The labyrinth of narrow alleys and lanes that form the old quarters of Srinagar were filled with soldiers— wielding guns and batons and wearing steel helmets and other protective gear. As I made my way to Kanimazar, a small but densely-populated locality of the capital city of Indian-administered Kashmir, the bright sunlight was casting harsh shadows. Women were peeping out of windows, entry and exit points were sealed with barbed wires, and the deafening silence all around was only broken by the chirping of birds and the roar of military vehicles. The area was filled with smoke. Two militants had been killed in a gunfight with security forces only a few days ago with local residents accusing the latter of burning down several houses

The anger on their faces was palpable . Among the piles of rubble were broken mirrors, wedding dresses, stacks of new and old clothes, tins of rice grains, shoes, cutlery, flower pots , copper utensils, quilts among other things— all charred.

Nusrat, 37, a young widow, standing on the stairs of her damaged house in Srinagar Photo by Faisal Magray

I entered a house with four small rooms, kitchen and a lawn which was completely damaged, and looked like a coal mine. I heard the footsteps of someone echoing through the house. I walked a little further and found Nusrat, a young widow, standing on the stairs of her damaged house. I gathered some courage and took Nusrat’s picture. The shadows on her face got deeper and blacker and gradually disappeared as the light from the sky faded. The black shadow on her face smudged with her dress, I noticed. After some time I stood on the porch , peering out and began to count the number of houses that had been damaged, trying to get a sense of destruction.

Nusrat’s house was destroyed on the afternoon of May 19. She lost nearly everything . “I have so many different emotions attached to this house that I can’t even explain; I feel lost, she said.”Nothing is left, I see pieces of my belonging everywhere,” Nusrat said.

With mobile phone services and internet suspended, she was unable to communicate with her neighbours and relatives. She remained in her house until 10:45 AM, after she was asked to leave her house and run for her life. She says with a sigh: “It was around 2:00 AM, I was sitting with my daughters in a room when a bright white light fell on our room. A feeling of horror gripped my heart in the harsh light that focussed on us. After few minutes police knocked heavily on the main door and started searching the entire house and told us to stay in one room and not to move out. ”

“When the gunfight started around 6:00am bullets and mortar shells were coming from all directions, no room in our house was safe,” she said, recalling the fateful night when she and her two daughters were trapped in their house. When the tin roof of her house crashed to the ground, her little daughters were screaming. She along with her two daughters crouched together closely and took refuge under the concrete staircase on the first floor of her house.
“Both my daughters went pale and their bodies were shaking . They were crying because of the loud sound of intermittent blasts , scary gunshots, and flame throwers. Gunshots are still ringing in my ears,” says Nusrat
Nusrat lost her husband in 2014 due to a sudden heart attack . Her husband built the house by working hard and also taking housing loan from a bank. To run her family, Nusrat now works as a helper in a government department . She is left with two daughters and ailing mother-in-law. “ Years ago I lost my husband which left us shattered. Now I have lost my house and have no idea how we would continue our lives.”

Sitting inside her damaged Kitchen, Nusrat is in grief as neighbors and relatives continue to pour in to offer their sympathies.

At night Nusrat’s family stay at her brother’s home and she comes to visit each day to search for deeply personal items . She said she’s looking for anything that may have survived. “I had kept gold ornaments and some cash in my luggage, everything was charred.”

The gun battle lasted about 15 hours and ended with the killing of Junaid Ashraf Sehrai, a militant commander with Kashmir’s largest rebel group, Hizbul Mujahideen, and his aide. Junaid, son of senior separatist political leader Mohammed Ashraf Sehrai, joined the rebel ranks in early 2018 after graduating in business management from the Kashmir university.

Director General of Police, Jammu and Kashmir, Dilbag Singh said the operation was “clean and only one residential house caught fire which was controlled immediately”.

“The first thing we did in the morning was to evacuate the inmates. In that process two forces personnel suffered injuries”, he said

Indian government has formulated a new strategy not to hand over the bodies of rebels to their families to thwart massive funerals for anti-India dissent in the contested region. Police is burying rebels in remote mountainous places in North and central districts of Kashmir. Mohammed Ashraf Sehrai led the funeral prayers for his rebel son in absentia.

Authorities snapped cellular services and internet in a common tactic to make organizing anti-India protests difficult and discourage dissemination of protest videos. Rebel groups have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989. Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the armed uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown. There are about 650,000 to 750,000 Indian armed forces deployed in the region fighting insurgents.

There is no research available on the number of houses destroyed by government forces in Valley. But according to data analysis platform India Spend, which accessed police data reports, says that as many as 105 houses have been destroyed since 2015 in encounters in Pulwama district only, one of the worst militancy-hit districts in south Kashmir.

On the same day when the encounter was over people from adjacent areas were moving towards Nawakadal area to visit the gunfight site and also express solidarity with the local families. According to local Mohalla Committee, 22 houses were gutted in the fire. It was during that time a half burnt house collapsed leaving seven people critically injured. The first causality of house collapse was 12-year-old boy Basim Aijaz who succumbed at Shri Majaraja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS) in Srinagar City. Later on May 24, Eid-ul- Fitr, two more civilians Manzoor Ahmed Khan, 55, and Fayaz Ahmad Bhat, 25, died of severe burn injuries at the Shri Majaraja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS).

Faisal Magray is a freelance Multimedia Journalist based in Bombay. He was born and brought up in Srinagar, Kashmir. He graduated from Media Education Research Center, University of Kashmir In Journalism. In 2018 he got Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Fellowship to study Film and visual Journalism at the Asian Center for Journalism (ACFJ) at Ateneo de Manila University in Philippines.  He has produced news features, short films, portraits and special assignments for print and online media. His work has been published by international publications around the world including New Internationalist, Yale Journal , The Telegraph, Rooster GNN,The Independent, Getty Images, AFP, Counter currents, Friday Magazine, Grazia, Marie Claire, Fabulous, The Ethicalist, and top Tabloids like Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, The Sun, UK Metro.


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