September 26, 2010

"It is an Honest Mistake"

Killing of three youths in Vilgam, Kupwara, July 24, 2005

Bilal Ahmed Sheikh, Shabir Ahmed Shah, Wasim Ahmed Wani, and Manzoor Ahmed Shah were attending the wedding festivities of Manzoor Ahmed's elder brother. Drummers had been brought in and the four teenagers danced all evening. Close to midnight, they slipped out and walked a short distance to the outskirts of the village, where hidden from disapproving adults, they lit a cigarette.

The groom, Farooq Ahmed Shah, remembers the sudden sound of gunfire. Everyone was shocked. Earlier, the groom's family had gone to the army camp near the village, invited troops to the wedding and informed them formally that the festivities would go on late into the night. He wondered why the army was conducting operations so close to the village.

As soon as the firing stopped, the villagers scurried home to safety. The parents of the youths worried about their sons, but assumed that they had decided to stay with a friend. At about 4 a.m. soldiers arrived at the home of Farooq Ahmed Shah. "They said my brother had been injured and asked my father to come with them to the hospital."

The villagers began to gather. By then, the other youths had already been discovered as missing. At around 9:30 a.m., the village headman returned with some soldiers and told the villagers that the army had opened fire, claiming to have mistaken the four teenagers for militants. Three of them, Bilal Ahmed, Shabir Ahmed, and Wasim Ahmed, had been killed. Manzoor Ahmed was in hospital with critical injuries.

The army apologized for the incident and offered 300,000 rupees (U.S.$6,500) in compensation for each of the three deaths. In an interview with Human Rights Watch soon after the incident, the army spokesman in Srinagar said there would be an inquiry: "We have to learn from this incident. We are already in the process of reviewing our operating procedures. We will see who was in charge and if there was scope for the commander to exercise restraint."

After the inquiry, according to the same spokesman, the soldier who had opened fire received a warning, but the details have not been publicized. The spokesman told us, "But you must try and understand the difficulties of our troops during such operations. We found that there had been two militant ambushes in the area earlier. In both cases, there were army casualties while the militants escaped. The men made an honest mistake when they opened fire this time. They did not expect the boys to be hiding and smoking."

Killing of Parvez Ahmad Dar, Kangan, Pulwama, July 20, 2005

Just four days before the incident at Vilgam, sixteen-year-old Parvez Ahmad Dar went with his father and uncle to open irrigation channels into their paddy field in Kangan village. Water is in short supply and villagers take turns to use the precious resource. While returning, Parvez Ahmad fell behind his father and uncle, who walked ahead carrying an oil lantern, a rule at night in rural Jammu and Kashmir to distinguish villagers from militants, who tend to use flashlights. According to Kabir Ahmad Dar, the victim's uncle:

“We heard firing and we went into a neighbor's hut for safety. We did not know where the boy was, but we thought he must have run to the village. At 6 a.m. the army said there was a crackdown and called everyone outside. There was a major with the soldiers and he said there had been crossfiring. We said there was no crossfire. The firing had come from only one side.... We wanted to go search for my nephew who was not in the village. The major refused to let us go.... He said that my nephew was a militant and had been shot while running away. When we started shouting then he finally admitted that a child had been killed by mistake”

The villagers ran to the field and found Parvez Ahmad lying there. He had been shot in the back. The villagers insist that the troops had opened fire without provocation. But Lt. Gen. S.S. Dhillon, the commanding officer of the 15th Corps, said that Parvez Ahmad was killed in "retaliatory fire" and that there was "a big difference between the July 20 and July 24 incidents." An inquiry was promised after protests by the villagers, but if it actually took place the results have not been made public.

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