Garrison, My Home

Life changes its details once the home relocates. It sounds completely different when new situation surrounds the home. Shams Irfan meets a group of residents in Tral who have been living deep inside a security garrison for last more than two decades sharing the space, the walkway and the fear with the soldiers surrounding them

One of the two gates housing CRPF Camp that Adil has to cross to reach home in the Civil Lines areas in Tral.
One of the two gates housing CRPF Camp that Adil has to cross to reach home in the Civil Lines areas in Tral.

At 8:30 am, Adil, 32, stops his motorcycle outside a worn out blue gate, housing CRPF camp, in restive Tral’s civil lines. Then, without looking towards the piercing eyes of sentries manning the bunker, Adil removes barricades laid in front of the gate, one after another. He first picks up a rusted electric pole, then a mesh of barbed wires, and finally pushes the gate open, gently.

Adil is one among thirty odd souls living on the other side of the blue gate – a barrier dividing them from CRPF 185 Bn. Once inside the camp, he takes a brief pause and whispers to himself: just three more barriers and you are through. Flashing a forceful smile on his face all the while, and without making any swift body moves, Adil starts removing another set of barricades. This time an electric pole enmeshed with barbed wires, which when touched flings open in air like a traditional barrier.

The next barrier Adil hates the most. It is a heavy iron barricade; the front part of which is welded with pointed nails, if touched can pierce one like a bullet. Adil carefully pushes it aside to make way for his motorcycle. Once past, he looks helplessly towards another blue gate – this one some hundred feet away.

“It is like playing game of death every morning,” says Adil, a post graduate who earns his living by running a shop in the main market. Once past gate No 2, Adil finally starts his bike and zooms off towards his shop. For a while he shelves the idea of journey back home in the evening.

But not everybody living behind the blue gate is as fortunate, when it comes to be selective with memories.

Blue Gate number 2 that the residents of civil lines has to cross to reach their homes.
Blue Gate number 2 that the residents of civil lines has to cross to reach their homes.

A six-foot high tin-sheet fence divides retired head master Ghulam Hassan Mir, 65, and the camp. After days of rainfall and strikes, Mir is strolling in his garden, enjoying the sun.

The pair of eyes inside the bunker, located adjacent to the blue gate, follows his every move. “I am used to it,” says Mir while looking towards the bunker though his photo-chromic glasses.

Mir vividly recall the day when he visited their apple and walnut orchard with his father in early 1985. Living in a joint family in Astan Mohallah, they were inspecting the orchard to construct a house for Mir, his wife and their three year old daughter.

Pointing towards a single storey police post, some hundred yards from their land, Mir’s father told him: yim thwaney khayal ti (they will take care of you as well).

Perhaps the old man failed to foresee the coming events. Next to the police station, adjacent to Mir’s walnut plantation, there were five small huts. Besides a government rest house, these huts housed R&B and PHE department offices.

Six months later, Mir became the first one to migrate from congested Astan Mohallah and live in newly christened civil lines. Months later three more families followed Mir to the ‘civil lines’. With a fresh water stream flowing fifty feet from Mir’s house, it was a dream location.

Dreams proved short-lived. Five years later, in 1989, when the first gunshot was audible from the woods, Mir felt restless. Within days truckloads of soldiers began arriving in Mir’s neighbourhood. First they occupied the police post, then five government huts, then the vast open land around it, and finally they cut down Mir’s walnut orchard and erected tents. The next morning Mir woke up and found concertina wires blocking his front door. “When I asked why, the Brigadier told me they want our house too,” says Mir.

Mrs Mir resisted forcing Brigadier to change his plan. But grudges remained. “Whenever there was an attack in any part of Tral they used to fire at our house directly,” Mrs Mir’s said. “Perhaps that was their way of telling us to get out.”

Ghulam Hassan Sheikh in front of his orchard inside the Blue gate.
Ghulam Hassan Sheikh in front of his orchard inside the Blue gate.

The years that followed saw free pathway leading to Mir’s house get converted into a garrison, housing army and BSF alternatively. “They put two gates hundred yards from each other blocking our only way out,” says Mir. But he did not protest. He knew protest meant closing the passage through the gates forever.

With time, living next to army camp, and relying on army men’s mood for movement became part of Mir and his neighbour’s lives. They had finally surrendered to their fate. But even fate favours the powerful in a place like Kashmir.

Soldiers even attempted ‘other means’ to coerce Mirs’ out. “One day, they started constructing a bathroom outside the gate, in the middle of the road leading to my home,” says Mir. “Once completed, we had to go around it to enter and exit the blue gate. I tried to reason with the captain but he didn’t listen.”  Given the numbers in the garrison, soldiers would routinely be lined up outside the bathroom, whole day.

“It was embarrassing,” said Mir. “It took me months to get SSP and DC for an on spot inspection of our miserable lives. They were shocked to see how we lived. They finally ordered for the removal of the bathroom,” recalls Mir.

In 1993, recalls Mir, a single gunshot in the distance broke the night’s silence. What happened next sends shivers down Mir’s soul. “They started raining bullets literally at our house,” says Mir.

The next morning BSF officer came to their house and after finding Mir, his wife and their two daughters, huddled to each other amid ruins of glass, copperware, bone-china, and broken dreams, said coldly: hum to tumhari lashey uthane aye the. Tum to salo zinda ho (We have come to collect your dead bodies. But you are bloody alive). “Then they beat me up in front of my family,” says Mir.

Ghulam Hassan Zaboo in his courtyard with CRPF camp in the background.
Ghulam Hassan Zaboo in his courtyard with CRPF camp in the background.

Next day, Mir, broken both emotionally and literally, finally packed his bags and left his dream house. He returned, 16 years later. “I lived in rented accommodations all these years. My family’s safety was my first concern. Besides my girls were now in their teens,” says Mir. He remembers his nightmares about the happenings in the huts that were giving the ‘civil lines’ a fascinating look. BSF and Army had converted them into interrogation centres.

With Mir’s gone for good, Adil’s family, living next door, became the new punching bag.

“Every single bullet fired in any part of Tral had consequences for us,” says Adil whose father and uncle decided to stay put after Mir’s deserted ‘civil lines’. But soon Adil’s father realised there is no shame in conceding defeat when the going gets life threatening. “A few months later we too fled,” says Adil. Unlike Mir’s, Adil’s family came back after a few years stay at their ancestral house. “When we came back everything was looted,” says Adil.

One night, Adil recalls, loud knocking at the gate, frightened everybody inside the house. With fear of death visible on their faces, Adil’s father and uncle opened the door to find soldiers there. “We are leaving tomorrow,” they told Adil’s dad. “We have two quintal rice that we don’t need anymore. Buy it,” they told him while dropping two huge sacks of rice at his feet. “We obliged, thanking our luck that it was just rice.”

Later, in 2002, once again, Adil and his uncles along with whatever valuable they could collect would run for their lives out of the dreaded blue gate. “We heard some gun shots at 4 am,” recalls Adil. “Within minutes there was intense exchange of fire from all directions.”

Like a fire safety drill, everybody in Adil’s house, including his 75-year-old grandmother, knew what to do in such situations: get under a bed, stay clear off the windows, do not make any swift moves, and pray to Allah.

“We knew they (paramilitary) will fire at us any movement. And they did,” recalls Adil. “They literally rained bullet at our house. May be they wanted to scare us away.”

After two hours firing finally stopped. At 9:30 am, a huge bang on the door forced Adil and his family crawl out of their hiding. “It was BSF. They rounded up all of us and took us to the camp,” recalls Adil, a teenager then.

For next seven hours Adil’s family, their neighbours, and a few other residents from ‘civil lines’ were kept captive inside the camp. “They did not beat us though, but the humiliation itself was heart breaking,” recalls Adil.

By next morning Adil and his family packed their bags and left, only to return five years later. “We were back to our ancestral house in Astan Mohallah.”

But not everybody had option to run away, some had to stay and face the music. Ghulam Nabi Zaboo’s was one family. Located on the Shikargah road, Zaboo’s house is separated from the camp by a six-foot high wall made of tin sheets.

“In 2012, I had to change entire roof of my house because of bullet holes. It used to leak during rainfall,” says Zaboo, 65, a retired head master who now deals in walnut, apples and almonds. “Only those who live next to a garrison can understand our pain.”

The pain is visible in his eyes, on his face, in his posture, every time his wife Sayeeda visits their kitchen garden to milk the cow. The brick-and-mud cowshed located at the corner of their kitchen garden is visible 24×7 from the high-rise bunker. “I cannot go out to feed my cow after it is dark,” Sayeeda said. “Though nothing has happened so far, nobody has said anything ever, but (still) I fear.”

There is a reason for Sayeeda’s fears. She has seen worse. In early 1990s, says Zaboo, when attacks on army were frequent, the first targets used to be houses next to the camp. “Normally, soldiers used to buy dry fruits from me, they knew me very well. But whenever anything happened they would forget everything and beat me like everybody else,” says Zaboo.

One such beating left lasting scars on both Zaboo and his wife’s memories, took place in early 1997.

That day, soldiers posted at the outer bunker ordered Zaboo’s aged father, to get back inside quickly. Without question, Zaboo’s father obliged his command. “Within no time there were gunshots outside our house,” says Zaboo.

Two militants, one of them later claimed to be a suicide bomber, were shot by the same soldier who ordered Zaboo’s father to get inside. While the “suicide bomber” succumbed outside Zaboo’s front gate, the other one managed to flee with a bullet in his shoulder. Enraged, soldiers went house to house searching for the other militant. And during the search, Zaboo recalls, whatever came into their way: be it men, women, boys, glass window, wooden doors, utensils, crockery items, they kicked everything. “That day I got thrashed like never before,” says Zaboo.

Zaboo’s neighbour, Ghulam Ahmad Shah, 62, who lives right in front of the bunker, considers himself the luckiest one. “Thank Allah, I was never touched by these people, not even once,” say Shah, a retired agriculture officer.

However, Shah too recalls peak 1990s with sadness and fear in his eyes. “I might have spent hundreds of sleepless nights hearing cries of people interrogated inside the camp,” says Shah. “Some of the cries still echo in my ears.”

Home Coming

After spending 16 years in self-exile Mir, his wife and their two daughters finally came back home in 2007. By then, garrison had changed. It was now manned by 185 battalion of CRPF. “They are entirely different from BSF and army. They never said anything,” says Mir.

Despite the calm, Mir and others still harbour a secret wish for a free access to their homes. In 2013, when Mir’s elder daughter got married, the groom, a local from Tral, silently walked through camp gates on foot along with just eight Baraatis. “I sought proper permission from Commanding Officer for groom’s entry,” says Mir.

Without any Wanwun (traditional songs sung at marriages) the groom was received on the other side of the blue gate by a handful of Mir’s close relatives. It took Mir Rs 3 lakh, and 90 sheets of tin (for roof) to make his house presentable for his daughters marriage. “Everything was looted in my absence,” says Mir. “Rocks from my boundary walls were now part of concrete bunkers overlooking my house.”

Still, Mir is thankful, rather hopeful that the present calm will last forever. “They are no longer bad neighbours,” quips Mir.

But Mir and Adil, despite the camaraderie with CRPF, still crave for a passage, that doesn’t pass through the garrison, or barbed wires, or past rusted poles, but under the shade of walnut trees, without a blue gate, as it used to be – a free walkway.

Hope and Helplessness

A six feet high tin sheet wall separates Zaboo’s house from the CRPF Camp. Red building in the background houses CRPF.
A six feet high tin sheet wall separates Zaboo’s house from the CRPF Camp. Red building in the background houses CRPF.

Ghulam Hassan Sheikh, 61, who retired as storekeeper in food and supplies department, is pacing up and down the narrow street outside Mir’s house. He is waiting for the truckload of construction material to arrive through the blue gate. He is constructing a house.

Sheikh, who lives near sub-district hospital Tral with his son, two daughters and wife, in two small rooms, is planning to move out. “I know it (civil lines) is bad choice, but I don’t have an option,” says Sheikh.

Sheikh has inherited seven kanals of land from his father: one plot of 3 kanals is located inside the blue gate, some hundred yards from Mir’s house – where he is planning to construct a house for his family – and another (4 kanals) adjacent to the camp. “My choice is between the devil and the deep sea kind,” says Sheikh with a faint smile.

The one inside the blue gate once produced quality apples, but years of neglect and theft during harvest, forced Shiekh to axe his prized orchard. “What is the use of raising an orchard when you cannot enjoy its fruit,” ask Sheikh. He eventually lived the famous couplet of Allama Iqbal: Jis Khaet Say Dehqan Kou Muyasar No Hou RoziUs Khaet Kay Har Goushayay Gundum Kou Jaladou! (Scorch every cluster of wheat in the field that denies livelihood to the tilling ones.)

During early 90s, after Mir and Adil’s family abandoned their houses, Sheikh too stopped visiting his orchard altogether. “That time saving our lives was primary concern. Risking my life for apples would have been insane,” argues Sheikh. “Passing though these gates then (90s) was like crossing a minefield,” says Sheikh with a look that sums his fears.

Before bringing first truckload of construction material through the blue gate Sheikh desperately tried to find a buyer for his plots, but failed. “Nobody wants to buy land next to a garrison,” says Sheikh.

A one kanal plot in other parts of civil lines fetches between Rs 30 and 40 lakh, but the ones insides or near the garrison have no takers even at Rs 5 lakh. “I was offered Rs 15 lakh for 3 kanals. That won’t even help buy land half-a-kanal elsewhere,” says Sheikh.

As we talk, Sheikh is continuously looking towards the blue gate in desperation and hope. “I am waiting for truckload of boulders for the plinth,” says Sheikh hoping it arrives before it gets dark.

Sheikh’s decision to construct a house in civil lines was partly driven by post-2007 clam. But he knows, once inside the blue gates, he has no way out! “I fear the unseen eyes,” says Sheikh pointing towards the watch-post with his eyes.