Amargarh (Handwara): The stillness in this remote hamlet of Taratpora in North Kashmir’s Handwara, nestled between lofty peaks, is shattered by dirges inside a house.
“Oh my beloved mother, where are you? Oh my beloved sister, where are you? How can we live without you? You cannot leave us alone,” cries Mehnaz, whose mother and sister were killed after a shell exploded in the courtyard of their home on Thursday.
Mehnaz’s family has buried two loved ones in a local graveyard in less than 48 hours. They are inconsolable.
Her 20-year-old brother Asghar is in complete shock.
A group of locals told The Wire, “He is not in a condition to talk. They are devastated. They have lost everything. Their mother struggled to bring them up in conditions of abject poverty. Death denied her the chance to see her children prosper.”
The family lives in an impoverished state. Their ramshackle, made mostly of wooden planks, says it all.
Sara Begum (56) and her 21-year-old daughter Gulnaz Bano suffered grievous wounds on Thursday, when they were cleaning vegetables that they had bought from an area close to the Line of Control (LoC).
While the daughter succumbed to her injuries on the day the shell exploded, the mother lost her battle at the SMHS hospital in Srinagar on Friday night.
According to the police, the mother-daughter duo had brought the shell along with vegetables from the Chowkibal area in the Kupwara district on Wednesday.
The Chowkibal area is considered “one of the most dangerous places” in Kashmir. Hundreds of gunfights have taken place in this remote area, which is close to the LoC, over the past three decades. Both militants and security forces have suffered numerous fatalities in the area. Locals living in the area have also borne the brunt of shelling between the armies of India and Pakistan.
The family of the deceased told The Wire that Sara and Gulnaz went to Chowkibal along with some children and women on Wednesday, after hiring a mini-cab for Rs 2,000. They wanted to go on a picnic.
Javid Ahmad, Sara Begum’s son, said, “My eldest brother-in-law Farooq Ahmad also went along with them. They returned in the evening. The next morning, they went to a nearby forest to collect firewood and stored it in our field before coming back. No one was at home when the explosion took place. We came to know that they were cleaning vegetables when the shell exploded.”
Javid, who is a carpenter by profession, was working in a neighbouring village on Thursday morning.
“At around 3 pm, we heard a loud explosion. I first thought it could be a blast in the forest or a gas cylinder explosion. After 20 minutes, I was dumbstruck when somebody told me over the phone that a shell exploded in our house and my mother and sister were injured,” he said.
“I quickly rushed back but they were already taken to the local hospital when I reached,” Javid adds.
Nazir Ahmad, a neighbour of Javid, says that he rushed out of his home after hearing cries following the explosion.
“I went out to see if my children were okay. They were sitting near a shop. I was shocked when I saw Sara and Gulnaz lying on the ground and crying for help. Blood was all over their clothes. I immediately rushed them to the hospital. When we reached the district hospital in Handwara, doctors told us that Gulnaz is dead and her mother needs to be referred to Srinagar. She also succumbed to injuries on the intervening night of Friday and Saturday,” he said.
Gulnaz’s family had been planning her wedding, which they hoped would occur later this year.
“We had decided that we will soon fix the date of her wedding. After returning home from work, we would often discuss arrangements for her marriage and how we will buy jewellery and clothes for her,” says Javid Ahmed. He says Gulnaz was the backbone of their family.
“She could only study until Class X due to our family’s financial condition. She would support her mother in almost all household chores,” he says.
Over the past three decades, hundreds of civilians – especially children – have been killed and maimed by abandoned and littered explosives in J&K.
According to a report published in 2015, 187 people have died due to explosions of littered shell in Jammu & Kashmir since 2002. Out of them, 93 were children.
In 2013, then J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah, in a written reply, informed the assembly that 63 people were killed and 41 injured in unexploded ordnance or remnants of ammunition in Tosa Maidan meadow, which was used as a firing range by the Army until 2014.
The meadow was used for artillery exercises from 1965, but the Omar Abdullah government refused to grant an extension to the Army for using it as a firing range in 2014.