SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir ― Switching on the flashlight of her mobile phone, Shakeela searched for her husband’s medical prescriptions in the charred remains of her house in Srinagar, Kashmir, on Tuesday night.
The 50-year-old woman perused the rubble for about 30 minutes before she sat down on a pile of debris and said, “They have burned everything. Oh my god, what will I do now? Where would I go? My husband is unwell and my children are young. Where do I take them in this (coronavirus) pandemic?”
Shakeela’s house was destroyed on the afternoon of 19 May in a gunfight between militants and Indian security forces in the densely populated neighbourhood of Nawakadal in Srinagar.
Two militants were killed in the 12-hour long joint operation carried out by the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). Three CRPF personnel and one policeman were injured, according to the J&K Police. This was the second operation to hunt for militants in Srinagar after the 2018 encounter in the Fateh Kadal locality that killed two Lashkar-e-Taiba militants, a policeman and a civilian.
The militants in this encounter included Junaid Sehrai, a commander of the Pakistan-backed militant group Hizbul Mujahideen operating in Kashmir, and the son of Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai, chairman of the separatist group Tehreek-e-Hurriyat. His death comes two weeks after the former Hizbul Mujahideen chief in Kashmir Riyaz Naikoo was shot dead by Indian army personnel in his village in Pulwama district on 6 May.
On Tuesday, photos and videos of smoke and rubble posted on Twitter revealed the devastation wrought by the gunfight and subsequent shelling in downtown Srinagar, where houses stand cheek by jowl in narrow lanes. Houses were destroyed, rendering people homeless in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic which is raging in the conflict-ridden Kashmir, but has not led to a lull in the violence.
It is unclear how many houses have been destroyed, but according to news reports and residents of Nawakadal the figures range from 12 to 22.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Director General of J&K Police Dilbagh Singh said the operation was “clean” and only one residential house caught fire.
On Wednesday, Inspector General of Police, Kashmir, Vijay Kumar, told HuffPost India that three or four residential houses were damaged. “The weather is quite hot and humid these days, so the wood catches fire immediately and it was a congested locality also,” he said.
Manoj Pandita, the J&K police spokesperson, said only the IGP, Kashmir and Senior Superintendent of Police, Srinagar, Haseeb Moghul, could comment on how many families have been rendered homeless and if the government will compensate them.
Moghul, refusing to comment, said the DGP had already spoken on the matter.
HuffPost India has also asked Kumar about compensation and alternate arrangements for those who have lost their homes in the encounter on 19 May. This report will be updated with his comments.
HuffPost India visited Nawakadal on Tuesday night and found mounds of rubble heaped in its congested lanes. Residents told this reporter that at least 22 residential structures were either damaged or destroyed.
In Kashmir, home to seven million people, the long-running conflict and the coronavirus are claiming lives in 2020.
Till 18 May, this year, 10 civilians, 26 security forces and 80 militants have been killed in J&K, according to the South Asian Terrorism Portal, run by the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi.
Since the first coronavirus case was recorded on 9 March, 17 people have died of the coronavirus in J&K, which was demoted from a state to a Union Territory (UT) by the Narendra Modi government last year. 1,289 coronavirus cases were reported till 19 May. Four coronavirus deaths in two days this week has set the Kashmir Valley on edge. The infected include policemen and doctors.
“They have burned everything. My husband is unwell and my children are young. Where do I take them in this (coronavirus) pandemic?”
A marriage hall
As Shakeela sat in the debris and wept, her neighbour Mymoona rushed over and hugged her. “Please don’t cry, god will resolve everything. Please have faith in god,” she said.
Shakeela on Tuesday moved her family into a marriage hall in Nawakadal, walking distance from her destroyed house.
HuffPost India spoke to three other residents of Nawakadal who said they were moving in with their relatives, but Shakeela said that she could not bring herself to impose on her relatives in the middle of a pandemic.
“We don’t know where we will go. I would have asked neighbours to provide us shelter for a few days, but I am reluctant to ask them for help because it’s not appropriate to trouble others in times of the pandemic,” she said.
Residents said that the local mosque is asking for donations to take care of people who have lost their homes in the encounter.
According to India Spend, 105 homes have been destroyed between 2015 and 2018 in Pulwama district, where encounters are frequent.
A woman resident of Nawakadal has alleged that security forces stole money, jewellery, and gas cylinders from her house during the encounter on 19 May.
Kumar, the Inspector General of Police, Kashmir, told HuffPost India, “These are baseless allegations. How can a police officer steal jewellery when the house is on fire. Still, I have asked the SSP, Srinagar to look into the matter if someone files a written complaint.”
The encounter on Tuesday was followed by protests over the damaged and destroyed homes in Nawakadal.
Shakeela said, “Who would give us shelter in such times? This is the question I want to ask the police and the central government. What plans do they have for families who have lost their homes during the encounter?”
Seher Irfan, her 17-year-old daughter, said, “I remember during this entire Covid-19 period, I would tell my mother to make special iftar during Ramzan and she would always tell me, ‘think of those poor people who don’t have anything to eat, don’t have shelter.’ Today, I could relate to them.”
“What plans do they have for families who have lost their homes during the encounter.”
‘My father did not say a word’
Irfan said that she saw the J&K police personnel in her neighbourhood in the early hours of Tuesday morning, but this did not bother her because she thought they had come to quarantine someone who had tested positive for Covid-19.
The police started banging at their door at around two in the morning, Irfan said. “Seeing the panic on our faces, the police asked us to relax and said they have
come here to search for someone, but they didn’t tell us who they are searching for,” she said.
When the gunfight started at around seven in the morning, Irfan said the police told residents to leave their homes.
“We ran barefoot wherever our legs took us,” the teenager said.
“My father, who has suffered a haemorrhage, grandfather, mother, brother, we all were running to take refuge in someone’s house. This is the first time that I have seen my mother running. My mother pleaded with people to give us shelter. A neighbour opened her house and asked us to stay,” she said.
“We ran barefoot wherever our legs took us.”
With the mobile phone services suspended during the course of the gunfight and subsequent shelling, Irfan said they were cut off from the world for hours, but they knew the encounter was underway because of the gunshots ringing in their ears.
After the gun battle ended on Tuesday afternoon, Irfan said that people started moving towards their homes.
“My mother broke down after taking the debris of our beloved house into her hands. My father did not say a word when he saw his life’s work destroyed. We have become homeless,” she said.