As per local accounts, the Indian armed forces shot dead a 30-year-old groom-to-be in southern Kashmir in early April this year. Four months later, a Kashmiri photographer visits his mother and fiancé.
KULGAM, India-administered Kashmir — The bride-to-be, young and shy, is just a typical village girl. Her mild demeanour, sunken cheeks, her chest heaved as she sighed. Numbness echoed from the blue walls of the room as she silently cried. Two years ago, Mahjabeen and Sarjeel were engaged. Sarjeel Ahmad Shiekh, 30, was a driver by profession.
On April 11, Sarjeel was at his relative’s house in Khudwani village in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district. Outside, a fierce gun fight broke out between the Indian security forces and rebels. As Sarjeel stepped out to use the washroom in the compound of the house, the security forces shot him dead.
Had Sarjeel survived, the couple would have been living a married life by now. Tabish, who is Sarjeel's sister and married to Mahjabeen's brother, has now taken the charge to find a new groom for Mahjabeen.
Kashmiri photojournalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo recently visited Sarjeel's mother and fiancé. Her haunting photo series portrays the emptiness of their lives.
Spring, a season known to be for new beginnings, has proven to be the bloodiest season of this year so far. In April alone, more than 20 families carried the biers. According to Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), at least 100 civilians were killed in the disputed Kashmir region from January 1 to July 18 this year.
Sarjeel’s body was kept at one of his relative’s houses the whole day as a confrontation continued to rage near his house, meaning people were not allowed to take the body to his house. His father and mother were not allowed to see the face of their dead son for hours.
“I don’t want days to come, I want night to remain so that he might talk to me... at night I would feel the warmth of his blood on my arm. I often forget that he is beneath the soil. Without him my nights are sleepless... and days restless. I want to escape..run away..far away..where I could cry..and no-one would listen,’ says his mother as she squinted up at the bright light bulb dangling from the ceiling.
A couple of days before he got killed, he had asked his friends to stand with him and pose for a picture, adding, “Who knows, if tomorrow we might attain martyrdom, at least this picture might remain.’’
The fighting had started in the night. The Indian forces laid a siege around Khudwani village. Three rebels associated with Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) militant outfit were hiding in the village.
A gunfight ensued. Many residents of the village protested against the soldier's presence. In response, the Indian armed forces opened fire at the unarmed protesters, killing three other civilians besides Sarjeel and injuring 50 more. Choppers and drones hovered in the sky. But the three LET rebels managed to escape the village. The Indian armed forces left the area after setting several houses on fire.
Mahjabeen recalled her last conversation with Sarjeel. He talked about buying his nephew a present, the Holy Quran. Mahjabeen poked fun at him since he didn't read the holy book on regular basis. Sarjeel replied, “I've read my fair share."
Mahjabeen would have never imagined, not even in her worst nightmares, that a single bullet will shatter all her dreams. The thought of Sarjeel’s intuition — of becoming a martyr —coming true never occurred to her.
“He had promised me he would make me his bride at the end of this month,” says Mahjabeen, as she looks down at the jewellery box and fiddles with its clasp.