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I live with the dead: A Kashmiri story

By Atta Mohammad Khan

Editor’s Note: Among the many essays and first person accounts in the new anthology Of Occupation and Resistance: Writings from Kashmir (Tranquebar Press) edited by Fahad Shah, the story of a grave digger poignantly conveys the predicament of a man dealing with the aftermath of bloody conflict. This excerpt appears courtesy Tranquebar Press.

My name is Raja Atta Mohammad Khan and I am 70 years old. I have buried more than 235 bodies of unknown people. I was born in Tchahal village, Bimbyar, in Northern Kashmir. My father, Wali Mohammad Khan, was also from the same village. I had eight siblings – four brothers and four sisters; all my brothers and two sisters died due to illnesses. My father sent me to school. However, I could continue only till class three. I had to leave studies so I could help my parents with farming. My mother passed away after my marriage, when I had two children. Three years after my mother’s death, my father also passed away. In those days I was a labourer earning 50 paisa per day.

Of Occupation and Resistance book cover.

Of Occupation and Resistance book cover.

I have four daughters and a son. I live with my son and wife. Those days were better than today. I am 70 years old and I don’t like the contemporary world. Whatever is going on today is worse than the olden days.

I can’t read or write very well. I can’t write a letter. I can read Urdu a little. In cities gravediggers are paid for their work. But in villages nothing like that happens. We don’t pay to dig graves. There is no particular person for digging graves here. Anyone digs a grave and buries the dead.

During times of militancy, our village was also facing the same conflict, but the militancy was not extreme. I have a small patch of land near my house where I used to work the whole day. One evening during the month of Ramzaan (a month of fasting for Muslims) in 2003, I was working in my fields, waiting for Iftaar. I saw a policeman coming towards me. He told me that a body needs to be buried. I told him that I was working in my fields, and could not do it and asked him to get someone else. But he didn’t leave; instead he sat down beside me and started crying. He pleaded as he could not find anyone to dig a grave. He was very tense, so I couldn’t refuse him. I went home and got my digging tools.

In our village, we had a small piece of land, almost three kanals, marked as the ancestral village graveyard. During the construction of the Lower Jhelum Hydel Project (LJHP), half a kilometre away, the graveyard was filled with the dugout remains of the construction site, piled 10 feet high. There is a local hospital on one side of the graveyard.

I asked the policeman about the body and he said that it was of an Afghani militant who has been killed in Tangmarg, around 50 kilometres from Srinagar. I dug a grave in the ancestral village graveyard and buried the body. While digging the grave, my entire body was trembling. I couldn’t sleep for the whole night. We couldn’t recognise the Afghani militant. His face had been disfigured and there were severe burn marks on his neck and shoulders. After burying him I asked the policeman: Why did you bring the body here? He replied, ‘We used to bury at Kichhama but there is no space left in the graveyard now.’ Later I discovered that the Afghani militant was a native of Jal Sheeri, Varmul. His name was Bashir Ahmad Dar.

I can never forget that first day I buried a body. Over the years, most of the corpses have been from Tangmarg, Kreeri, Sopore and Gulmarg. I have been the only caretaker of the graveyard and I hold every story deep inside my heart. I haven’t forgotten anything, even though many years have passed. The world only hears about what happened here, but it is only Allah and I who know what I have seen and been through.

The army used to hand over bodies to local police stations and the policemen had to bury them.
The policemen in turn used to come to gravediggers like me with the bodies. From 2003, the brutal period started, which lasted till 2006. It used to be one body, three bodies or sometimes more than six per day. It continued for years and I would bury them here in the same graveyard.

One day the police brought two bodies. Both corpses had torture marks and bruises all over. I could see their bones. Even today, after so many years, I remember looking at those bodies. It was painful to witness all of that. They looked like twin brothers in their early 20s. When I returned home after burying them I couldn’t stop myself from weeping. Almost everyone in my village started calling me a police agent. But this never stopped me from burying the dead. How could I let the bodies decay by not burying them?

The police would come at midnight, sometimes early morning, to hand over the bodies to me. After every burial I would go home and wash my blood-drenched clothes. Most of the dead had multiple bruises and some had even partly decomposed. The bullet wounds, torture marks and the scary appearance of the bodies are still afresh in my mind. They were young men drenched in blood. It was very depressing to look at their faces. No one in the village had the courage to see the corpses, not even the policemen, so it was very difficult to bury them. No one volunteered to help. People used to say they would get nightmares if they looked at the carcasses. Later, only young men from the village came to help.

One day the police came in a Gypsy along with the local SHO. They were around ten men and they had five bodies in gunny bags. I broke down on seeing that. I told the SHO that I wouldn’t bury them. I said, do it yourself. He replied, ‘Humko azad karo. (Free us.)’ Those five bodies were of young men. I was not scared. Never. It was something else. I cannot put into words what I felt when I had to look at those bodies.

I used to get a local cleric to hold funeral prayers before burials. The police made me sign some papers too. Whatever I could do, I did. One day nine bodies came. It was the last time. They were from Boniyar. One of them was from our own village. The villagers identified him. I was told by the police to dig nine graves, which I did. I completed digging at night, when I got a message from one of my relations that I needed to go to Zainpora, where my relatives live. I had been handed over four bodies and five still lay in some forests. I left for Zainpora and later when I came back I saw that the police had buried all nine bodies. The villagers told me that one of the dead was my nephew, Saleem. I hadn’t see his corpse. But they knew it was him. Saleem’s father identified his photograph after two days and I came to know he had been buried in one of those nine graves.

I remember meeting Saleem one last time before he died. He had come to my house. We had tea together and then he left. He was my sister’s only son and I did not know whether he had become a militant or they just killed him. Another body among those nine was also identified. That boy was from Guatamala; his family was informed. They came and took his body. That night eight bodies were buried along with my nephew’s.

The year Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, I went to visit my relatives in Pakistan. My family and I spent a month there. In that one month, the police had buried around 30-35 bodies in the graveyard. Then after some time they brought one more body and buried it.

A few weeks later, I went to the police station and told the officers not to bring any more bodies, as there was no space left in the graveyard. Since then no corpses were brought here. They might have found another place. There must be some other gravedigger like me doing the same work I did.

Those days were brutal. I have not slept since then. I still live in the past, with those bodies. Everyone I have ever buried is always in front of my eyes. They haunt me. I can see their faces. I can never forget the condition of those bodies.

I remember all those moments, the sound of the earth as I covered the graves and corpses and their mutilated faces. It is all in my mind. I cannot forget those mothers who wandered in search of their sons and never found them. My memory is all that I have. Actually, these are not memories. I still live them.

Sometimes relatives of those who have disappeared visit the graveyard and cry while looking at the burial place. They ask me how the corpses looked when I buried them. They ask where they were hit by bullets or if they had any marks of torture on their bodies. But how do I answer them? What can I tell? I am very tired now. I don’t like to talk to people who ask me questions about what happened here. I have spoken several times about it, but there has been no result. While these graveyards have been exposed, not even a single corpse has been identified. I wish these bodies, buried in this graveyard, could be acknowledged, named, so their loved ones could find out about them. So far, only a few bodies, around five – I don’t remember well – have been identified.

While suffering from ill health, when I went to doctors, I didn’t tell them this story of my life. I am restless. When a bullet is fired it doesn’t see who it hits. Blood used to be on my body, on my clothes, on my face. I always thought my profession was work for Allah and a way to heaven. I feel as though I am in shock. I cannot forget the body of a boy, around 18 years of age. He was killed in Sopore. He was hit on the left side of his chest; five policemen had brought his body. The policemen told me to keep his wrist-watch but I didn’t keep it. I told them, what would I do with this watch when it didn’t help this boy?

I don’t go back to the graveyard now. It reminds of everything that I saw. One day, there was a body of a young man. I buried him. He had been hit by a volley of bullets on his chest. A little later, his family got to know about his killing and his brother arrived to take his corpse. I dug the grave, and what we found was surprising. Only the clothes remained, but not the body. He was gone. It is a mystery. We don’t know what happens to us after life. Maybe they were all martyrs.

Everyone I buried died because of the same cause, the ongoing struggle in Kashmir. I feel honoured that I was the person who buried them. I pray for all of them. I respect all those I buried in this graveyard. I don’t know what will happen to me after death. But what I did is the only thing I could have done at that time.

(As told to and transcribed by Fahad Shah.)