HANDWARA, Jammu and Kashmir — When the chatter of gunfire erupted across the village Baba Gund, at a little after 3 pm on February 28, security forces told a group of civilians to take shelter in the home of fruit seller Farooq Ahmed.
As the encounter continued, a few more villagers were directed into the house, and then a few more, until there were 17 people crammed into Ahmed’s small 10 feet by 10 feet room. Afternoon gave way to evening, then evening to night, night to day, and on and on for three long days.
“Our home was surrounded by the forces for four days ,we had no food to eat and the police didn’t bother to rescue us,” Farooq Ahmed said. “They didn’t let us use the toilet. My daughters, who are of marriageable age had to relieve themselves in a bucket provided to us. They took our dignity away.”
Bashir Ahmed Bhat and his elderly neighbour Yosuf Shah were stranded in the village mosque. The only way they could alert their families was when Bhat, a school teacher, sang out the evening call for prayers and his family recognised his voice as it drifted over the village where the gun-battle was underway.
When the battle, between Indian security forces and armed militants, finally drew to a close on Sunday night with the deaths of two militants, five troopers and one civilian, villagers emerged to find their village had been torn apart.
“Thirteen houses were razed to the ground completely along with personal belongings and life savings of 13 families. Seven cattle sheds have been burnt too,” said Wali Mohammad Ganie, the village tax collector. “Many other houses in the villages have been damaged too. It will take years for the villagers to recover.”
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision to return captured Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman has lowered the tension along the Line of Control and reduced the chances of outright war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours for now.
But in Handwara, residents say they are already living in a state of undeclared war.
“We were without food water for days,” Arshad Ahmed, a resident of the village, said. “We were only asked to come out of our home when they wanted to carry the bodies of the slain security force personnel. Our homes are gone. If this isn’t war, what is?”
The village of Baba Gund looked like a war zone of bombed out homes and dead animals when this correspondent arrived on the morning after the encounter ended. Men walked through the wreckage as if stunned by what they saw. A group of women sat sobbing in a circle near a burnt animal shed.
“The animals were some people’s primary source of income,” said Feroz Ahmed a resident. In fact, on Monday, the only officials to arrive at the village were from the animal husbandry department.
Fayaz Shah, a labourer, was among those whose houses were completely destroyed in the gun fight.
Shah said he was away from the village when the encounter began. He rushed back home when he heard of the encounter, but was prevented from visiting his village by the security cordon. When he finally entered the village when the encounter ended, he couldn’t find his home.
When asked by this reporter to point out the ruins, Shah gestured to the debris at his feet and said, “We are standing on it.”
Rising Death Toll
The Handwara battle is the fifth encounter between security forces and militants since February 14, when a lone bomber with the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) killed at least 40 Central Reserve Police Force troopers in a suicide attack. Since then, security forces have killed 12 militants in gun battles, but have lost 12 men of their own. Separately, an Indian Army Major was killed on February 16 while defusing an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in Rajouri.
A senior police official, requesting anonymity, told HuffPost India that the JeM, which has between 55 and 60 militants in the valley as per intelligence estimates, has been marked a priority by Indian counter-insurgency forces. Indian intelligence agencies estimate the valley has a total of about 275 active militants affiliated to various militant groups, of which more than 200 belong to the Hizbul Mujahideen and Laskhar-e-Toiba. The militants killed on Sunday night are believed to be affiliated with the LeT.