Every year on 26 January, an unforgettable incident that happened in the year 1998 revisits the memories of locals at Wandhama, a village in central Kashmir's Ganderbal district.
Though two decades have passed since that ill-fated day, the memories of the brutal incident in which 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed mercilessly by unidentified gunmen in the village, seem still to be fresh in the mind of the locals.
The 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998. They had not left Kashmir even as majority of this community had migrated to Jammu in the wake of militancy in Kashmir.
According to the locals, they were inside the local Masjid offering special prayers on that night as it was Shab-I-Qadr, when they heard some gun shots and cries.
"First we thought that army men may be patrolling in the area ahead of the R-day, which was falling on the next day," locals said.
They said it was about midnight when "we were offering prayers and someone from outside came and said the Pandit houses including the temple are up in flames."
"We rushed out of the mosque to see what was happening and were shocked to find the houses including the temple up in flames. Stepping nearer, we found there were bodies all around in a pool of blood," Abdul Gaffar an elderly recalls.
Locals said that on the early morning of 26 January, when everyone rushed to the spot they saw 23 of the 24 members belonging to four Pandit families lying dead in a pool of blood
"A lone member of the community namely Vinod also known as Ashu (then 14 years old) son of Badri Nath had escaped the fatal assault," the locals said.
The slain included the family members of four families and at least 5 guests who had come from Jammu to visit their relatives here.
Notably, then Prime Minister I K Gujral joined the mourners in Kashmir's Wandhama village on 28 January.
The Prime Minister was accompanied by Governor General K V Krishna Rao (retired), then Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah and then Union Minister for Environment Prof Saifuddin Soz.
According to the locals, the victims were "symbols of communal harmony and had resisted migration."
Quoting the only survivor Ashu, the locals said that he had miraculously escaped as he hid himself under a pack of heavy straw nearby to his home.
"There was hue and cry everywhere, they dragged and shot all my family members after indiscriminate firing on them," Ashu, according to the locals, had told the police.
"They used to live in harmony and brotherhood with the local Kashmiri Muslims," they said.
The massacre has left a deep scar on the mind and soul of the people, locals said.
Recalling the day, Sajad Ahmed, a local said, "It was like killing of the whole humanity and we still remember the ill-fated incident and we will never forget that night."
"We couldn't believe our eyes seeing our neighbours falling prey to an inhuman act," another local Mushtaq Ahmed said.
He said, "We always shared our joy and sorrow with our Pandit brothers and those are the unforgettable days they shared with us."
He said the residential houses belonging to the victims are "lying in damaged condition, and one feels disheartened to see these houses without inmates."
The locals added that many of the Pandits who had migrated from Wandhama to Jammu prior to the incident here, very often come to meet their (Muslim) friends and neighbours here.
"They ( Pandits) come and stay here with us for days and whenever we visit Jammu we meet them there," the locals told Greater Kashmir.
The brotherhood between "us and Pandits is still intact," they added.
Meanwhile, President Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS) Sanjay Tikoo while talking to Greater Kashmir termed the incident as unforgettable.
'It was the most tragic incident. We are yet to come to terms with it," Sanjay said.
"Though a case was registered in this regard, but unfortunately it was closed in 2008 for non-evidence," he said.
However, Sanjay said that they had filed a complaint with State Human Rights Commission regarding the closure of the case and have sought probe in the incident.
"We were provided with the details by police department that the massacre was carried out by 21 foreign militants and 20 of them have been killed in different encounters and one is at large still."