Chinese newspaper slams unmarked graves in Indian Held Kashmir

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As the wind blows, it rustles its way through a velvety grass growing on a less steep patch of land perched along a mountain expanse. The breeze snakes through the stalks and gently brushes the rough face of Mohammed Farid, who is busy mowing the grass in outskirts of village Mandi of this frontier district.

Holding a fistful of grass tufts in his left hand, Farid cuts it by sickle that he tightly grips in right hand. Every time, he inches forward to grab further stems to mow down, he stops and then peeps keenly as if the ground beneath the grass holds a mystery.

Farid has won the bidding to cut the grass of the field after local village committee announced its auction. The field instead of being a plain one has ups and downs. Farid informs me the field is a graveyard, containing unmarked graves. Though plaques are missing, he points out the raised ground dotting the field are graves holding bodies of unidentified people. "I don’t know who lie buried underneath but I do remember people used to bury the unidentified bodies at this place," said Farid. "They are martyrs and I have been told they don’t die, anything can happen, so I tread cautiously."

He recounted how in 1990 local police brought some 33 unidentified bodies of youth to village and handed them over to the village elders for burial. "Police approached village elders claiming the youth were killed in a gunfight with Indian army at Biden village near the Line of Control (LoC)," recalls Farid, who had then rushed to watch the burial as a 12-year-old boy. "All of them except few were the teenagers and their bodies were buried in three separate rows, with 11 bodies in each row."

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Locals like Farid are unaware as to who the dead were? Villagers don’t have a count about the unmarked graves, however they estimate it at more than 150.

"Police used to direct us to bury the bodies," said Qawum-ud- Din, a village elder grazing his buffaloes nearby. "Their bodies were often disfigured and they (Police) used to tell us they were militants who got killed fighting Indian army."

Unmarked graves of the region hogged headlines last month after region’s right’s commission- State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) had found in an inquiry over 2,100 unidentified bodies at 38 sites at two-district in the northwest of Srinagar city, the summer capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir. The commission (SHRC) earlier this month said the bodies in unmarked graves should be identified by all available means including DNA tests.

An association of the parents of disappeared persons (APDP) formed in 1993, striving to seek whereabouts of the disappeared persons has sought commission’s intervention into identification of graves in Jammu division’s Poonch and Rajouri district, where they say they have information of 2,717 and 1,127 unmarked graves respectively.

APDP puts the number of disappeared around 8,000 in the whole region. Government figures have always been conflicting with respect to disappearances in the region.

Around 30-km from Mandi is Surankot town, another site of unmarked graves. Sofi Aziz Joo, a nonagenarian is the caretaker of the graveyard. Locals say Joo is the man "who has seen this all" .

Joo sitting cross-legged outside a small shrine adjacent to graveyard close to army garrison is busy attending the visitors, majority of who are young women. The roofless walled shrine is a grave of a saint- Syed Haider Shah, revered by locals. Five young women squatting on the pavement facing the wall are busy rolling the cotton to be dipped into earthen oil lamps.

"We lit the oil lamps in the evening with the hope that saint buried here will intercede with God to end our miseries," said one among them. "Baba can tell you all about the unknown graves."

Joo’s has a wrinkled face spotting an untrimmed white beard on the chin. Taking me as a shrine visitor, he rose up to receive me. After minutes of persuasion, he agrees to walk to the graveyard to show me the unmarked graves.

He said so far he has buried over 2,500 unidentified bodies in his graveyard.

"Police and Army used to bring those bodies and direct me to bury them" Joo said leading me into the graveyard. "The bodies were usually bullet- ridden, mutilated, faces disfigured and sometimes without limps."

The bodies used to come anytime and burials were to be made without involving town’s people for fear of provoking "anti- India" protests. Burials of those killed by army and police usually stoke protest demos in the region especially against police and army and reverberate with the demand of end to New Delhi’s rule.

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Inside graveyard Joo shows me a couple of mass graves. The grave is a raised ground of several meters. "Here I buried 16 unidentified bodies. I don’t remember the date. But I recall that the police saying they were killed in Modpichae village."

There had been instances when he has buried heads only, a practice he stopped later on. "Only heads, bodies were missing," said Joo heaving a sigh. "Wrapping heads only in shrouds was a real horror".

For every body Joo was supposed to sign on blank paper apparently meaning a takeover.

Over a period of time Joo protested taking heads only.

"First they (Police) brought six, next time the number was seven, I was asking questions but for fear couldn’t resist and carried on with burying them," recalls Joo. "Even for heads, they used to say I have received a body. Finally once again when they turned up with some 15 heads, I protested demanding whole bodies. That made them to leave."

Bodies in Joo’s graveyard began to come soon after insurgency broke out in Indian-controlled Kashmir — 1989 to be exact. Following that year groups of youths went to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir to seek arms training to wage an armed rebellion against New Delhi’s rule back at home.

Only seven graves of the policemen (killed while reportedly fighting with militants) in this graveyard have epitaphs inscribed on the plaques.

The remaining graves with no plaques, most of which have now caved in are holding the unidentified bodies.

In 2007, the lid of nameless graves opened up in the region when five graves of "foreign militants" turned out to be of civilians picked up by the local police’s counter insurgency wing – – Special Operations Group (SOG) — and killed in fake encounters for rewards and promotions.

An official of the rank of senior superintendent of police along with his six subordinates are facing trial in the case.

Kashmir is divided between two southasian neighbours India and Pakistan through a line-of-control (LoC), a de facto border. A guerrilla war is going on between militants and the Indian troops stationed in Indian-controlled Kashmir since 1989. The gun fighting between militants and Indian army troopers in Indian- controlled Kashmir takes place intermittently. A strong separatist movement is going on in the region seeking end of New Delhi’s rule.

Rights groups say around 70,000 people were killed in the last 22 years of conflict. However, the official put the figures somewhere around 45,000.

The mystery surrounding these graves is yet to be unraveled. May be opening of them can dispel some. The money that Farid will pay to the Mandi local village committee in lieu of the grass of graveyard will be used for maintaining and preserving the graveyard.

"Prior to cutting the grass in the graveyard, I offer prayers for those buried here," Farid said."Do you mean these graves will be opened up to know who are beneath?"

Unmarked graves in Indian-controlled Kashmir haunt like phantoms, seek identification

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