In this small hamlet in north Kashmir's Kupwara district, two brothers Aslam Chechi (15) and Zaffar Chechi (10) are attending to mourners who are thronging their residence to condole the death of their eight-year-old sister Kaneeza. The young girl, according to police, was killed "by a stray bullet" during a gunfight here on Wednesday—a claim that locals are not ready buy. Her brother Faisal was also injured in the incident.
The mother of Aslam and Zaffar is in Srinagar, attending to her injured son while Khushi Muhammad, her husband, who is a labourer by profession, was "called" by Member of Legislative Assembly and Rural Development Minister Abdul Haq Khan on Thursday morning and had not returned home till late afternoon.
Aslam and Zaffar are students of Class 9th and Class 6th at High School Batpora, located barely few yards away from their house. Kaneeza also studied in the same school.
"She was very gentle," said her two teachers who had come to visit the bereaved family.
Residents here said a column of J&K Police arrived in the village at 5 p.m. on Tuesday. Minutes later, they said, many more columns of army soldiers arrived and the village was cordoned off.
"The soldiers and police took position in our houses, even on rooftops," the villagers told Greater Kashmir. "They did not allow us to move out after the cordon was laid."
At around at 5 a.m. on Wednesday, the residents said, the exchange of fire started between the militants and the forces. The house, where the militants were trapped, is located on the foothills of Kunnard forests and the house where Kaneeza fell to bullets is 100 meters away from it.
The soldiers, according to locals, had also taken shelter under a ladder in the house of Khushi Muhammad.
"Despite the fact that the cordon was laid at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, there was no announcement about what was going on," they said.
Kaneeza and her brothers were sleeping in their kitchen—the only room in their wooden house whose first floor is meant for cattle while the second has a dilapidated kitchen and an attached bathroom.
At around 10 a.m, Faisal started crying as bullet hit him in thigh and back. "He was crying for help," Aslam told Greater Kashmir. "My mother tried to shift him out the house but she wasn't allowed to venture out."
He said at around 11.30 am, his mother mustered courage and took Faisal on her shoulder to a nearby road where vehicles of Army and SOG were parked. Later he, according to the villagers, was shifted in a police vehicle to a hospital.
"When our brother was injured, nobody came to see us. We were crying as heavy firing was going on," said Zaffer, adding: "We crawled in bed and kept crying. Even my father tried to accompany Faisal, but he was stopped."
Aslam said at around 3 pm, the encounter ended and police and Army left the spot. "I tried to tell Kaneeza that the encounter is over, but was shocked to see only blood on her mattress. She had died," he said. "We told Police and Army about it and they asked us to bury her within no time."
In the evening, Aslam said, the Senior Superintendent of Police visited the family and provided five kilograms sugar, 25-kg rice, 5-kg mustard oil and five blankets. "They asked us to keep all the food and assured they will solve the killing (case) amicably," he said.
The residents said there was no alternative but to bury her. "To come out for protests in this place is very, very dangerous. Here we have to go by orders," they said.
The villagers now ask several questions especially with regard to evacuation of civilians around the encounter site. "For 12 hours, there was no gunfight. They could have evacuated inmates of the house that was located 100 meters away from the encounter site," they said, adding: "We are unable to understand this stray bullet theory. We will never buy this version. No civilian would have been harmed if police had taken precautions."
'ENCOUNTER AFTER 24 YEARS'
The Wednesday's encounter in the area has taken place after 24 years, according to locals. "The last encounter that took place in Kunnard was in 1993. Strategically, the area is located near the Line of Control and is not a preferred infiltration route," they said.
As the people were thronging to condole the death of Kaneeza, groups of people were shouting slogans outside the house and denouncing the killing. They were also demanding a probe into the killing.
SSP Kupwara, Shamsher Hussian claimed the family did not agree to vacate the house. "They told us they won't vacate as it is dark outside," he claimed. "We provided assistance to the family including food items. We have registered a case wherein her (Kaneeza's) death has been shown to have taken place with a stray bullet."
The District Magistrate Kupwara, G.M Dar, however said police reported to him that the family was not evacuated as there was heavy exchange of fire going on. "That is what police told me," Dar told Greater Kashmir.