The truth lies six feet under

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2,156 unidentified bodies in north Kashmir. The families want answers, but the J&K government is trying to give the issue a quiet burial. Baba Umar reports

Graveyard shift Atta Mohammad was a farmer before the security forces made him bury 200 unidentified bodies in the hills of Bimyar
Graveyard shift Atta Mohammad was a farmer before the security forces made him bury 200 unidentified bodies in the hills of Bimyar
Photos: Abhijit Dutta

NOT TOO long ago, Kashmiris saw a ray of hope when Chief Minister Omar Abdullah announced that he would revoke the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act. However, he failed to walk the talk. The interlocutors’ report met the same fate. Now, the issue of thousands of unmarked graves dotting the meadows and mountains of the state has reached a similar conclusion.

Exorcising ghosts Atta Mohammad with his granddaughter Humaira
Exorcising ghosts Atta Mohammad with his granddaughter Humaira
Photo: Abhijit Dutta

When the mass graves were discovered in 2005, Omar had agreed to use DNA tests to identify the corpses. But in a report published on 13 August, the Home Department (of which Omar is in charge) has not only declined DNA testing, but also labelled those buried as “combatants” amid pleas from hundreds of families that their relatives may have been buried in unmarked graves after fake encounters.

The government’s action-taken report (ATR) was filed in reply to the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), following the latter’s April 2012 finding of 2,156 unidentified bodies at 38 burial sites in north Kashmir, of which 574 were identified as those of local residents. The SHRC had demanded DNA testing of the corpses. However, the government said DNA testing would be done only when the complainant could locate the graveyard and the grave in which their relatives might be buried with a “fair amount of certainty” — a rider ridiculed by human rights activists and the families of the missing.

It’s pertinent to note that the government’s ATR is entirely based on police FIRs, thus making it a contentious report.

“The government’s report is aimed at burying the past,” says Razia Sultana, 36, whose 22-year-old quest to find her missing father ultimately led human rights groups to the unmarked graves. She started searching for Raja Ali Mardan Khan (then 55) of Bela Boniyar village, located 90 km from Srinagar, after he didn’t return home on 13 May 1990. The last time he was seen was at a provision store with a bag of sugar and a pack of cigarettes in his hand.

“I lodged a missing persons report but the police’s reaction was that he might have crossed the LOC (Line of Control). I was shocked. He didn’t need to because he had a government job. Anyway, he was too old to go for gun training,” she says.

Sultana’s mother and sister made a trip to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK), but they failed to locate Khan. Since then, she has visited many graveyards, police stations, torture cells and militant hideouts.

It was during the October 2005 earthquake when a team of human rights activists led by the J&K Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) reached Bela Boniyar with relief that Sultana disclosed the presence of mass graves.

Four years later, in November 2009, the JKCCS and the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir came out with their preliminary report called ‘Buried Evidence’, which revealed the presence of 2,700 unmarked graves spread across 55 villages of Kupwara, Baramulla and Bandipora districts.

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