Raheema’s old timber house supported by mud and bricks stands desolate under the gray sky of Kunan-poshpora, a small village in North Kashmir’s Kupwara. It overlooks the dusty road with a view of snowcapped mountains all around. Behind its decaying door, a narrow dark corridor leads to a room where heaps of scrap wood and tattered straw mats lay scattered. Hanging by the ceiling are some amulets while spider webs and dangling insects fill all the corners.
Almost eighteen years back, on a chilly night intervening February 23/24, this room was lively. A neighboring woman Sara Begum (35 then), her daughters and Raheema (22 then) with a son in her lap guffawed quietly on a joke till the clock struck 9:30 pm. In a flash, jackboots were kicking the door. Armed with guns and knives, troopers of 4-Rajputana Rifles roared with thunder. Begum hid both of her daughters in the dry grass stacked in attic. ¬The gun nozzles welcomed Raheema’s husband Qadir who opened the door. He was immediately dragged to a nearby bus stand where hundreds of village men were assembled for nocturnal identification parade. And both women, who stayed back, were gang raped in the small room.
Though the actual number of the affected women is not known, the number of women gang raped as calculated by a team led by the then Chief Justice Mufti Baha-ud-Din Farooqi is 53, An Indian civil rights activist Amiya Rao calculated the number to be 42. The operation continued till February 24 morning but no militants or ammunition was recovered.
In the morning, when the village men found most of the women raped, Qadir couldn’t hold back his tears. He mourned for a week hiding his face between his legs. Youngmen like him vowed to take revenge. Leaving their mud hutments for the thickly-wooded area where Pir Panjal and Himalayan mountain ranges collide, almost 35 youngsters crossed over to Pakistani Kashmir to get arms training in next few months. Qadir stayed back for his old father, wife and the newly born baby.
However, he had something different running in his mind.
“Those days he would never utter a word. I thought he will also join militant ranks,” Raheema recalls as her eyes begin soaking.
Instead she was soon hearing her husband talk about abandoning the inherited house forever.
“Every household in the village mourned for months. But we were busy in deciding when to vacate our house. Then one day we collected our family belongings and shifting to a new place,” Raheema recalls.
The family left the quaint but depressing house for ever to live at Begum’s house for some time. The ancestral house of Latief where he would play on its veranda, steal walnuts from a carton, and write on its walls, when he was a kid, was labelled as ‘a structure that brought shame and curse’, ‘bad omen’ and ‘haunted’ by none other than Qadir himself,
“But he also blocked his father’s attempts to sell it,” says Raheema.
Qadir who was possessive about his wife and wooden house both, however, decided to sell a piece of his paddy land to construct a new brick house just adjacent to the ancestral house which he still calls as a “ghost habitat.”
“It’s haunted. It’s a ghost house,” he says. He even curses all youngsters, even the grown up baby Adil who attend scribes or researchers in Kunan-Poshpora villages.
“Don’t bring them here. Go away,” he shouts from the window.
For Adil, however, the house is as good as other houses in the village. He says he enters the house quite often mostly for dumping scrap wood or storing gunny sacks containing cow fodder, but he never feels that the house is haunted.
“For my father,” he says, “the house is like a pandit property. Haunted and cursed. But I never felt a presence there.”
Adil has heard the woeful tale of that February night from his father several times. Adil, now 19, says his father always talk about what he hears every night in the old house: The strange occurrences in and around the house, including mysterious cries, rattling door knobs, the sounds of jackboots banging the door, and inanimate objects falling from the almirah tucked into a wall inside the room where the two women were gang raped.
“But I don’t believe in all these things,” Adil says confidently.
His priorities and troubles, however, lie somewhere else.
“I am rather perturbed by what my classmates say about me,” says he.
Adil like many other children of Kunan-Poshpora face provocative and sarcastic remarks ‘Oh he is from the raped village’ almost daily in the school or college. The children of this raped village say that they always keep a small friend circle. And all friends carry the same baggage of inheritance of being born in a family where women were raped by troops.
“The subject is not taboo in our school. Students discuss it. And it’s people like me who end up being ostracized for the crime which Indian troops committed,” Adil who studies in 12 standard says, adding that he wishes to have been 18 in the year 1991, so that he also could have gone up in the mountains for arms training.
“But then I wouldn’t be alive to talk to you. Because all the 35 youngmen were martyred when they came back,” Adil says.
The raped women of Kunan-poshpora never got justice.
The Press Council of India (PCI) with veteran Indian journalist B.S. Verghese was asked to write a report on the incident. The PCI report, amid local and global controversy, completely denied that any crime occurred at all during the event at Konan-Poshpora calling it a “massive hoax.”
Verghese in his book “First Draft” outlined his assessment of the situation: “Apart from the glaring gaps and contradictions in the evidence, the video recording carefully staged two to three months after the alleged event, had obviously been made for propaganda purposes. Our committee concluded that the reports of human rights excesses investigated by it had been grossly exaggerated or invented,” he said. According to reports, in an interview about his writings he explained the book was a collection of stories he had written “at that time,” sharing that the report was “a worm’s eye-view of history as an individual saw it.”
Lambasting the PCI report, Teresa Joseph of South Asia Forum for Human Rights described the PCI conclusion as “another instance of the Indian press’ selective reporting on Kashmir” in a detailed analysis of India’s media coverage of atrocities.
Whatever the experts' conclusion, every year, the month of February and the snowfall keeps villagers of Kunan and Poshpora reminding over what had happened to them and what it had led the younger generation for.
In the meantime, Adil erects a wooden ladder against a wall of the ‘haunted’ house, whose plinth is nearly swallowed by weeds and dry leaves, to get a bundle of dry grass for cows while a squad of five - six children assembles around me waiting to get photographed.
(Some names have been changed to protect identity)
Baba Umar in Kunan-Poshpora, Kupwara