Kashmiri homes become collateral damage in gun battles

Kashmiri homes become collateral damage in gun battles
From Al Jazeera - January 13, 2018

Shopian, Indian-administered Kashmir - As he walks through the ruins of his home, Abdul Ahad Bhat keeps returning to his cow. He sidesteps the rubble of the fallen ceiling, points at the burned out frames of the windows, and feels with his fingers the bullet holes on the walls, but it is the image of his dead cow that seems to symbolise for him the destruction of his home in Batmurran village in southern Indian-administered Kashmir.

"My brother and I carried the burned-out carcasses of our two cows on a tractor and we could see the remains of the calves inside them," he says. "They were both seven months pregnant. Of everything that burned here, that haunts me the most. The calves had burned inside their mother's wombs."

Bhat lost his home and his cow on December 19 in a gunfight between the Indian armed forces and rebel fighters in Batmurran village in Shopian district.

Bhat's four neighbours also lost their homes in the same gunfight and together they joined the fate of uncounted families rendered homeless in the frequent gun battles in the disputed region.

Between talking about his cow, 66-year-old Bhat, a butcher by profession, speaks about the lifetime of hard work through which he had made this new house two years ago. He says he wanted to gift his family a strong house, one that would last.

"But it could not even last a few hours," he says, standing amid the utensils and debris of what used to be their kitchen. "Years of work and savings blown up in two blasts. And now we are homeless, seven people living in a room in a neighbours house."

At least two rebel fighters and a civilian woman were killed in the gun battle while five houses along with two shops, a car and a motorbike were destroyed.

According to the officials in the region, over 210 rebel fighters have been killed in gunfights by the Indian forces in during the past year - the highest since 2010.

The Himalayan region claimed in full by both India and Pakistan erupted in deadly protests after a popular Kashmiri rebel commander Burhan Wani was killed by Indian security forces in 2016.

India has stationed nearly half a million security forces to fight an armed rebellion that erupted in the late 1980s. In recent years, however, the armed resistance has given way to often deadly street protests.

Last year saw a record number of gun battles as Indian forces launched 'Operation All Out' amid a spurt in violence.

People rendered homeless

In most of these gun battles, the Indian armed forces, including the local police and its special counterinsurgency wing, have prior intelligence inputs about the presence of rebel fighters down to the specific house.

When the militants are in hiding in small houses in villages, it becomes easy for us to just blow up the houses and kill the militants inside rather than engage in a drawn out gun-fight

Rajesh Yadav, the spokesperson of CRPF

They lay cordon around the house and empty out the houses around it before the operation begins by generally blowing up the houses they suspect for the presence of rebels.

"When the militants are in hiding in small houses in villages, it becomes easy for us to just blow up the houses and kill the militants inside rather than engage in a drawn out gunfight," the spokesperson of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Rajesh Yadav, told Al Jazeera.

"Why waste time and expose our soldiers to the possibility of casualty during a gunfight when a few IEDs can take care of the whole thing."

While the explosives kill the rebels easily, they render people homeless. There are no specific figures on the total number of houses destroyed by the use of explosives as both police and the civil administration have failed to compile data. The gunbattle in Batmurran on December 19 left at least 34 people homeless.

Mohammad Yaqoob Bhat has still not come to terms with the destruction of his house in the Batmurran village. An employee in the region's Information Department, Yaqoob and his five family members now live nearby with his sister.

"We come here sometimes, I, my wife, my children and we look at our house from a distance. We cry for a while and then we return. What else can we do?" he asked.

The only thing that survived from his home, Yaqoob says, was a kanger - the Kashmiri firepot to keep warm in the winters. He carried it with him this icy December afternoon.

"For 30 years I have been working. Except for the marriage of one of my daughters, I had put everything in this house. A geyser one month, then a power backup system after saving for months, a beautiful cupboard in the kitchen, computer for my children. And it is all gone."

No hope of compensation

No one from the government has come yet, they say, and if it were not for the neighbours, they would be living on the streets.

None of the houses burned down in Batmurran had any insurance, their owners told Al Jazeera. Their efforts to find shelter and reconstruct their houses now depends on the compensation from the state government and the money raised by their neighbours and relatives.

Six members of Ali Mohammad Sheikhs family and his wife's parents, whose house was also burned in the Batmurran gunfight, stay in a two-room shed of a neighbour.

Theft of valuables

They can say whatever they want. Why don\'t they complain to the police then? I have no information about any such incidents


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