Indian armed forces use high-intensity explosives to kill rebels in the disputed Kashmir region and many a time they have left behind live ammunition in civilian areas, which has led to several casualties.
SRINAGAR, Indian-administered Kashmir – One evening in early February, 2011, Mohammed Maqbool Bhat sat in his one-room house in Srinagar, the capital of the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir. As Bhat waited for his wife to call him for dinner in their makeshift kitchen outside, he heard a loud bang.
At first, he thought it was an electric transformer on the road that made the sound. But a few seconds later, he heard his wife Yasmeena crying out for him. He bolted from the door and saw Yasmeena near the kitchen door, bleeding from her throat and holding on to her newborn baby, Nighat.
The father of six children who are between three months to 17 years of age, Bhat was unable to grasp what was going on around him. He ran inside the kitchen and faced a macabre scene.
"There were body parts and blood all over the floor," he says. "I saw Mumtaz (his daughter) bleeding and crying. I dragged her out, but I didn't have the courage to go back inside again. I just sat there next to her and screamed till the neighbors heard us."
A bombshell had exploded in Bhat's kitchen. The blast was so ferocious that his two children Noor Mohammed and Bisma died on the spot. Another one passed away the next day in the hospital. Somehow, his wife and three other children survived.
Earlier in the day, his 14-year-old son Noor had picked up what the surviving family members described as "a round metal object" from the debris of a nearby house. Not knowing what it was, he brought it home and started playing with it in the kitchen while his siblings sat next to him.
"There was no electricity," Yasmeena recalls. "We all were sitting around the candle. I was breastfeeding Nighat. He tried to open a round metal object on the grinding stone."
Suddenly there was a loud noise.
The metal object turned out to be an explosive. A few months ago, three anti-India rebels associated with Lashkar e Taiba militant outfit were killed by Indian armed forces in a gunfight a few hundred meters away from Bhat's house.
Bhat says the forces used heavy artillery, destroying the house in which the rebels were entrapped. After the end of the military operation, they left without cleaning up the area. Noor, as per Bhat, found the shell somewhere near the scene of fighting while he was playing with his friends.
"The explosion was so powerful that Nighat went flying to the door. I picked her up and ran out. I didn't even realise I was bleeding at the time," says Yasmeena.
As the news spread across the disputed region, local ministers and high-ranking police officials as well as some members of India's paramilitary Central Reserved Police Forces (CRPF) came to visit Bhat and his family.
The government promised Bhat that he would be given financial aid. An unskilled labourer, Bhat spent all his savings on the medication of his injured family members. He was in desperate need of monetary help and the government did not live up to its promise, as Bhat had to fight for the compensation.
"My shoes wore out making rounds of every department in the government," he says while shuffling a bundle of documents he has assembled over the years.
Two years later in 2013, the State Human Rights Commission pushed the government to pay Bhat his dues. In its order, the commission noted, “… this grave and pathetic incident has allegedly taken place only because of the sole negligence of the district administration including the police and bomb disposal squad who failed to clear the debris after the encounter between security forces and militants.”
The commission also said that the government should pay for the damage of Bhat's house and also provide him a government job.
But Bhat says he was paid $12,500 (800,000 Indian rupees). He spent most of it on the treatment of his wife and his 17-year-old daughter Mumtaz. “The neighbours gave us some land to build a new house. I spent some of the money on building the house and rest on their treatment. We are very poor. We were already having a hard time surviving,” Bhat says.
Bhat married off Mumtaz in 2015. But last year she returned to her parents' house as she began suffering from the bouts of pain in her legs and lower back, a side effect of her injuries. During the long months of winter, it gets worse with swelling.
Bhat isn't doing well either. He has grown frail and he hasn't been getting much work. His 19-year-old son Ashiq goes out to collect scrap metal, which he later sells in the scrap market.
India's pledge to the UN
India is a signatory to the United Nations' Protocol on Explosive Remnants of War, which requires nations involved in a conflict to “mark and clear, remove or destroy explosive remnants of war.” It states that parties to an armed conflict need to protect civilians “from the risks and effects of explosive remnants of war.” This might include “warnings, risk education to the civilian population, marking, fencing and monitoring of territory affected by explosive remnants of war.”
The number of human injuries caused by abandoned residue explosions in the disputed territory varies from source to source. Though several newspapers report that at least 1,074 have been killed and 2,068 injured in accidental explosions caused by neglected ammunition, the data collected by the government-run Jammu and Kashmir Public Commission on Human Rights suggests that around 200 people have been seriously injured in such circumstances. Almost 70 percent of these victims have been children below the age of 16, the majority of whom belong to the areas that fall close to the Line of Control (LoC), a de facto border that divides Kashmir into two parts: Indian- and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Of late, blasts caused by deserted explosives are taking place in civilian areas, putting densely populated urban neighbourhoods at risk.
A deadly cycle
In September 2015, a soldier and a militant were killed in a gunfight in North Kashmir's Ladoora village. The next morning, 12-year-old Junaid Ahmed Dar and his friends were playing around the site. In the afternoon, he came home for lunch. His mother, Fahmeeda, says she saw a metal object in his hand but she didn’t pay much attention to it.
While eating his lunch, Junaid saw a clock lying on the floor and wanted to hang it on the wall. His mother handed him a nail that was crooked. So they both went to the attic to straighten it. Junaid took the metal object out of his pocket and started hitting the nail with it. Then there was an explosion.
Fahmeeda lost consciousness. When she woke up a few hours later in the hospital with an injured arm, Junaid was dead.
"He (Junaid) had not even finished his lunch. The clock had some Quranic verse written on it and he didn’t want it to lay on the ground. I don’t remember anything but my husband told me he had suffered grave injuries. At the time, I didn’t know what he was holding,” she says as her eyes welled up with tears.
Junaid’s father, Tanveer Ahmad was promised compensation for Junaid’s death. But he never got it. “I was asked to come to the police station to settle the case as if I had committed a crime. More than the compensation, I want the guilty to be punished. Someone’s negligence cost us Junaid's life,” he says.
Kashmir-based human rights activist Khurram Parvez says that such incidents have been taking place quite regularly in the region. "Somebody is not doing their job properly and the government should investigate into it," he says. "Innocent lives are being lost."
Rajesh Kalia, an Indian army officer who deals with reporters in Srinagar, refuses to acknowledge that people have died by uncleared explosives in civilian areas.
“Every time there is an encounter the army does a sweep to clear the area," Kalia says. "We don’t use mortars like we do on the border that can result in such incidents. Yes, there have been cases in the border areas where someone stepped on an old landmine and was injured.”
Kalia's position on the issue is in contrast to the reality on the ground. Kashmir is full of stories of loss and destruction, and the stories linked to abandoned explosives are galore.
In South Kashmir's Bamnoo village, a similar incident happened just last year. In June 2017, three rebels of Hizbul Mujahideen were killed by Indian armed forces. A few weeks later, 17-year-old Muzamil Ahmed Khan spotted a steel sheet at the spot of the gunfight. As he laid his hands on it, a bomb went off, ripping through Muzamil’s left arm, leg and torso.
Both of Muzamil’s parents had died when he was young. Bedridden for the last four months, his older sister, and younger brother Naseer are the only ones who are looking after him.
"We don't want anything from the government," says Naseer. "But they should take responsibility for what they have done to my brother."