In Kashmir, killing has stopped, but killers roam free

Boniyar (Srinagar): After decades of war, Kashmir is blooming again. Hotels are bursting, roads are being fixed and offices rebuilt. But with the guns silenced, India must soon decide whether justice will be as welcome as the tourists. Mass murderers walk the streets openly, having killed thousands of people who are buried in unmarked graves in scores of secret cemeteries.
This beautiful village has one such graveyard. Nine years after Indian police officers and troops deposited hundreds of bullet-ridden corpses here as part of their campaign to suppress an independence movement supported by Pakistan, dirt mounds still rise above the shallow and unmarked plots as if the circumstances of the deaths left the earth above the bodies unsettled.
Atta Mohamad Raja Khan, the 70-year-old farmer who dug the graves, said one plot contained the remains of a 2-year-old boy. Others held teenagers and dowagers. Khan’s graveyard quickly filled, so he buried only a fraction of the tens of thousands killed over more than 20 years of dirty warfare.
Many of the buried were militants, including foreign mercenaries whose deaths and quick burials are often accepted as the wages of war. But myriad innocent bystanders were murdered in clumsy government plots. None of the suspected killers from the military has been arrested.
Tensions still lie just below the surface. On Monday, a fire in a revered Sufi Muslim shrine in Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital, sparked clashes between the police and rock-throwing Muslim protesters. Six people were hurt after the police fired tear gas. But so far the fire has not led to wider unrest.
Khan, 45, was one of the bystanders massacred. A blacksmith’s apprentice, he lived in a mud house on a mountainside in the Anantnag district with his wife and 11 children far from any road. At 2 a.m. on March 24, 2000, soldiers broke down his door and dragged Khan away. Just four days earlier, more than a dozen gunmen dressed in fatigues had systematically massacred 34 men and boys in a nearby district, and the military was under pressure to find the killers. Khan’s oldest child, Abdul Rashid, said his father had been targeted because he was poor and had a beard, which made him look like a militant.
“They told my mother, ‘Don’t worry, he’ll be back in a half-hour,”’ Rashid recalled in an interview on the mountainside near his home.
She nonetheless threw herself on her husband, and the soldiers beat her, he said.
Later that morning, Rashid discovered that three other men in the area had been similarly taken.
The next day and miles away, Zahoor Ahmad Dalal, 22, drove home after working all day in the family’s fabric shop. He had dinner at 6 p.m. and left for his customary walk 30 minutes later. He didn’t return. The family fanned out to find him but never did.
The military soon announced that it had found five foreign militants responsible for the recent massacre hiding in an Anantnag hut. During the battle, the hut was burned and the militants killed, the military said. The charred bodies were buried without autopsies.
After the announcement, Rashid feared the worst, he said. His village organized a protest march to demand that they see those arrested, but the police shot and killed seven of the protesters — including Rashid’s younger brother. Local outrage grew. Facing a growing revolt, officials allowed families to unearth the bodies of the alleged militants.
Families recognized the dead immediately. In a bungled attempt to hide the victims’ identities, soldiers had forced each to don military fatigues but had neglected to remove the victims’ old clothing, still visible under the burned fatigues. Genetic tests eventually confirmed their identities. There were no foreign militants.
An investigation by India’s elite Central Bureau of Investigation charged five soldiers with murder. The Supreme Court has ordered the army to decide by the end of July whether to court-martial those involved or allow a civilian trial.
Rashid said he was not optimistic that the perpetrators would ever be brought to justice. Twelve years have already passed. “We are like worms to them,” he said. “We will be crushed under their shoes and die.”
Rifat Andrabi said much the same thing. She and her husband, Jalil Andrabi, a prominent Kashmiri human rights lawyer, were driving through Srinagar in 1996 when they were stopped at a military roadblock. Instead of simply checking the Andrabis’ identity papers, Maj. Avtar Singh, Rifat Andrabi said, took Jalil Andrabi into custody. Rifat Andrabi, also a lawyer and the mother of three young children, panicked. Unable to drive, she hired a motorized rickshaw to follow. But the rickshaw could not keep up, and she returned home. Jalil Andrabi’s mutilated body was found three weeks later in a burlap bag on the banks of the Jhelum River.
Andrabi and her husband’s brother, Arshad Andrabi, have spent 16 years seeking justice against Singh and others. In the meantime, military and government authorities failed to carry out court orders to arrest Singh. When he was found to be in the United States, they declined to seek his extradition.
On June 9, Singh shot and killed his wife and two of their children in their California home before apparently committing suicide.
Andrabi said that her three children — then 2, 3 and 6 — waited every afternoon for their father to return from work, unable to understand what his death meant. “Every time they heard a honk at the gate or a knock on the door, they would go running and shout, ‘Papa is back!”’ Andrabi said through tears. “We have gone through hell, but we will not stop.”
The Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission released a report in October confirming the existence of 2,156 unmarked graves in 38 cemeteries in just three state districts. The commission recommended that state officials use genetic tests to identify the bodies, and create a commission to investigate and prosecute those responsible. Under Indian law, the state must respond within a month. Nine months have passed, and there has been no state response.
Top army officials have publicly insisted that the military’s immunity from prosecution in Kashmir, enshrined in law, is sacrosanct. And allowing even a few cases to go forward could expose many to danger, they say.
Khan, the gravedigger in Boniyar, described an almost industrial body disposal process. An official usually visited a day or two before the bodies arrived to tell him the precise number of graves needed so that he could start digging. The bodies arrived by truck from far-flung areas, so many were involved, he said.
Parveena Ahangar, chairwoman of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in Jammu and Kashmir, said her group had documented hundreds of cases in which officials spirited away people who have never been seen since. In her small office, she has stacks of pink files with pictures and witness statements. The names, ranks and units of soldiers and police accused of perpetrating the crimes are sprinkled throughout the documents.
Ahangar says she knows the identity of the three officers who took away her 16-year-old son, Javid, on Aug. 18, 1990. She has filed repeated court petitions to have the officers punished, but nothing has happened. Military officials have offered her money to drop her petitions but she has refused such deals just as she has refused to accept that Javid is almost certainly dead, she said.
“I want my son back,” she said, “and I want justice.”

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