On the night of 3-4 August 1998, 19 people including 11 children ranging in age from about 4 to 15 years old, and 5 women (including one woman in an advanced state of pregnancy) were shot at point blank range in their homes in Sailan, in the highly militarized ‘border district’ of Poonch.
On August 3, Latif’s maternal cousin, Imtiyaz who was a militant had killed Zakir Hussain. Zakir was an important man of 9 Paratroopers. He was their source of information. Army men had visited Imtiyaz’s home and announced in day light that they shall take revenge of Zakir’s killing from his family.
Imitiyaz, was among the first wave of young Kashmiri men to cross the ‘border’ into Azad Kashmir from Sailan and its neighboring villages, soon after the militancy intensified in the region, in 1996. He was then a student of the ninth standard, about fifteen or sixteen years old. His father handed him over to the local police authorities hoping they would ‘teach him a lesson’. He was released after several days of torturous interrogation.
Thereafter, he returned home but was constantly under surveillance, and was picked up several times for further interrogation. His family members too were subject to constant raids and harassment by local armed forces and their ‘sources’ and informers in the area. A few months later, Imtiyaz was rearrested on weapon possession charges. According to locals, he ran away from police custody while being transported to attend court.
Prior to his killing, Zakir was ‘abducted’ by local militants on two occasions, and warned to stop providing information to the Army. He was let go, because of his family circumstances—he had six or seven sisters, most of them unmarried. He was allowed free access to the local army camps, check posts and police stations. He was always armed with a pistol, two grenades, and a wireless set, which he liked to flaunt publically. He was regularly accompanied by an entourage of three or four other such SPOs or ‘informers’, among them were Mohammad Younis, son of Alaf Din alias ‘Tiger’, and Mohammad Rafiq Gujjar, alias ‘Pathan’, Maqsood Ahmed Khan, and Mohammad Akbar Mallik. The group was a mix of predominantly Gujjar young men, with one ‘Khan’ (Poonchi Muslim of Punjabi ethnicity) and a Kashmiri, all under the command of the SOG, and attached to the Army camp at Bafliaz. This band of men, of which Zakir was the leader, tormented residents and shop keepers in Sailan, Bonikhet, Chandimarh and Bafliaz, demanding goods and services for free, informing on people and having them interrogated or harassed by the army, involving the military and police in local (civilian) disputes, harassing young women and school children, and beating people for crossing their paths in anyway.
By the early 1998 the authorities had launched an intensive search operation for Imtiyaz, aided by local networks of information and embedded, armed, state backed counter insurgency operatives such as Zakir and his associates. One family member of Imtiyaz’s who survived the massacre, referred to it as an ‘underground’ rivalry. Young men from Imtiyaz’s family in Upper Sailan, were picked up for interrogation about his whereabouts, several times. His brother Maqsood, was detained and beaten four or five times, while his cousin Mohammad Shabir, (then aged 18) remembers being interrogated twice by army personnel of the 9 Para. The army personnel were invariably accompanied by local operatives, usually Zakir or one of his associates.
According to Sailan locals on the morning of 3 August 1998, Zakir and his group were seen stationed at the Behramgala police check post, a kilometre or two North from Sailan village, on the Mughal Road. They were searching for Imtiyaz, pulling passengers out of vehicles, and checking them. Meanwhile, Imtiyaz and his friends were bathing in the Parnai , a small rivulet that flows between Sailan and Behramgala. Learning about this, Zakir and his group headed up the road towards the Bafliaz camp, possibly to inform the Army, in a bus that they commandeered at the check post. Imtiyaz and his group received advance information of Zakir’s movements from locals. They , in turn commandeered another local bus, emptying it of all passengers except the driver and bus conductor, and headed towards Sailan. The two buses were now headed towards each other.
Zakir was seated next to the driver, and he jumped off the bus. Just past the village of Sailan, on the curve of the road by the Bafliaz Bridge, near the village of Bonikhet gunfire broke out, as Zakir was seen running towards the Bafliaz camp firing backward at the bus holding his pistol behind his head. The first bullets hit the tyres of the bus carrying Imtiyaz. Imtiyaz was seen firing back in the direction of the gun fire from the moving bus. The bullets hit Zakir, who fell to the ground. Imtiyaz and his group, leapt off the bus, and fired more shots at the body by the side of the road, and into the surrounding thickly forested hillsides into which his companions had ran.
Uniformed personnel emerged immediately from the Army Camp across Bafliaz bridge, were informed about episode from personnel at the observation post located within 50- 100 metres from the scene, on an observation outpost in the river bank on the Sailan side of the river. They rounded up the bystanders and villagers who were watching the events at a distance, and began beating them indiscriminately, demanding information. They were visibly angry and extremely abusive. A man identified as Major Gaurav, (locally known as Major ‘Goora’) was leading them.
In sometime, Zakir’s overwrought and elderly father also arrived. He knelt by the body of his son, and wailed, cursing his fate, and blaming the army for his son’s death, vowing that he would not allow his burial until the death was avenged. Major Gaurav Rishi attempted to console him, saying within the hearing of several witnesses, that he would not grieve as much even on the death of his Commanding Officer. Tempers and emotions were running high amongst the armed personnel present, and several mentions of exacting revenge or ‘badla’ were reportedly made. Major Gaurav is specifically remembered as having said that he would ensure that Imtiyaz would pay dearly for this, with the lives of at-least a dozen members of his family.
In 1998, Mohammad Latief, Imtiyaz’s maternal cousin, the son of Lassa Sheikh’s sister Sarah, then around 25 years old, who lost his parents and four younger sisters (Zarina aged about 20 who was eight months pregnant, Yasmina aged about 16, Javaida aged about 13, Shagufta aged about 9) in the massacre, was working in a construction company in Saudi Arabia. He Latief had returned home to Sailan for his annual vacation, about three days before the massacre. His mother, worried by the escalating tensions in the village and the repeated violence on the male members of the households connected to Imtiyaz, had asked him to leave Sailan, and had made him promise to stay at the house of a relative, a Junior Engineer in Surankote after only two nights at home.
On the night of 3 August 1998, Imtiyaz’s family members consisting of his father Lassa Sheikh, (65) his mother Zainab bi, (50), his two brothers (23) Maqsood Ahmad, ( then 18) and his three minor sisters Shaheena (12) , Jabeena (8) and Tanveera (4) therefore took refuge in the homes of Imtiyaz’s maternal and paternal uncle, with the children staying at the house of Hassan Mohammad and his family, and the adults at the house of Ahmed din Sheikh, on the lower of the tiers. Maqsood Ahmad, Imtiyaz’s older brother was the only one amongst them who lived to see the next dawn.
THE NIGHT OF THE MASSACRE
The members of the three families huddled together in the two houses belonging to Hassan Mohammad, and Ahmad Din Sheikh on the night of 3-4 August, 1998. The adults were unable to sleep and stayed up talking about the death of Zakir, and their fears of a revenge attack or further harassment. Abdul Ahad, then aged about 20, in his own home, when they heard knocking on the door. Abdul Ahad’s father, Hassan Mohammad opened the door. Two uniformed men, who they recognised as Mohammad Younis ‘Tiger’, and Mohammad Rafiq ‘Pathan’ (both close associates of Zakir and SPOs like him) were at the door. They both entered the house. The shadowy figures of about ten to fifteen men, also in army uniform, could be seen milling around in the compound behind them through the doorway. They had already searched Imtiyaz’s home, located on the same level as Hassan Mohammad’s, and found it empty. Abdul Ahad, Hassan Mohammad’s son, and survivor of the massacre recalled:
The time was about 12:30 pm. Someone knocked the door Two people with uniforms entered. They had covered their heads with black cloth. They were with army people in army uniforms. It was ‘Tiger’ and ‘Pathan’, Zakir’s companions. They had weapons with them. The weapons were also covered with a cloth. ‘Tiger’ asked me where Imtiyaz’s family was. I said some of their family is with me, The others are at my uncle’s place.
Shabir, Ahmed Din’s son, who was inside the house at the time remembered:
In the compound I noticed an army man with a turban. There were also several other people, some in uniform. We were asked to walk in a single file, and were taken uphill to Abdul Ahad’s [Hassan Mohammad’s son] house. Everyone was made to sit down on the ground like school children. Two army jawans, with their weapons were standing in the corner of the room. A clean shaven officer, was talking to some of the gathered people. He was threatening us, ‘We will make you talk to Imtiyaz!’. He was wearing an officer’s cap and a jacket, but he had no name plate. His eyes were blood shot, and he had dark skin and very dark lips. The four SPO’s were also there. There were a total of 20 people from our family there including me, about seven-eight uniformed people in the room. The officer motioned for Imtiyaz’s father to get up, and stand next to the wall. He asked again, ‘Where is Imtiyaz?’ Imtiyaz’s father said, ‘When he came home I handed him over to the police. Then he ran away, and has not come home since.’ The Officer said, ‘Tell me the truth.’ Imtiyaz’s father replied, ‘I am telling the truth, he went with the militants. He sometimes comes to the village but not to the house.’ The Officer said, ‘Imtiyaz killed Zakir, who was a source for me.’ The officer made a gesture towards Tiger, and Tiger began to hit Imtiyazs father mercilessly. We were all watching, unable say a word. The officer then motioned towards Tiger again. Tiger fired at Imtiyaz father’s leg. He fell down, bleeding. His family moved towards the fallen man to help him. I saw my father turn towards the army officer, and catch hold of him, shouting angrily. I heard the army officer say ‘Fire!’. By this time I had reached close to a small trap door, which led to the storage area, where we keep our fodder, and I managed to slip outside into the store, then finally out into the fields through a skylight. By the time I reached outside, the continuous firing had started. After the sounds of continuous firing for about ten minutes, I heard the sounds of crying and screaming. Then there were single rounds fired with intervals between them, for a few minutes.Then there was silence. I stayed the whole night outside in the maize fields. I saw many people, the army and SPOs come out of the house, and saw torch lights, going down the path. I also heard the sound of vehicles on the [Mughal] road, even though all movement of vehicles had been stopped at 6:30 pm. In about 20-30 minutes they seemed to have all left, but I remained hidden in the fields till dawn, too afraid to go back, as I was unsure in the darkness, if all the men had left, or some were still in the area on the look out for Imtiaz. There were bright lights, like search lights, shining from the camp uphill [belonging to the 27 RR] and I guessed that they were looking for Imtiaz in the hills and fields. The lights were both moving and fixed. Every time a light shone near me I would freeze with fear. The only reason they didn’t find us [ the men who were hiding in the fields] is because they were scared to search too thoroughly. They feared an ambush by Imtiyaz and his men.
After the army men left, Shabir went inside. He remembers:
As I entered the house, I slipped and fell because the floor was slippery. There was so much blood[…] The first thing I saw was a shell of an SLR [Single Loading Rifle used by Indian Army] gun fallen near the door. [Later I saw] There were some live shells lying around the room as well… I picked it up. I saw my father’s dead body…I saw a pile of dead bodies. They were everywhere. They had been hacked and mutilated, cut to pieces, arms and legs were lying at a distance from the torsos, some had been hacked at the neck as well…There were axes, rods, kitchen utensils lying all over the room. There was an axe embedded in my sister Javaida’s hip. She used to be a big cry baby, she used to faint at the slightest bit of pain, and I saw her in that state. The axe had penetrated so deep into her hip bone, that two people had two hold down the body, and another person had to pull it, when they were trying to take the bodies down for the funeral. Every time they would try to pull it out, the whole body would be lifted up along with the axe. They still could not remove it. I remember that Imtiyaz’s mother’s body, was lying behind a large kanalla (a large tray used for kneading dough)- It had been placed upright, like someone had tried to shield themselves with it. It was riddled with bullet holes. They had been shot through it while trying to save themselves. The blood had splattered through it. Zarina’s (his sister who was eight months pregnant at the time) stomach had been hacked, and the baby’s arm was visible. I saw so many other terrible things which I don’t remember. It was a qatl’e’aam.(a general massacre).. Immediately after seeing the bodies I ran out of the house and started screaming and crying. Near the doorway, pinned to a safe, I later saw that someone had left a note written in urdu, on a note paper with a Lashkar –e –Toiba letterhead. It said ‘5% of the job is done, 95% still remains’. I think they meant that killing Imtiyaz himself was 95% of the task. The note was a plant, to make it look like an outside job. The army and police always have such things in their possession. But I had seen with my own eyes, that it was no outsider, no Pakistanis, no Lashkar – e –Toiba, this is all a ruse. It was Zakir’s men and the army. Everyone, most of all the army and police know that.
After the Post Mortem the bodies were placed in the Tehsil (Revenue and Court) Complex in Surankote. A large crowd gathered outside the Tehsil complex. The bodies had begun decomposing in the August heat, and some white solution, perhaps a disinfectant was sprayed on them, by officials. They were also hosed down by the fire brigade, with water to delay the decomposition. When some members of the public, tried to photograph the bodies to preserve the evidence of their state, they were stopped and their camera was forcibly taken away by plainclothes men from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). In one of the photographs, that family member’s managed to take, the limbs of one of the victims, has been placed close to her torso, but can be clearly seen as being totally severed from the rest of her body at the shoulder.
By the morning of the 5 of August, the surviving family members took a decision, to bury the bodies as they were decaying terribly. All the roads to and from Sailan remained closed, and Surankote too was under a state of undeclared curfew. Funeral arrangements had to be hurriedly made, and the proper funereal rites and ablutions could not be observed, due to the state of the bodies. Only about 500-600 local residents from Surankote and Sailan, could attend the funeral, as many people who wanted to attend were turned back. The jinaza (funeral prayers) were read in an enclosed ground, adjacent to the graveyard, in front of the gathered crowd.
‘Maqsood Khan then SPO, one of the accused in the case, presently posted at CID office Surankote, has told a number of applicant’s associates and other persons in the Surankote area that he has taken over as an officer in CID wing of police in the Surankote and now he would use his power to kill the applicants and eyewitnesses and will implicate them in a false militancy case.
Mohammad Akbar Malik then SPO, presently a Head Constable with SOG wing of police in Surankote, Akbar had told villagers that had they killed the applicant and his relative eyewitnesses, they would have not to face the trial in the court. Even many villagers know the fact that the accused persons say that whenever the applicants and eyewitness are cornered, they would shoot them. This has caused extreme anxiety to both the applicants and eyewitnesses.
Mohammad Rafiq Gujjar alias Pathan, presently working in District Police Lines Poonch, has also informed many people that whenever they would get a chance they would shoot the applicants and others who filed the case.
Mohammad Younis alias Tiger then SPO, presently working with Army at Draba Camp in Surankote, also threatened to kill both the applicants and eyewitness, so that the applicants would not be in a position to complete the legal process. Further he (Younis) had told some persons that his brother is in Territorial Army who would also teach a lesson to the applicants and eyewitnesses of the incident.
An FIR no 122 /1998, dated 4 August 1998, was registered at Surankote Police Station by the Police themselves. The family had no knowledge of this FIR registered in the name of unidentified ‘foreign militants’ despite eye witness testimony to the contrary, and the case was closed on three separate occasions, as the perpetrators were ‘untraced’. Even the case files were stated as untraceable by the police until JKCCS uncovered them. The police later called these uncovered documents as duplicates, claiming that the original ones were lost in a fire.
Abdul Ahad, whose father, mother, wife, two daughters, and two sons (aged 14, 10, 8, 7) and niece (10) were killed that night, has remarried, and has a new family. The blood soaked floor of his home in which the killings took place has been cemented over, and the bullet ridden walls rebuilt and reordered. His eyes glaze over, when he talks about that night, and his lost children:
I constantly imagine what they would be doing now. My oldest daughter, Shaheen, she was thirteen or fourteen, she would be married now. She was a very bright girl, very good at her studies. Perhaps she would have a job, like you? [indicating the researcher]. She may have children of her own by now, she would be almost thirty. I would be a grandfather, rather than a father. I have two lives. Before and After. I see young men and women around, going for jobs, going to college, getting married, living their lives, and I think of my other children, the ones who are gone.
He was killed in an ‘encounter’ with the army, in Khari Marg, in the Pir Panjal hills, along with three other comrades about a year after the massacre of his family. His body is buried in the martyr’s graveyard at Behramgalla, a few kilometres away.