Srinagar: Nearly five years ago, in the congested Kalashpora locality, here, in the Old City, Riyaz Ahmad Bhat, then in his teens left his house in a rush. His neighbours, who were clandestinely watching a quarrel between Bhat family and their son-in-law, saw him leave while the altercation was ensuing. The minute arm of the clock had not turned half when policemen entered the household. They were looking for Riyaz.“On the morning of April 25, 2007, Riyaz left home after we had a scuffle with our brother-in-law,” says his elder brother Javed Ahmad Bhat. He says only moments later police "barged into their house" looking for Riyaz.
The police, unable to trace him, rounded up family members and friends. “I along with my father, uncle and my father’s friend were locked up in the police station,” he says.
While the other men were released after few days, Javaid says he was kept in custody for a week. “They kept asking about my younger brother and I kept assuring them that he was innocent,” he recalls.
On one of the days, while in detention, Javiad claims, he overheard a top policeman saying, “ji sir Riyaz ko hit kardiya Nowgam mein, (Yes Sir, have killed Riyaz in Nowgam).” But he turned a deaf ear thinking this was ‘done only to frighten him’.
The police kept on looking out for Riyaz, who was a student at MP Higher Secondary School and worked as a part-time mechanic, even after Javaid’s release. But, he was nowhere to be found.
The family, already struggling to trace the boy, amid the police intervention, had more to worry than his disappearance. Riyaz’s father, a cancer patient, was hospitalised on the same day he went missing.
On one of those tumultuous days that the Bhat household was going through, Javaid received an anonymous phone call. The caller told him Riyaz was among the four persons killed in a gun-battle in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district.
Busy at hospital, being the lone son, Javaid rushed home. The gun-battle that had taken place five days after Riyaz had gone missing was reported in the press and he leafed across almost all the vernaculars to look for clues. "The reports said that four foreign militants were killed and I was left groping in the dark. I thought probably there was no truth in the call," he says.
But, next day, the anonymous caller rang again. “He repeated what he had said earlier,” Javiad remarks.
He then sought help from local police, who refuted the information given to him over phone. “When I went to the police station they said it was a lie,” he says emphatically.
For the next seven months his search proved futile. His focus changed owing to father’s failing health and he almost forgot the anonymous caller. “Being the only son I had to take care of his family and ailing father as well. I got engaged in the family matters,” he states.
However, soon after his father was discharged, Javiad started to search for his younger brother again. “In the month of November, I visited Kupwara and asked locals about the people killed in the gun-battle in April,” he recalls.
His fears came true when locals informed him that the bodies of two dead people were already exhumed by their families hailing from South Kashmir. “I went to police station and asked them about the gun battle,” narrates Javaid.
When he asked about the exhumation of the other two bodies and of the pictures of the victims, police asked him to get a written permission from the Deputy Commissioner, which he did. The anonymous caller was right; Riyaz was among the four persons killed.
“I immediately reached home and broke the news to my family. Next day I along with some relatives left for the Kupwara to get his body,” says Javaid.
The family decided to exhume the body. But, locals told them that the four bodies which were buried were not in a good condition. Beside, Riyaz shared a grave with another person. His body was not exhumed. “We placed a tombstone with his name engraved on it so that he will not be lost in the land where dead are known by the number,” Javiad says, with a sigh.
(The article is a part of series on unmarked graves in Jammu and Kashmir on www.kashmirdispatch.com)