to do. He had a hunting knife hanging by his belt, an AK rifle in one hand, a huge stick in another hand itching to use it on someone, and a pistol mounted to his gear. He appeared to me like a battle-hardened frontline soldier, like one of those notorious renegades (Ikhwan militias) from 90s, starved of beating people, looking for someone to thrash or kill, or maybe bored, only looking for some fun! If I had agreed or just nodded to what he said, I am not sure what he would have done to me. I am not sure if he had done with others and if anyone had fallen for his trick. Very creepy!
I started to move forward, but another group of SOG personnel asked me to stop even before I could cross the road. They were sitting on the footpath, by their armoured vehicles, looked quite bored. I stopped, parked my bike and went to them. They asked where was I headed, what I did for a living, and other irrelevant questions. I again repeated the story. They said “should we arrest and thrash you, since we have already arrested and thrashed a cyclist earlier in the day”. I hesitantly asked “Why?”. They replied, “wait, let our officer come, if he allows, you can leave”. I stood there for a few minutes, and in came their officer, a tall handsome guy with jet-black hair and long moustaches, wearing a polo t-shirt and denims, holding a radio in his hand, no weapons. I greeted him, repeated to him my sister-niece story. He smiled and asked me to go ahead. I thanked him and left. The road further towards the town area looked totally deserted, I didn’t find a single civilian walking on the road. Anantnag looked like a ghost-town would be an understatement. I decided not to visit my sister, since the area where she lives is very sensitive and usually sees major protests. I instead headed straight to District Hospital Anantnag, locally known as Janglat-Mandi hospital to check if there were any casualties since there were many rumours about ‘killings in Kashmir’. I was stopped by CRPF personnel at multiple locations, asked where I was headed. I would tell them I am headed to hospital to see a patient, a sick friend. They would check my ID and allow me to go. I reached the hospital, went straight to Emergency department, met a doctor, introduced myself as an independent part-time journalist, and asked him if they received any casualties since August 5, the day Kashmir was stripped off its semi-autonomous status? The doctor told me not a single civilian with bullet or pellet injury was received at his hospital. I was relieved, spoke to him for a while and came out. I then met a nurse outside the Emergency department, tried to verify what doctor had just said. She confirmed too that not a single civilian with any injury was received at the hospital. I asked her if there are any directions from administration not to discuss this matter with press? She paused for a brief moment and said there is nothing like that and offered me to check the logbook and visit the emergency ward. I peeped into the Emergency ward, but only found a lone patient, a young boy who had met with an accident on his bike. His family had no idea their son has had an accident and was being treated at the hospital. His condition looked very bad. The nurse also discussed the problems they face due to the shutdown, too many security checks, lack of transport, communications, etc. She also told me there were protests, stone-pelting incidents in her area after the Eid-prayers earlier that day, but there was no injury since security forces did not use much force (bullets and pellets). I thanked her for the details and left the hospital. I took a different route back home to avoid the creepy police personnel deployed near the BSNL Exchange area on KP road. In Mattan Chowk area I saw Gujjars (tribal people who raise and sell livestock) with a flock of sheep desperately waiting for any buyers to show up. These guys arrive in Kashmir from remote mountains before Eid and sell their cattle to people who sacrifice them on Eid. Muslims are supposed to sacrifice sheep and other cattle on Eid-ul-Adha. However, their sheep were unsold. There were no buyers around. They get this opportunity once a year and their lives depend on this business. I had seen similar scenes at many places a day before in Srinagar around the airport area. I finally reached home without any issues.
I spent the next few days inside the home, would occasionally venture out in our neighborhood. The life felt like caged and dull without phone, internet and freedom to move. I felt like I was in a prison. It was suffocating and depressing. It was hard to believe something like this was happening in 2019. I got bored of watching TV, which was mostly news. I am not sure if that can call be ‘news’. The Indian national media, almost all of it were carrying reports that life is ‘normal’ in Kashmir, everything is fine and Kashmiris are happy. I used to watch all this and wonder how could they ran these misleading reports when Kashmir is anything but normal, when Kashmiris are anything but happy. Anyways, post August 16 when restrictions were eased a bit in Kashmir. I wanted to document facts and tell the stories after returning from Kashmir. I visited many places in south Kashmir districts of Anantnag, Kulgam, Shopian, and the capital city of Srinagar. I met many people, spoke to them, visited places where protests, violence took place, visited hospitals in many parts of the valley. I repeated this activity until September 4, the day I flew out of Kashmir. I faced many challenges, my camera was taken by Indian security forces and all photos were deleted, my phone was checked many times, I was also briefly detained for questioning by army in Kulgam area. I had no curfew pass, no press ID. I threw myself under high risk, but I kept going, in search of truth and gathered many stories. I have documented everything I got in a longer piece here: What Exactly is Happening in Kashmir?
This piece was further updated on 12th September 2019.