Residents’ Accounts Belie the Army’s Claims About Firing Deaths at Qazigund in Kashmir

The Qazigund killings happened on 18 July, the tenth day of the curfew in the valley. Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
28 July, 2016

About 71 kilometres from Srinagar, a lane diverging from the Jammu and Kashmir highway near Qazigund, a town in south Kashmir, leads to a nondescript village named Churat. Despite having travelled via this highway—which connects the state to the rest of India—several times, until a few days ago, we did not know that this village existed. Qazigund made headlines on 18 July, when news broke of three killings—of two women and a man—due to firing by members of the 9 Rashtriya Rifles contingent of the Indian army. Hours after the killing, the army released a statement that said, “The Army deeply regrets, the unfortunate loss of life in the incident at Churat, Qazigund where the troops were forced to open fire on Monday when a large mob turned violent, resorting to heavy stone pelting and attempted to snatch weapons from the soldiers.” The army spokesman added that a probe into the incident had been initiated. Two days later, the state government, too, ordered a probe.

The deaths occurred on the tenth day of a curfew in the valley. Public demonstrations, which had begun after the death of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, on 8 July, were ongoing in many parts of Kashmir. Since Wani’s death, the government had clamped down upon the citizens of Kashmir: phone and internet services had been snapped, and newspapers had been banned. Close to 50 civilians have been killed, and more than 3,000, injured.

Most reports of the Qazigund incident in the national media carried the account the army had provided. On 21 July, we travelled to Churat to find out what had happened. We spoke to nearly 30 people, and about a dozen eyewitnesses. Though the uprising has rooted itself into every corner of the valley, including far-flung villages and towns, the villagers told us that there were no protests in Churat before 18 July. We also found that the villagers’ accounts of the shooting were markedly different from that of the army.

We reached Qazigund in the afternoon, at about 4 pm. The link road—a narrow serpentine lane on which the Churat and Khargund villages lie, and which connects them to the national highway—was deserted. No security forces seemed to be present in the area. Inside Churat, the scene was entirely different. We saw several people walking on the street, on their way to visit the grieving families. Young boys stood on one side of the link road, preparing Rooh Afza for men assembled under a tent on the other side, who had come to offer condolences. Not far from the tent, about two dozen women—the families and neighbours of the deceased—sat under a walnut tree, on a tarpaulin sheet. The group had gathered for chahrum, the fourth day of mourning.

At the centre of the group of women was 22-year-old Noor Jehan. Jehan’s mother, 55-year-old Saida Banu, was one of the three people who had been killed on 18 July. Jehan’s right hand was bandaged; she had been injured in the firing as well. We asked Jehan and the village residents if they could describe the shooting. She spoke softly as she recalled what had happened that day. The people surrounding her, many of whom were eyewitnesses to the firing, joined in.

On 18 July, they told us, at around 6 pm, cries of help emanating from the loudspeakers of the mosque in the adjoining Khargund village, just 300 metres away, punctured the sullen silence in Churat. The announcement on the speakers informed the villagers that a patrolling party of the army had seized three young boys. According to the people we met, the army patrol group had been wreaking havoc in Khargund, on foot, for almost half an hour. Many villagers told us that the soldiers had pulled up to the village in army vehicles, and after getting down, begun barging into houses, breaking whatever they could find. The army personnel were also beating up anyone in sight, including a group of young boys who were playing cricket in a nearby field. Then, the army captured three of the boys.

By this time, some men from the village, who were offering evening prayers in the mosque, had made the announcements asking for help. Residents from Churat and Khargund came out of their houses and gathered. Many decided to intervene. They asked the soldiers why the boys were being taken away, and began sloganeering. After a few minutes, the army let the boys go, and the patrol group began to leave. The crowd, too, started to disperse. The residents of Churat, about 60 in number according to eyewitnesses, began walking along the link road, to return to their homes.

As they watched the first patrol group recede, “from the other end of the road an armoured vehicle of the army”—a second group—“reached the village,” Mohammad Abbas Itoo, an eyewitness and a resident of Churat, told us. Abbas’s older brother, Showkat Ahmed Itoo, a 24-year-old, was one of the three killed in the firing. “A few of the army men came out of the vehicle and started beating people who had assembled on the road after the earlier incident,” he said.

Hilal Ahmad Itoo, Abbas’s cousin, confirmed this account. Hilal said that he was beaten up by the first patrolling party, and showed us bruises on his thighs. The soldiers from the second patrol, he said, “started throwing stones at windows.” Abbas and Hilal told us that, in retaliation, young boys in the group starting throwing stones at the soldiers.

Then, Hilal said, two of the soldiers took position and opened fire at the villagers.

“They fired indiscriminately,” Jehan told us. When the shooting began, Jehan was near her house, on the link road. Her mother, Saida Banu, was among the gathering on the road, and Jehan ran out to look for her. “I went to save my mother,” Jehan said, adding that she called out her mother’s name. “My mother smiled at me and fell down.” The women sitting with Jehan—many of whom were also eyewitnesses—told us that, at first, they thought that Banu had only tripped and fallen down. Jehan said that when she reached her mother, “She was lying on the ground. I put my body on her.” Jehan said she tried to pick her mother up, and that when her hand was on her mother’s chest, a bullet hit it. Jehan has three brothers and a sister. The women sitting with her spoke of Saida Banu’s poor health, and wondered aloud about how she could be a threat to anyone.

Jehan’s brother was also on the road during firing, told us that the army personnel fired above the waist, and that the soldiers fired only one aerial gunshot. “No pellets were fired,” he said. “It was a target killing. No one was shot in the back. If there was need they could have fired below waist.”

Abbas’s brother Showkat, an electric fitting mechanic, was a part of the gathering that was walking down the link road. When a bullet hit Banu and she fell, he also ran to pick her up. But before he could reach her, Jehan told us, two bullets had hit him in the abdomen. Abbas was injured in the firing too. While he was trying to help his brother, a bullet pierced his right elbow. When we met him, he was at his home, a few meters away from Jehan’s. He lay on his bed, agonised by his brother’s death, barely able to speak.

Thirty-three-year-old Neelofer Jan also died in the firing. Jan’s husband, Fayaz Ahmad Shah, told us that Jan had heard the announcements on the mosque loudspeaker, and had come out to look for her son Aamir. “Hearing cries, some women in Churat came out in search of their children, who had been earlier playing cricket. She also came out running,” he told us, while the 14-year-old Aamir sobbed in an aunt’s lap.

Accompanying Jan was her seven-year-old nephew Aaqib Ahmad Shah. “Even before seeing her son, two bullets hit her in abdomen and chest,” Hilal said. “While she fell down in a pool of blood, Aaqib also received a bullet in abdomen.”

The eyewitnesses told us that the firing lasted about a minute. It did not stop “until one army man forcibly stopped the duo from firing and put them back in the vehicle,” Hilal said. Then, the soldiers all filed into the vehicle and left.

By then, bodies had started piling up on the road. Junaid Ahmad Wani, aged 13; Basit Ahmad Bhat, aged 14; Ishfaq Ahmad Malik, aged 22; and Rafiqa Banu, aged 55, were hit by bullets in their face, abdomen and arm, knee, and leg, respectively. “They were firing at us like it was war,” Hilal said.

None of the dozen-or-so eyewitnesses we spoke to mentioned any attempts by civilians to snatch weapons from the personnel. In fact, they seemed unaware of the army’s account of the incident. Just before we left the village later that day, a few young men told us that they wanted to file a case against the army. They then repeated something several others had also said: that they felt the tragedy of their village was ignored because no one from the media travelled to villages as far as Churat. “But we will fight the case in the court,” they said.