A Kashmiri Man Returns Home After 18 Years: What’s His Story?

Shah, who went missing for 18 years, was hustling all these years, trying to build up a savings.

Published
India
7 min read
Shah at home in Kashmir.
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Sitting comfortably on a mattress in a small room, Ghulam Mohiuddin Shah, 67, is surrounded by hordes of people – including his family, friends, and relatives. Shah has become a talking point in his village, Khag, located in Central Kashmir’s Budgam district, because he miraculously re-appeared on 12 July after going missing for 18 years, three months, one week, and one day.

On 4 April 2002, according to his family who lives in Khag village, Shah left home to visit Saudi Arabia to work there and earn for his family.

He never returned.

In the early 2000s, during the peak of Kashmir’s armed insurgency, the ‘enforced disappearances’ were common during which hundreds of persons went missing across the Valley over the years.

The local human rights groups put the number of enforced disappearances between 8000-10,000. 

They put the blame (for the majority of the missing cases) on the state’s security agencies, during which the men were rounded-up, never to be seen again.

Missing Man Shah Was Concerned About His Children’s Education

Initially, when the family tried searching for Shah, they were unable trace him. Then they thought that Shah might have been rounded up and ‘made to disappear (a common occurrence during those days), or perhaps he was killed or jailed.

“We searched for him from pillar to post. Then we filed a missing person report with the police. But nothing worked. We could not find any clues regarding his whereabouts, nor could the police trace him,” Halima, Shah’s wife, told The Quint.

Women from the neighbourhood visiting the home of Shah to share their sympathies and blessings with his family.
Women from the neighbourhood visiting the home of Shah to share their sympathies and blessings with his family.
(Photo: Accessed by Ishfaq Reshi

As nothing worked out and he remained missing, in 2008, the district administration paid an ex-gratia relief of Rs 1 lakh in five instalments to the family, declaring Shah as officially dead.

However, the man who was officially declared dead, and for the family who believed he was a victim of the interminable conflict, Shah seems to have returned from the throes of death after 18 long years.

“We were puzzled to see him alive after almost two decades,” Halima said while adding that was nothing short of a ‘miracle’.

Halima said that Shah was so concerned about the education of his children that he shifted to his present address from his native village.

“We spent every single penny to construct the house for which Shah had borrowed money from his friends and relatives,” she said.

Why Did Shah Leave For Saudi Arabia?

While talking to hordes of people who had arrived at their home to greet Shah despite the COVID-19 threat, Halima said she and her five children had no idea what happened to Shah after he left home on 4 April 2002 for Saudi Arabia, and just disappeared into thin air.

“It happened all of a sudden –– my husband made a spontaneous decision to leave for work to Saudi Arabia. He had already worked there for 15 years. No doubt, he was a hard worker...making all efforts for the family so that he could earn for us. He was a lot of fun to be with,” she said.

Halima said the borrowed money had to be re-paid to people while the education of her children too needed to be continued. “So he decided to leave for Saudi Arabia for work again,” she said.

Narrating the story afterwards, Shah said that before leaving for Mumbai (from where he would leave for Saudi Arabia), he had borrowed Rs 10,000 in cash from a man, and two bags of rice from the ration storekeeper, and promised them he would pay up after returning.

But, he said the situation turned ugly for him, and he has not been able to repay the money till date.

Halima Begum, Shah’s wife
Halima Begum, Shah’s wife
(Photo Courtesy: Accessed by Ishfaq Reshi)

Why Didn’t Shah Come Back Home In All These Years?

“On that fateful day in 2002, I was leaving for Saudi where I had worked for over 15 years as a cook, salesman and as hotelier,” Shah said, adding, “On reaching Mumbai, unfortunately, I met with an accident that ruined my dreams of visiting Saudi Arabia again”.

A month later, Shah’s medical examination was conducted, but the reports came negative, and he was disqualified for going to Saudi Arabia again for work purposes.

“I was completely shattered now. My dreams had been dashed. In absolute despair, I decided not to visit home with empty hands,” he said.

“On a meagre salary of Rs 110 per day, I started my new life in Mumbai with the hope to return home one day with handsome savings.”

In the course of his stay in Mumbai, Shah changed jobs multiple times, but that didn’t help him save money.

“One day I fell short of money and had nothing to eat,” Shah said while breaking down – and he sold his wrist watch for a few bucks to buy a meal.

Shah did not return home as he was feeling embarrassed that he could not make it to Saudi Arabia and thus could not take his family out of abject poverty.

Shah at home with loved ones.
Shah at home with loved ones.
(Photo Accessed by Vijay Kumar Singh)

How Shah ‘Hustled’ In Mumbai

In shame and guilt he moved to another place in Mumbai and worked as a watchman at residential apartments. “On many occasions, I thought of returning home but the ‘successive failed attempts’ to earn money stopped me,” he said.

“How could I have faced my elder son whom I had promised to pay the admission fee for – of Rs 10,000? I did not look back. How could I have faced my wife who managed all the affairs in my absence? How could I have returned with empty hands after such a long time? These things haunted me, and stopped me from returning home,” he said.

But the day finally came when he returned home to his ancestral village in Budgam.

During the COVID-19 lockdown in Mumbai, Shah developed severe health complications.

It seemed for him that there was no hope of survival. So he desired to go back home if not alive, then dead.

“A Kashmiri man lived in the apartments where I used to work as a watchman. He knew me. I told him to drop a message at my relative’s home in Srinagar who would convey to my family that I was alive and wanted to go back to home. The man did it.”

A Reunion

On 6 July, Shah’s son Sajjad Ahmad, who works in the consumer affairs and public distribution department (CAPD), was sitting in his office when his phone rang. The caller at the other end was his aunt from Srinagar.

“She asked, ‘Sajjad chukha?’ (‘Am I talking to Sajjad?’). I replied, “yes,” –– then she told me, “Mohiuddin sab ha labaw” (Mohiuddin sahib has been found).

“It was unbelievable and also a pleasant surprise/shock for me. I lost control over my emotions and cried while sitting inside my office. Papa mil gaya khala? (Papa has been found, khala) – I repeated the questioned again and again. My aunt kept on consoling me.”

After he went home, Sajjad said he couldn’t dare to speak to his family, fearing the news would be proven wrong.

“I couldn’t hide it from my elder brother – Younis Ahmad Shah – who is also a government employee,” he said.

Then the duo called their cousin Syed Zahoor and booked air tickets to reach the given address in Mumbai.

“On reaching there on 10 July, I was expecting that my father would come to receive me to at airport but that didn’t happen,” he said.

“Then I thought he would come out of the apartments and receive me, but that too didn’t happen. I got angry as I had not expected Papa to behave like this. When I finally appeared before him, my Papa was motionless – standing with the help of a man who was supporting him.”

Empty Hands But A Full Heart

“It was this indescribable moment; we hugged and broke down in tears. It was such an emotional scene, as if we were born anew in this world,” Sajjad said.

“After spending two nights in Mumbai,” Sajjad said, “we left for home on 12 July.”

After being checked for Covid 19 infection, they were relived to go home.

“We reached home in the afternoon –– and people had already gathered to receive us,” Sajjad said.

As soon as the news broke in their locality, announcements were made on loudspeakers, informing people that Shah had reappeared after 18 long years.

At first, Younis, Shah’s elder son, said that people refused to believe that his father was alive. Later, he said, when the family along with the neighbours received him, people started believing that Shah had actually returned, and the news spread like wildfire.

Since that day, people have been visiting their home in large numbers, offering their sympathies and blessings.

“We assume that we are born today. Life is complete now and we will spend it with whatever calamity comes our way,” the family members said.

Halima said: “The eighteen years of longing for me were like ‘saer peth sahlab’ (It was a flood of hardships).”

“We are thankful to Allah for reuniting our family after almost two decades,” Halima said, while recalling a Kashmiri proverb –– ‘tsulmut yeye, magar gulmut chehe yewan ken’ (‘The missing may come but the dead won’t return’).

However, her husband Shah has one regret – that he returned home empty-handed even after eighteen years – with only a single pair of clothes that he used to wear.

(Ishfaq Reshi is a journalist based in Kashmir.)

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