“Aaghaji, neabar near. Be chusai Afaan raje (Come out, father. I am Prince Afaan),” the voice booms out of a hand-held public address system, as security forces and relatives prod the five-year-old boy to go on.
“Wala nearu wyen neaber (Come out now),” the boy says, reluctantly. “Wala yim no karnai kiheen (Come, they won’t harm you).”
The scene unfolded in south Kashmir’s Shopian district, on the intervening night of 21 and 22 March, when security forces besieged a cluster of houses in Batpora Manihal village where a group of militants were hiding.
The action was captured on camera, purportedly by security forces, and the video was circulated widely on social media in Kashmir.
Among the four militants trapped in one of the houses was Aaqib Malik, father of Afaan.
“Wala mye chu chooun feraan (Come, I am missing you),” the boys says in the video, without evoking a response from his father.
Later that night, Aaqib was among four militants killed in the encounter. The other three militants killed were identified as Rayees Ahmad Bhat, Aftab Ahmad Wani and Amir Shafi Mir, all residents of Shopian district.
Officials said Mir had signed up for militancy only a month ago, while the other three had joined in the past few months.
Inspector General of police, Vijay Kumar said, the four slain militants were listed as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militants, “although they claim to work for” shadow outfits, he said. “An AK rifle and three pistols were recovered from them.”
‘A Midnight Knock’
As night fell in south Kashmir’s Ganopora Arash village on Sunday, 21 March, a masked man arrived at the gate of the single-storied home of Aaqib, a 27-year-old bank worker who joined militancy around three months ago.
“He told Aani (mother) that since Aaqib Malik was trapped in an encounter, he had asked forgiveness of her,” said Aaqib’s eight-year-old daughter Haifa, as mourners walked in and out of their house amid heavy rains on Tuesday.
Soon, the two young children, accompanied by family and neighbours, left in a relative’s car for Batpora Manihal village of Shopian where the encounter was underway, Haifa said.
“Once we reached, there were lots of army men. I got scared. Then, police took us to someone’s house. I don’t know what happened afterwards,” she said, oblivious to the tragedy that has befallen her.
As eerie calm descended on the village, as Aaqib’s wife reached the site of the encounter to convince her husband to surrender.
“They won’t harm you,” the video shows her shouting into a hand-held public address system, “Have mercy (on us). If you won’t come out, then shoot me as well. Come back and surrender. Afaan and Haifa are with me also.”
But her pleas apparently fail to move the trapped militant. Haifa said she was also asked to repeat the appeal. “I was scared. I didn’t go,” she said.
A Family in Gloom
The house of Aaqib in Ganopora is connected to the main road by a short, muddy path cobbled with stones. From a distance, loud screams of Aaqib’s wife could be heard emanating from the house. She is repeatedly crying out her husband’s name, asking who was going to take care of his children.
In a room with bare plastered walls, men comfort Ghulam Ahmad Malik, Aaqib’s old father, who is sitting in a corner. The screams of Aaqib’s wife can be heard in the adjacent room. Some women are sobbing quietly while others urge his wife to have patience.
As they come and leave, few mourners take out time to comfort the two kids. Some plant unwanted kisses on their cheeks as well. The kids are too young to understand the depth of what has befallen them.
“Aaghaji (father) used to bring me pigeons. But he didn’t listen to me,” says Afaan, recalling the night of the encounter. “He didn’t come out. Then we were told to go home.”
Trauma For Life
Security forces have been using the family members of militants trapped in encounters to offer them the surrender route. While there have been positive outcomes in some cases, it is for the first time that a child was used to make such an offer.
Dr Wasim Rashid Kakroo, a child mental health therapist at IMHANS, Srinagar, said the death of any of the two parents is “extremely traumatising” for a child, “especially if they are of young age.”
“A child finds it difficult to process trauma at a tender age. It is possible that he may develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When he grows up, he may even blame himself for not being able to save his father and suffer from this guilt throughout his life,” he said.
Another psychiatrist based in central Kashmir, who didn’t want to be named, said the child should be examined by mental health experts for at least a month for symptoms of PTSD.
“In this digital age, he will be exposed repeatedly to the last moments before his father’s violent death,” the psychiatrist said, adding that getting a child to convince someone who has already adopted a path where death is imminent is “morally and ethically wrong.”
‘Focus on Surrender’
In a press conference, the Indian Army said Aaqib’s family was brought to the site of encounter to convince him to surrender. Lt Gen Rashim Bali, the GoC of the Army’s south Kashmir based Victor Force, said his soldiers brought Aaqib’s wife and son to the encounter site to convince him to surrender.
“We facilitated his family to the encounter site. We had information that Aaqib wanted to surrender but his accomplices stopped him,” Lt Gen Bali told reporters in Srinagar.
IG Kumar said the J&K Police has been following the surrender policy for local militants caught in encounters for more than a year.
Kumar said 19 militants have been killed in nine operations in the Valley this year.
Eight of these nine encounters took place in south Kashmir, he said. “18 youths joined militant ranks this year but seven have returned to the mainstream,” Kumar said.
In January, two militants were convinced by security forces to lay down arms during an encounter on the outskirts of south Kashmir’s Kakpora village.
Earlier in December, two militants of Lashkar-e-Taiba surrendered before the security forces in the adjoining Kulgam district.
Stir in Village
The family of Aaqib rejected the claim that they were brought to the encounter site by the Army. “We reached the site of the gun battle on our own after learning that Aaqib was among the trapped militants,” said a cousin of Aaqib.
“It is a lie. No one took us there. He (Aaqib) had chosen the path (of militancy) for himself. We couldn’t convince him to surrender,” said the cousin, wishing to remain anonymous.
The killing of Aaqib has caused a stir in the village. “He had a good job, owned a car and a bike. What else could he have wished for? Despite all this, he didn’t listen to his family and gave up his life,” said an aged man outside the house, who didn’t want to be identified.
He added that the family also owns a small orchard that fetches 100-150 boxes of different kinds of fruits every year.
(Jehangir Ali is a Srinagar-based journalist. He tweets at @gaamuk.)
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