Rendezvous with the Rebels

Junaid Rather

Ours was one of the tallest houses in the neighbourhood. One could hawk over the area from its roof and scan every soul but not the sniper atop a huge bunker. The man-in-uniform used his eyes like a falcon looking for a prey. A few yards from our ten-room mud house flows a stream ‘Chach koul’ where I learnt swimming as a kid. The stream meanders through paddy fields, a government school and a playground called Harnambal where I began imitating Shahid Afridi, a Pakistan cricket team opener whom every youngman iconized in Kashmir.

As a kid I was a rebel and my father a disciplinarian. He seldom let me play. I remember my father returning from office holding a bunch of newspapers in one hand and a four-liner note-book in the other. He made me read the news of which I understood little. That certainly was absurd.

In Kashmir everything has a meaning. Green here symbolises Pakistan, dawn reminds crackdown and dusk signifies night raids. Over the last two decades Kashmir has been in the midst of an armed conflict with more than 70,000 people reported to have died. It all began in late 1980s when the youth crossed over to Pakistan for arms training. India reacted to the militant movement with extreme repression burning down neighbourhoods and markets, arresting and killing people on mere suspicion.

The bunker in the vicinity almost always meant unnecessary trouble. Each time a guest would leave our home, my homemaker mother would warn them to avoid any contact with the men stationed inside the sandbag bunker.

Kashmir is goldmine of stories. Everyone has a story- dead, alive, disappeared, separated, lost. I too have a story- my first meeting with militants. It was a time when I was unable to understand the reason of being a militant and the conviction it requires to be a militant. But like the other kids in the neighbourhood I too was aware of the heroic stories of these militants and as a child it was a dream to meet a militant.

Somewhere in the month of August in 1997, Natipora, the area we live in, was as usual out of electricity. It was a phase when militancy was fading and India’s counter-insurgency was more active. On that night, a candle was placed in the kitchen. Dinner was being served. It was pitch dark outside. As soon as we went to our rooms to sleep the electricity was restored. There was a knock on the main door of our house. A knock those days would instil fear and mean danger. It could have been be a sign from militants for shelter or a call of night search from India security forces. There was some consultation between the elders before my father opened the door; his hands almost shivering. As soon he opened the door the electric lamp was removed from the veranda and hardly anything was visible. My father managed to open the door and the man in front of him spoke a language which we didn’t understand. I couldn’t figure it out then but with time I realized that he was speaking Pashto. We soon realized he wasn’t alone and two other people were accompanying him— two foreign militants and a soyet, a local militant sympathiser who used to carry their weapons and guide them about the geography of the place. They were the pseudo militants of time.

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One of the two foreigners, wearing an Afghan cap, covering his long hair, was a tough looking young man with a guttural voice. Two AK 47 assault rifles were hanging from his shoulders covered by a Kifayah (a Palestinian scarf). His white teeth, sneaking out his long black beard, were some of the few clearly detectable things in dark. The other man was so lean and short that he could hardly be noticed.

Ensuring not to disappoint the guests (militants), my father welcomed them. Providing a militant space in home was not easy. It could mean that security agencies would be alerted and cordon your home and reduce it to debris within no time. The only anxiety we had then was what if someone may have seen them entering our house. What if the local guide was an Indian spy? What if Army comes in? These questions had evoke fear in us. On the other hand, I was excited to see a militant. My father served them food while I was watching them in awe. I couldn’t keep my eyes gaze off their rifles and big knife. After the dinner was over, they asked me if wanted to touch the rifle. Like any inquisitive child, I kept my head down but they could feel my excitement and permitted me to touch the weapons. I was feeling on the top of the world.

They asked my father to let me sleep with them. The tall man was from Afghanistan and that lean guerrilla was a Pakistani. I saw them writing verses of Quran on their small dairies with green inked pen. And then I fell asleep.

Next morning they had to perform ablution for prayers and the issue was that the washroom those days was outside house and this was the time when they could be noticed by the neighbours. My mother offered a Burqa (veil) to the Pakistani militant but he refused by saying that a man who would adopt the women attire is sinful. My mother didn’t have anything to say. All she insisted that put the towel on your head and they agreed to it.

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Next afternoon, we had started conversing freely with the foreigners. My father asked the Pakistani guerilla how his mother reacted to his decision of becoming a militant. The youth replied “she was very proud”. He explained the process how Pakistan families send their children to different places like Afghanistan, Kashmir and other parts for the ‘holy war’.

“The day I left my home, my mother put the green turban on my head and promised of putting another if we meet again in the world or else she promised of meeting in heaven,” the youth said. My father had nothing to say. After the discussion, the lunch was served. I was still reeling under the excitement of meeting a militant. Those talks would hardly impress or influence me then but those rifles, hand grenades and the sharp edged knife is what seized my thought. By evening, I had the luxury of touching all their weapons. The butts of one of the riffles had an Arabic verse inscribed on it.

Later one of the militant who saw a football in our garden was so excited that he wanted to kick it. He explained to my father how they used to play in Pakistan. He went down and kicked the ball against the wall twice and came back. He was really excited. As the light was getting dim, one of the militants offered me a 2 rupee coin and asked me to buy candy and to check if the army was on the street.

I came back with those white coconut-flavored candies and informed him that there was no one on the road. Then they left and made my family to pledge to offer Nimaz regularly.

The attachment was not over. A few months later there was a gun-battle in the vicinity. The gun fight was so intense that it lasted for 48 hours. Two locals and the Afghan militant who had stayed at our house were also trapped, injured and later succumbed.

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