The first one reads “Number 1, Martyred on August 24, 2009, Jawansaal (Young)”, the second one reads “Number 2 “Martyred on August 24, Safaid Dhadi Wala Bhodha (white bearded old man)”. Scattered between few graves that have traditional tombstones, there are many that have tin plates inserted on top. Numbers and scanty details of the appearance of dead is all that is known about the people who lay burried.
The caretakers of ‘Martyrs Graveyard’ here, situated in Lolab alongside Kupwara-Machil main road around 112 km from Srinagar, started to number the unknown dead after mass graves surfaced in Uri region in neighbouring Baramulla district. The graveyard which spans over two thousand square yards of land is maintained by the local Auqaf Committee.
“On the directions of Auqaf we started to write down the numbers and identification marks of the deceased on tin plates to keep the count and little bit identification,” says Ghulam Ahmed Bhat, who is one of the caretakers, while pointing towards a portion where the grave fill is scattered. The bodies have been exhumed.
Three youth from Nadihal, who were dubbed as militants and killed in Machil Sector along the Line of Control (LoC), last April, were buried in these half-filled graves, he says. The youth were identified by their heirs after pictures of their bodies appeared in local dailies.
But their remains exist even after bodies have been excavated. A torn jacket and a blanket hang on the barbed fencing. Bhat informs they belonged to the Nadihal youth.
Locals say more than 85 unidentified suspected militants lay buried along with some residents. But, most of the graves remain unmarked with some of them not even noticeable due to passage of time. Not many have turned up to claim the dead.
“A family from Highgam and two families from Zainagair in Sopore visited. They cried in despair lamenting the fact that they were not present during the funeral rites of their dear ones who were militants,” he says, adding the families had somehow learnt that their dear ones lie buried here.
The families came and erected epitaphs on their graves. “Now the families of the trio occasionally visit the graveyard and distribute dates, Turmeric-rice (Teher), milk or fruits among the locals for the solace of their hearts,” he adds.
Fear is writ large on the faces of locals who seem reluctant to talk openly about the issue. To break the ice seems quite difficult and it is only after a disclosure of identity that they gradually open up. “They died, it was their fate, but even after death, they have been stripped of their identity,” laments Abdul Samad, an elderly local.
“When the relatives of disappeared persons come to ascertain if their dear ones are buried here, we suggest them to visit local police station,” Samad says.
However, identity of just seven people is known and even the police have no written record about those interred.
“Our response might be annoying their sentiments, but what shall we do? The people we have buried here were unknown to us though seemingly Kashmiri locals,” he remarks.
A local police official not authorized to speak says they do not have any records in the police post regarding the names or whereabouts of the deceased.
“Most of the times I could not muster courage to see the dead as they had disfigured skulls caused due to heavy mortar shells or decaying,” says Abdul Aziz, another resident who joined Samad and Bhat after noticing movement in the graveyard.
Locals claim that Lolab valley has many such graves scattered in forests and villages including Sogam, Chandigam, Lalpora, Kuligam, Khurhama, Bagalsar, and Moori, Boinar, where unidentified suspected militants lie buried.
And, with the confirmation of unmarked graves by State Human Rights Commission, locals are questioning the claims made by the government that the unknown graves are those of militants and not of civilians. Villagers in this region these days discuss “cash for kill” although covertly.