Kashmir Diary: Residents Under Siege

The Vale of Kashmir, considered one of the most beautiful places on earth and a tourism jewel, is a shambles today, its citizens under the thumb of the Indian army. The residents of the Soura area of Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir say they haven’t slept in peace since August 5, when the government in New Delhi revoked the state’s special status and imposed a subsequent lockdown.

Every Friday, the traditional Muslim day of prayer, government forces enforce stricter restrictions, laying siege to several neighborhoods to prevent people from assembling and protesting on the streets, which often leads to clashes with the government forces. The area is populated almost entirely by Muslims and is the home of the famed Aasaar Sharief Jinaab Saahib shrine.

At night, the residents say, they remain awake, fearing sudden night raids on local youth who are suspected of participating in the protests. The inner roads leading up to several localities in the district are blocked by local residents with steel sheets, broken iron gates, wooden logs, stones and bricks. The walls are painted with anti-India and pro-freedom graffiti. The streets are littered with signs of earlier clashes and protests – broken bricks, stones, and burnt tires.

Fear and exhaustion are writ large on the faces of people sitting outside shut shops and business establishments. Every normal activity has ceased and daily life remains disrupted after the revocation of special status and subsequent the communication blackout and internet blockade. The suffocating smell of teargas shells fired recently by government forces to quell protests pervades the air in several neighborhoods.

The besieged residents say they’re afraid to even move out of their houses for fear of arrests, that they’re unable to communicate and inform relations living elsewhere in case of emergencies due to the month-long communications shutdown, including mobile telephone and internet services.

Houses on either side of the neighborhood streets bear marks of the siege – shattered glass, broken windows temporarily covered with cardboard and cloth.

On August 30, the residents say, government forces entered the Dar Muhalla area of Soura, damaging public property, houses, vehicles, bicycles, smashing windows and breaking doors. Government forces, they say, pulled down an entire wall protecting a house to enter the neighborhood houses. The windows of the first floor of several houses closer to the neighborhood streets are broken, temporarily covered by residents with cardboard sheets and cloth.

“The police and CRPF climbed walls and barged inside our homes last Friday,” said a local resident who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. “They broke everything that came their way including doors and windows. They also entered my house and broke my fridge and television set.”

The family “were terrified and remained silent in one corner of the room. Other residents left their homes in fear. We couldn’t do anything,” he said, showing broken windows and a cracked front door of a neighboring house. “Had we protested, they would have located us and beaten us all.”

A brick wall dividing his house from his neighbor’s house is still lying flat on the ground, its bricks scattered.

Residents of several neighborhoods toured by Asia Sentinel said more than 100 local residents, including women and girls, have suffered pellet and tear gas injuries in the past few weeks. They said an elderly man was caught and shot at a point blank range and suffered severe injuries.

“He was caught by the police forces and they fired pellets in his leg,” said a local resident of the Jinab Sahib area. “His leg is badly injured. He has been taken outside the state for treatment. He might lose his leg now.”

While talking to the local residents, a middle-aged man, his left ear bandaged, walked up to me and opened his shirt to reveal pellet wounds.

“They fired pellets directly in my face and neck last Friday,” he said, the same shirt with blood stains still visible. “I’ve 35 pellet wounds in my neck and chest. There are many other people with more pellet injuries here.”

Fearing trouble from police, he said he didn’t even want to visit the nearest hospital for treatment. His wounds treated were by a paramedic at his home. He said his wife and sister fainted when they saw his bloodied clothes and wounds after he was brought home.

The smoke of the teargas shelling has created health issues and breathing problems for the elderly, children and ailing bedridden people at their homes, the residents say. Government forces raid their neighborhoods at night in search of youth who are suspected to have participated in protests.

This has created an atmosphere of fear as the entire neighborhood remains alert and awake late at night. Several youth from the neighborhoods remain on “night duty” on the streets to thwart midnight raids and surprise arrests by local police.

“Many youth from these areas now remain on night duties to inform residents beforehand in case there is a raid,” another resident said. “They have also fired hundreds of pellets and tear gas shells here even when people wanted to register peaceful protests.”

Beneath a small tree in a park adjacent to a shrine lies a collection of teargas shells that local residents said the government forces had fired to disperse protestors and local people in the area last Friday. The neighborhood kids have saved about 100 shells beneath this tree as a record of the disproportionate force used by government forces against the local people, they said.

“These are only some of the shells fired at us by the police and CRPF,” said a teenager while holding one of the canisters. “There are hundreds more fired by them which are scattered throughout the neighborhood here.”

Young men and teens in several neighborhoods told me they’ve saved a lot of videos and photographic evidence of pellet gun injuries and property damage which they can’t make public due to the ongoing communication and internet blockade.

“We know the Indian media won’t show this, but the international media is at least talking about what the Indian forces are doing here,” a visibly angry high school student in one of the neighborhood streets told me as he swiped open his smart phone to show recently clicked photos, videos of protests and damage inflicted on houses. These days, he adds with a smile, he can only play downloaded videos games on his smart phone.

“We’ve recorded and saved all the proof in our phones. Once they lift the internet ban, I will share all these photos and videos on the social media so that the world sees how we are being treated here.”

Majid Maqbool is a Srinagar-based journalist and contributor to Asia Sentinel. When the territory was suddenly annexed by India, we asked for a view from inside the siege. For nearly three weeks he was unable to communicate with the outside world when India cut off all contact.