My confusion about the explosions I heard being Eid crackers or gunshots was short-lived. Slogans followed the shots, which are a rarity in the uptown area of Srinagar where I live.
I rushed downstairs to hear my father announce that Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander, had been killed in an encounter.
My mother looked at me in a way that suggested that she wanted to hear it was not true. I didn't know yet.
I quickly checked my phone and saw missed calls from my friends and fellow journalists.
Sheikh Saaliq who works with the Hindustan Times had called. "Kyah chu karun?" (what do we do?).
Between shock and professional responsibility as journalists, it was difficult to decide what to do exactly.
Burhan's killing might mean a thousand different things for Kashmir. The gunshots and tear gas shells outside my house had become more frequent at this point.
Another fellow journalist and friend Haziq Qadri from Barcroft Media got in touch. He was stuck about three kilometres from my house. "They're firing live bullets here, I'm on the road and there is no possibility of reaching your place," he told me.
Haziq and Saaliq had both come from Delhi a few days earlier to celebrate Eid.
We debated whether to leave right away for Tral, the hometown of Wani, about two hours away from Srinagar, or whether to wait for some news from the people in Tral first.
"Out of coverage area," said the recorded voice as I desperately called everyone I knew in Tral. Phone lines had been snapped in Tral it seemed. I checked if my camera batteries were fully charged, just as we lost electricity.
I wanted to leave before mobile phone services would be snapped in Srinagar too. That is usually the first government response to anything in Kashmir. Press cards give a false sense of security at such times. I am a freelance journalist; I don't have one.
We spent the night waiting for any confirmation on Wani's death that would give us the excuse we needed to leave. We got none.
The news desks of various news organisations in Press Avenue told me that it was not advisable to leave without a press card. I charged and recharged the batteries, cleaned my lenses thrice, checked if my pen worked and then did all of it again.
It was raining pretty hard now, accompanied by thunder and lightning. So we waited impatiently till morning.
I did not get to the main road and met Haziq in one of the bylanes instead. It is much safer.
|Grown-ups sat down and cried besides the grave, while children looked expressionless at their parents' faces. (Photo: Reuters)|
The three of us got on his scooty and left. The roads were deserted, no soul in sight. The way to Tral would mean that we would have to take the bypass road till the main highway from where we could reach Tral."Saaliq couldn't make it, he is near the dargah right now, the situation is very bad there," he told me. Haziq was with another journalist Inzamam Qadri.
Our first dose of reality came at the very first chowk on the bypass.
Infamous white armoured jeeps called the "Rakshak" were firing tear gas shells into the colony on the left. Young boys were daring the forces to come towards them where they would either attack or disappear into the bylanes. We took the service lane on the right and sped past the confrontation with our eyes burning with pepper gas in the air. The funeral would be taking place at two; we did not want to miss the event.
We went a few kilometres ahead and saw that the road was blocked at the first bridge. We knew a few tactics of dealing with such situations. We stopped the vehicle a few metres before the blockade. I got down and spoke to the protesters who had placed huge logs, trees, and big boulders on the road.
Just as I had started talking to them, one of the protesters got aggressive.
"It was our brother who was killed, was he not your brother, why are you out, is this a picnic for you?" he shouted as some of the others tried to hold him back.
After a few minutes of convincing the more sensible ones among them, and the fact that we were going to Tral, they agreed to let us pass, amidst slogans of "Tum kitne Burhan maroge har ghar se Burhan niklega" (How many Burhans will you kill, a Burhan will emerge from every home).
Inzamam and I signalled Haziq to come but as soon as he got near, the aggressive protester snapped and started getting violent again. Haziq received a punch to his shoulder and we decided to turn back from that point.
We couldn't go back just as yet; we decided to try another route.
It was the same story.
It was the CRPF this time. We took another route, in the opposite direction from where a road that joins the highway leads. But we failed again.
We started driving towards Pampore, a town which connects to the highway much further away from Srinagar, via a road that traces the west bank of the Jhelum river.
The highway runs on the eastern side but there was no way we could reach the highway in this situation. Passing through colonies and blockades by people everywhere, we finally stopped to analyse our route at a spot where ten-year-old boys had staged a protest.
We were away from Srinagar now, but not in the right direction. One of the boys, Yaseen, said that Pampore could be reached via the road ahead, but there were huge clashes there. "Quran ki kasam (I swear on the Quran)," he added. I believed him.
Asking for directions from whoever we came across, we reached a spot where a bridge crossed the Jhelum river over to the eastern side and connected with the highway.
It was a bad idea. There was a pitched battle going on with protesters on one side of the bridge, and armed forces on the other. We moved ahead, near a foot bridge. We would either have to leave the vehicle behind and cross, or keep going in the same direction hoping something would play in our favour.
We drove along the bund of the river to a point where de-silting may have been going on. There were a few boats but no person in sight. None of us knew how to manoeuvre such huge boats over flowing water. It was impossible to reach Tral. As minutes passed by, we were feeling frustrated. There seemed to be no end to our ordeal.
The phones were still working, which meant we were not even 15 km away from Srinagar at that point. Every desperate attempt we were making was failing and we seemed to be going nowhere. We wouldn't reach Tral like this and we couldn't go back through all those blockades now.
Inzamam's phone rang; someone said that Saaliq had been shot in Srinagar while making his way towards us.
Things remained unclear for the next few minutes until the phone rang again.
It was Saaliq this time. He said we should not be worried and that he was alright. It was some other Saaliq who had been injured. Not my friend, no. Someone else injured, maybe killed.
Journalism seemed like the worst career by now. We kept moving, the phones stopped working and we were into unknown territory. A group of men gathered outside a mosque said they were offering funeral prayers for Wani, in absentia, since they could not go to Tral.
"A hero was martyred," they told us. One of the men suggested that we go towards the town of Pulwama, and before reaching the town we could take a road to Tral, the one that passes through Awantipora and crossed both the highway and the river at very safe spots. This seemed like a good idea, until we saw another blockade. It looked like the army, one couldn't really tell.
As soon as we got near, four masked men in army fatigues ordered us down. We complied.
"Hum patrakaar hain (We are journalists)," Haziq said. This was a good idea, using Hindi words, my gut told me.
"Sir, Dilli se hain, hum wahan naukri karte hain, patrakaar hain (Sir, we are from Delhi, we work there. We are journalists)."
"Haath upar kar (hands up)," the security personnel ordered, "Patrakar hai sala? Haath upar rakh (Journalists, are you? Keep your hands up)".
Inzamam and I both shut our mouths and raised our hands above our heads. The feeling of vulnerability of your exposed body, and your own flesh against a metal bullet; that piercing feeling, with a man in front of you holding a gun at you, the sound of a bullet loading into place, just behind a spring waiting to be touched, and the idea of you dying in a ditch where no one weeps over your body was a feeling I felt in slow motion.
Haziq had pulled out his press card, maybe "get out of jail card" here, or rather a "please don't shoot me" card.
One of the four persons lowered his mask, "Haan baaki bhi dikhao (Yes, the rest of you show your identity cards too)," he demanded.
Inzamam pulled out his card too, with one hand in the air; it reminded me of punishment at school, only that this was no teacher.
I pulled out my drivers' licence. He looked at us and matched the photos only.
"Aur kya hai bag me? Sab talashi karo inki (What else is there in the bag. Frisk all of them)." They frisked us top down. "Sir hum ja sakte hain? (Sir, can we leave?)" I asked.
"Chalo chalo bhagho yahan se (Go, get lost from here)," he replied and let us go. "Pathar nai marenge toh goli nai khayenge (If they don't throw stones, they won't get shot)," I heard him say to his associates as we left.
It was almost 2 pm now. Wani's burial was supposed to be at 2 pm and we were still far away from Tral.
At 2 pm we crossed the highway and the Jhelum finally, as if into a new world.
The journey forward from this point took a new turn. There were no blockades, there were no check posts. There were no empty roads anymore but buses carrying people on the roofs. There were rallies upon rallies of motorbikes, with men and boys shouting "Phir kyun na doge azadi", trucks upon trucks of women shouting, "Sharmana chodo, azadi."
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A wave of colourful scarves, flags and people. The world seemed free here and the chants for azadi grew louder and louder as we moved forward, towards the Eidgah, Wani's burial spot in Tral. The other side of the highway felt like a different world, two very different societies, one controlled by the army and the government and one by the people, and the differences were stark.
People were sitting on chairs alongside the roads, distributing water, and food to those moving towards Tral. There were managers of traffic, who had put up signs and were guiding people towards burial ground. Not from the main roads, but from lanes, bylanes, fields, orchids, streams and through houses.
There were people with their trousers rolled up, walking through paddy fields, with babies in their arms. There were women singing songs that are sung in Kashmir when the groom arrives.
Rows upon rows of people marched towards the Eidgah. There was equal participation of men and women. Those coming back were guiding those who were going. "There have been 20 janazas (funeral prayers) till now and groups are still coming, go fast and pay your regards," a man who was distributing yellow coloured rice called tehar told us.
We reached the spot long after the burial.
People by this time were covering the grave with handfuls of soil as a ritual. We have missed witnessing a historical event as it happened, but we were witnessing a phenomenon as it played out.
|Burhan wanis grave being covered with handfuls of soil by people as a ritual. (Photo: Qazi Zaid)|
We went to the people and talked to them, got quotes for the stories we had in mind, clicked pictures but the whole atmosphere that we witnessed cannot be described in a news story.
No reports talking about these many died, and those many got injured, and police said this, and the chief minister said that can convey to the world the reality of the situation.
No headlines saying "Millions visited despite restrictions" can tell the reader how the people got there, and how grown-ups sat down and cried besides the grave, while children looked expressionless at their parents' faces.
A bearded preacher reciting prayers alongside the grave of Wani asked for his martyrdom to be accepted in the court of Allah, to which the people replied with "Ameen".
Some broke down and sat on the ground, other tried to console them. I asked one of the young men decorating the grave with a few branches, crying silently, if he was alright.
He said that he had lost his cousin three years back to the bullets of the CRPF.
He said that his cousin's body was also brought home like that of Wani. He had been there since the morning when Wani's body was handed over. An older man, sitting on the fence of the Eidgah, said that the skies cry when innocent blood is spilled, and that was why Wani also cried, that was why he picked up the gun.
Youngsters outside the walls of the Eidgah compound told us that they had never seen anything of this scale and magnitude. Some of them added that Wani was their hero and they would not let his sacrifice go in vain.
Another young boy that we talked to took us to his house. We were low on fuel and there were no petrol pump nearby. So he gave us some petrol in a bottle from one of the shops. He wanted us to stay in Tral for the night as going back would be very dangerous.
I asked him what he thought about the whole scenario. He didn't reply right away. After a few minutes, he looked at me and said when zulm (injustice) exceeded all limits, someone arose to fight it. I was wondering if he wanted to be politically correct in what he told me, before he added that Wani was him, and he was Wani and everyone in Kashmir was the same Wani that could be.
We had to get back. No reports for the day would be filed after 9pm. The journey back to Srinagar was just as frustrating the journey to Tral. When our mobile connection was finally restored, we learned that eight people had been killed in the last few hours.
The hospitals were being surveyed and profiling of those who brought in the injured was going on. The situation had spiralled out of control in the cycle of killings and protests.
On our way back, we took a wrong turn and ended up on the highway near Pampore. A group of around 50 men of the army, CRPF and SOG (Special Operations Group) had blocked the road. It felt like we drove straight into a death trap. There were some boys being ruthlessly beaten up in an alley.
Our cameras were seized. "Burhan ko dekhne gaye the? Dikhao kya liya hai (You went to see Burhan. Show us, what you have brought)," said a security person.
Our phones were also checked. Haziq had asked me to remove my memory card, which had the pictures. Our hands were checked for marks of stones. Inzamam was being taken into the alley, maybe his hands were dirty, and the punishment in school came to mind again. It felt like the hangman was taking a convict to a dark place - the gallows.
The job of the men in the alley was to start beating up whoever was brought in, as the officer announced that we be let go.
It felt like snatching a friend back from the clutches of death. One of the CRPF men threw stones at us as we left. Negotiating and pleading our way back, we saw groups of security personnel at various spots, which were being challenged by the youth.
|People distributing taheri (yellow rice). (Photo: Qazi Zaid)|
By the time we got back, it was too late for any report to be filed. I filed one anyway but it was too late for it to be carried.At every spot we played the card we thought we had to, being a journalist can get you those skills, but in this part of the world, it might just work enough to let you pass, just, or sometimes not.
I could still hear tear gas shells being fired somewhere as I write this.
Maybe someone would get shot, like the cousin of the boy I met in Tral. I just hope it's not Saaliq, not my friend, someone else maybe.
Then I remembered what another person in Tral told me: we might just be the same in Kashmir, maybe someone else this time, maybe me some other time.