File photo.

Srinagar, 4 February 2007: A rusty chain link shuts the mite-eaten wooden door. The knock is not answered. “She won’t,” a neighbour says and points towards the pale light of a candle flickering from a little window-pane. “But she is there. It’s already evening and she has nowhere else to go.” He asks us to follow and shouts loudly several times as he takes us around into the backyard of her house. She peeps through a window, and without asking any questions, goes to open the door. We find her sitting in a tiny room, its mud walls painted blue like a Sufi shrine, in a corner of her large three-story run down house.

Deep inside Habba Kadal, where streets run like a crawling snake through a cluster of housing blocks, even the buzz of this dense downtown locality does not break the silence in Mughli’s lonely world. She is nearly deaf and never listens to the knocks on her door. For years, there have been no visitors, particularly after the sundown. One morning – she says it was first September of the first tehreek (militant struggle) several years ago – her teacher son Nazir Ahmad Teli left for school. She never saw him again – she never did – and Mughli became on of the first members of a tragic club of several thousands women whose young sons or husbands have disappeared, majority of them after being picked up by police or security forces. Bonded by a mutual pain and a shared tale, the group Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) says 10,000 men have disappeared since a counter-insurgent assault began in the valley in1990.

Mughli – who doesn’t remember her age – says the shock broke her back. “He was born after my husband divorced me. I had no one. I didn’t marry again and raised him. He was the only reason for my life,” she says. “He had never stayed away from home – not even for a single night. Each day he would return from school and give me a hug. I am still waiting. I wish to hug him once. If they tell me he is dead, I would hug his grave. I don’t know what happened to him and this pain, this uncertainty is unbearable.”

She takes off her thick glasses and wipes off her tears with the corner of her shawl. “Every time I tell this story I feel as if I rind my wounds – as if a sharp knife is dipped in my wound again,” she says, her face looks like the decaying lattice work in the windows of her rumpled house. “These walls are my only companion and they don’t ask anything.” She wails in murmurs, her words inaudible. Where did you search for him? “I waited and waited for him that evening. When the sun went down and it was dark, I knew something is wrong. He would always come straight to home after his work,” she recalls. “I felt my heart is sinking and I called my neighbours. They came and tried to console me till late in the night. I spent that night awake sitting on the window looking at the door – he didn’t return.”

“As the dawn broke”, she recalls, “I went to the police station. They asked many questions. I knew nothing so they took down my son’s name, his picture and our address and wrote a report, promising to come to my house with his news. They never came.” Then, she says, someone told her she needs to go to ‘bigger officers’ to seek help. “I went everywhere. I went to every office in Batamaloo (J-K Police headquarters). I waited for hours outside the gate, pleading with the policemen to let me in. I put my ‘pooch’ (the head scarf) on their (officers) feet. They would listen and then say they don’t know anything.”

Mughli looks around, pushes her hands to the floor and stands up. Then she searches through a cardboard box and takes out a photograph of her son– a black and white picture of a man who looks around 30. For days, Mughli says, she would leave home in the morning and walk to Lalchowk (Srinagar’s city centre). “I would stop people on the road and show them my son’s photo, hoping someone will tell me he saw him,” she recalls.

She says she even visited politicians. “Nobody helped. Nobody told me whether he is alive or dead,” she says. “Each one of them (in the government) promised to help me in my search. And my hope is alive.” She also filed a petition in the court. “My case is still going on. But there is no progress.”

Now a neighbour had told her about the recent expose of a carpenter Abdul Rehman Padroo from a South Kashmir village, who had disappeared after being picked up by Ganderbal Police in Srinagar, shot dead, dubbed as a Pakistani militant and buried in a graveyard in Sumbal. “My heart started sinking again. I feel my son too is lying in an anonymous grave somewhere,” she says. “I felt the pain of that family (carpenter Padroo’s family). They are still lucky to find out he (their son) has been killed. At least, they could give their son a decent burial.”

In fact, Association of Parents of Disappeared which was set up to search their missing wards together has now turned into just a group catharsis – where the families of the disappeared meet, share their common stories and help each other to cope with the constant trauama.

And apart from the recent Padroo case where his mobile phone exposed a network of policemen led by a Superintendent of Police who had killed five villagers from remote villages in South Kashmir in fake encounters and Pathribal fake encounter where five villagers were killed in March, 2000 after being dubbed as Pakistani militants by army and police, there have been just half a dozen cases where the families were able to locate their missing son’s buried after being killed as foreign militants in fake encounters.

“I heard there are many more such graves in Sumbal,” Mughli says. “Do you think there is a way I can find out?”. But then she murmurs as if answering her own query. “Even if he is dead, I cannot recognize him (her son) after so many years. There would be nothing left of his body.” She starts sobbing and her tears have wet her glasses. “I don’t go to meet anybody now. I drag myself to the shrine and pray almost everyday. It makes me feel lighter.”

Mughli’s life, in fact, has been full of tragedies. She says she was divorced by her husband just three months after her marriage and when her son Nazir Ahmad Teli was born, she decided to dedicate her life to him. “He (her former husband) abandoned him (Teli) too. This is my father’s house and I came to live here, my son too was born here. Then he died. I had one sister, she too died few years ago,” she says. “I have few relatives but they are busy with their own lives. Who will have time for this old woman.”

And as the night falls, the room looks like a cave in the corner of a large dark house. There is a knee height wooden panel dividing a traditional hearth where few aluminum pots lie around a gass stove. “This house was once full of people. Now it is empty,” she says. “This was our kitchen. Now it is everything for me– I eat here, sleep here, and pray here. For days I fall asleep while sitting – drowned in my own thoughts.”

Mughli says she has never gone upstairs since her son went missing. “His room is there. And that day I had arranged his things and cleaned the room. I could never have the courage to go there again. It is locked.”

She once tried to commit suicide as well. “One afternoon, I was thinking about him (her son’s). I was thinking about his marriage – about a daughter-in-law and grand children and I felt there is nothing left in my life,” she recalls. “I left home and went straight to the bridge (on Jehlum river which flows nearby) and was about to jump when shopkeepers saw me. They consoled me and then brought me back home. Perhaps I didn’t also wanted to die – perhaps God has sent me to this world to suffer alone.”

With a choked voice, she wails as if she is reciting a poem about loneliness. “Once I was little princess – God had given me a diamond, my son – Why did you give me a son, if you were to take him away,” she says, her empty gaze stuck on the flickering candle. “One day I thought it is already over and gave up. Then I heard about a boy who returned home after being missing for 12 long year’s. He was in seventh grade when he disappeared. He told them (his family), he was in a jail. Now he is a young man,” she says. “This gave me hope – may be he is alive somewhere in a jail and will return before my death.”

She says her son comes in her dreams. “He (her son) calls me in the dream. He tells me he is alive.”

This story of the return of a missing man seems to be just a dream of hope of a desperate mother who too wants her missing son to return alive. Nobody in her neighbourhood knows about it. But the bodies of five missing men from remote South Kashmir villages exhumed from graves miles away from their home – where they lied buried as Pakistani militants – is no nightmare of their families but a harsh reality.

First published in The Indian Express on 5 February 2007.

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