The Ruined Streets of Srinagar: A Coming of Age Story

I grew up in the ruined streets of Srinagar. One of my early memories of war is a media clip revealing Tufail Mattoo’s broken skull, with brain matter scattered on a dusty road, outside a sports stadium in old Srinagar. Such pre-recorded files were often downloaded at internet cafes and shared within communities through bluetooth services to raise awareness.

The year Tufail was killed and his corpse filmed, I was 12.

In 2010, he was 17 and was returning home from private classes when Indian armed forces carelessly fired a tear gas shell towards a protesting crowd that hit his head. A video I saw the same year he was killed showed mourners collecting what they could from near his body, including a five-rupee coin that he was holding in his hand for the bus fare.

His death resulted in a fresh chain of civilian uprisings that lasted the whole summer where hundreds were killed at the hands of Indian paramilitary troops. More than a decade has passed, but Tufail’s family still awaits justice in the courts.

On a cold December evening in 2020, I left Kashmir for the national capital to escape the troubled, war-torn yet beautiful valley of Kashmir. I wanted to forget Tufail and other such tens of hundreds of young blood-spattered faces and their wailing families.

But I failed. A day after my departure, Athar Mushtaq’s father was crying in Srinagar’s capital Lal Chowk (Red Square), seeking his 16-year-old dead son’s body from the Indian State who had killed him, along with two others, in a controversial gun battle and buried him in a far away forest area of central Kashmir – over a hundred kilometres from Athar’s home in south Kashmir.

Every news feed on social media was replete with his wail, but to no avail. For protesting, he was booked in an anti-terror case. In despair, Mushtaq Ahmed Wani dug an empty grave at his ancestral graveyard – which still awaits the remains of his son.

Also read: The War That We Were Born Into

At the onset of summer 2021, I returned home to visit Athar Mushtaq’s haven in his dying moments. To avoid surveillance, I stood across the long abandoned building – crammed with bullet holes, and half-demolished by live ammunition. Nothing came to mind except the thought of hundreds of civilian properties turned to rubble by the armed forces on the pretext of neutralising militants in Kashmir.

One such gripping image was of a searing May day in 2020 when over a dozen houses were set aflame in the heart of Srinagar. “All I am left with are my clothes on my body,” a victim shrieked, and fainted. A gun battle had ensued overnight resulting in the continuous missile and bullet attacks of a whole locality. According to IndiaSpend, in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district alone, at least 105 homes were destroyed during gunfights between 2015 and March 2018.

The Indian government’s handling of Kashmir has long been in question. Today, Kashmir is governed through the presence of nearly a million armed troops, by some estimates. Conflict in Kashmir has cost more than 70,000 lives since a separatist insurgency ignited in the 1980s, with more than 8,000 disappearances associated with Indian security forces. There are also the less visible but debilitating costs of psychological trauma and other lifelong disabilities.

Back home, I slipped into my routine of attending college, and sometimes taking a day off to visit my grandparents. A year later, I tremble at the sight of a two-storey commercial complex, plastered and washed in white, that sits at the periphery of a long stretched highway that leads to my grandparents place. It is where 13-year-old Nyfa’s businessman father, Altaf Bhat, was killed in a controversial gun battle.

At her family home, Nyfa recounted to reporters that the troops laughed at her when she asked: “Uncle, why did you kill my father?”

Nyfa’s family was denied Altaf’s dead body until their protest incited people from diverse backgrounds. His body was exhumed two days later and handed over to the family for the last rites.

The featured image is an illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty. To view more such illustrations, click here.