Bachura, a small village in Kashmir’s Budgam district, wakes up every day to the sound of shots fired by personnel from the Indian armed forces and military groups who practise at a firing range nearby. Surrounded by the karewas—mineral-rich terraces—and dotted with almond trees, the range is six kilometres from the Srinagar airport.
The noise from the gunfire has acquired a different meaning for the young people of the village, many of whom, in recent years, have taken to collecting and selling used bullets. The small income it generates—around Rs 14,000 a month—helps them with daily and family expenses. The army sometimes practises with different ammunition, such as grenade launchers, for which it uses old buses and jeeps as targets. The young people who collect and sell parts of the vehicles, including tyres and iron rods, refer to these occasions as “bada din”—the big day.
The walk to the range for Bachara’s young people has turned into a race to reach early and occupy a favourable spot. Once the troops head back to their camp, they make a beeline for their preferred point. One group heads for the targets, while the other rushes towards the station from which the troops fire.They remain on the ground with their heads bowed for hours, digging for bullets. There are certain codes within the group: a person can dig out bullets only from within the area between his legs, and if bullets from one person’s pocket, envelope or bag fall onto another’s territory, they no longer belong to him.
Seventeen-year-old Khalid Ahmad Sofi, a ninth-grade student, wakes up early. Often missing breakfast, he leaves for the range armed with garden tools such as a daisy grubber, a mattock, a dibber and a bag. “Everyone does his job with a great deal of patience because we have to dig out the bullets from beneath the soil,” Khalid explained. Eight years ago, he discovered a spot deep in the karewa, where he is able to gather a large number of bullets.
The firing range used to be situated in a neighbouring village, Kralapora, which is also close to the airport. The Indo-Pakistan war of 1965 badly affected these two villages, according to Khalid’s father, Ghulam Mohammad. “The houses in Bachura were turned into ammunition stores overnight and cowsheds became bunkers,” he said. “After the war ended and the situation improved, the villagers rushed back to the village to check the condition of the houses they were forced to abandon. We were moved to tears at the scale of destruction.” “The entire village was destroyed. Not a single house was left standing,” Razaq, Khalid’s octogenarian grandfather, recalled.
Khalid is usually the first to leave the group to get changed for school.He returns home and spreads the bullets out in the sunlight, and his mother, Zahida, watches over them. “Digging is not the difficult task; the toughest work is to separate the gunpowder from the bullet. I keep the bullets exposed to the sun to melt the wax and oil from the bullet,” Khalid said. He uses a chisel and hammer to open the bullets at one end and then straightens them out by beating them with a mallet. The last stage involves cleaning the bullets, which he does by dropping them into a box of sand and shaking it for over an hour.
Khalid initially sold the bullets to scrap dealers for Rs 100 a kilogram. In 2012, he made an arrangement with his father’s friend Bilal Ahman Sheikh, a coppersmith. He now earns Rs 350 a kilogram and also sells bullets for others at the range. Bilal lives in Khanyar, an area of the old city in the Srinagar district, and runs a small factory in his courtyard. He began using bullets to make utensils six years ago. Bilal washes the bullets in copper acid, which helps preserve the shine and tempers the metal. He then heats them in a big pan over a fire. “It is very important to heat the bullets properly and mould them to get the required shape,” he said. Bilal uses a tin to make a chain and shapes the remaining material into a small hollow dome with a handle that resembles the letter “S”—the parts of a samovar, a handmade copper kettle traditionally used to boil water for tea. “We can use the real form of the copper to make the chain and dome, but the peculiar colour of the bullets gives a different look and texture,” Bilal told me. He also makes other utensils, such as small fruit bowls and spoons, from the moulded bullet metal.
For Khalid, foraging for bullets has an extra shade of meaning. He proudly declares that he earns for his 24-year-old sister Neelofar, who had to drop out of the eighth grade because of their mother’s various health problems. “We don’t get a lot of time to worry about things: if I don’t go for retrieving bullets, someone else will simply take my place,” Khalid said, with the air of someone who knows what he is talking about. “That’s it. I just do what I have to do.”
Yasir Ahmad Bhat, a friend of Khalid’s, was the only one in his family to collect bullets. Five years ago, he found the job profitable and asked his siblings to join him. “With the grace of God, we are able to save a little for our future as well. At times it feels strange that this is what we do; that we are also selling the war to earn a living. But we have learned to put that thought behind. One has to…” Yasir trailed off, mid-sentence, into a poignant silence.