As the holy month of Ramzan drew to a close, hundreds of houses in the Kashmir Valley mourned the young victims of strife by religiously setting plates for the deceased to break their fast.
As Mohammad Khalil sat down for Iftar with his three surviving sons, his wife carefully put slices of watermelon, bread, rice and other dishes on a tablecloth laid on the floor. She fetches a copper glass and gingerly puts it down for her dead son Suhail (19), a student of class XII.
As if on cue, a sob escapes Khalil. The ritual is repeated at the pre-dawn ‘Sehri’ as well, they confirm, yet to come to terms with their loss. Suhail, the family claims, was driving home in Shopian from a neighbouring village along with a labourer when he ran into an ambush set up for militants by the security forces. A hail of bullets rained on their vehicle, killing both of them. “My son was neither a militant nor a stone pelter. He was killed in cold blood” says Khalil, breaking the silence in the room.
The daily wage earner Shahnawaz Ahmed too had nothing to do with militancy, he said. While the army mistook Suhail and Shahnawaz for militants, minutes later they also killed two more civilians, Shahid and Gowhar Ahmad Lone, residents of Malik Gund and Imamshahib. At the modest house of late Ab Ahad Kumar, his widow Siada Begum religiously knocks and opens the door of their son Umar, who too is no more.
“He would fast for the whole month since he was twelve. Our mother would wake him up during Ramzan for Sehri. She still goes into his room at Sehri time” says Umar’s sister.
Umar was barely 15 when leaving his school bag at home, he rushed out to play with friends. He was not aware of the encounter going on a kilometre from his house and when he approached the site, he was gunned down on May 2. The family still makes Phirni, the sweet dessert, at Iftar but nobody has it because it was Umar’s favourite dish. Since January, 12 civilians have been killed in Shopian alone. Many of them in their teens and school students. And for all these families, both the month of Ramzan and Eid have turned into a mourning ritual.