‘Documenting a story like this was like reopening a wound’

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Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

I have grown up under the shadow of guns. I have seen uniformed men with AK-47s slung over their shoulders come to my home at odd hours and throw my small schoolbag out. I remember the searches and parades in my primary school premises — army convoys coming to fight hiding militants, mortar shells blowing up houses and common people being caught in the crossfire of warring parties and suffering for nothing. I would shudder to think of how it felt to be questioned for nothing or get slapped for nothing.

I often thought of picking up the pen and writing it all down, but that was not enough for me. It was my desire to show the untold realities of my land to people outside, something which mainstream media had glossed over, that made me turn to picking the camera and documenting these stories.

As a member of an organisation that showed video clips of the marginalised and the wrongs done to people, I began feeling empowered when a personal experience shook my conscience and made me realise how deep the scars ran. It was a sunny spring day in Khansahib, a village in the Budgam area of Kashmir, and most people were moving out to work in their paddy fields. I had gone to document the story of a person who was allegedly tortured to death under army detention. I was not prepared for what I would see.

Inside a single storeyed house, an elderly woman with grey hair, wearing a typical Kashmiri pheran (a woollen kaftan) sat in the courtyard. Zamin was 23 when he had gone missing in 2002. This woman was Zeba, Zamin’s ill-fated mother.

Eleven years had gone by but Zeba’s eyes still longed for her son. Sitting next to her, her husband Ghulam Qatir looked desolate, gazing emptily into space. I could almost feel the pain oozing out of his blind eyes.

The broken windowpanes above and the empty frames covered by polythene sheets spoke a million words. It was as if happiness had never bothered knocking at the doors of this house. Documenting a story like this was like reopening an old wound and unabashedly rubbing salt in it.

To put Zeba at ease, I did not immediately open my camera bag. After introducing myself I sat with her and her husband to make them feel comfortable with me first. With tears in her eyes, she recounted the memories of a past where she had lost her son. “He was innocent, had never harmed anyone… he was killed for being innocent — our only hope was taken away by this world,” she repeatedly said. Soon, my eyes welled up too. It was a story of relentless pain, distress, sadness and separation which she narrated in a shattered voice. All along, her husband kept quiet.

I could not capture all this on camera. However hard I tried to think of it as a job, I could not bring myself to take out my camera and document the story. At that time, it seemed like the right thing to do. I came back without completing the assignment. My bag remained closed throughout the conversation. The interesting part of the whole incident is that the police did not even register an FIR. The story remains unreported till date.

There are hundreds of such cases in Kashmir that are yet to be documented, where young men have gone missing, never to return. Recounting the woes of their families remains a pipe dream for me.

I know I cannot bring my childhood back, which was spent in fear and panic. I know I cannot even bring back most of these lost youth, but I try to do my bit. I work for a better tomorrow for my people and I am satisfied with the work I do — it is better to do something rather than nothing. Each one of us has some role to play in making our individual and collective tomorrows beautiful and peaceful.

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