The Tragedy of Saeda Begum
In a remote village in Aloosa Bandipora, around 65 kms from Srinagar, Saeda Begum, 75, often sits on the balcony of her four-room mud-house, quietly looking out towards the graveyard where her sons lie buried. Sometimes she cannot make sense of her tragedy. At times she forgets who died first, leaving her alone. “Ask my daughter,” she says when asked about her sons, “I am even losing my memory now after my sons left me.”
Two of Saeda’s sons, who were militants, were killed by the army in the early 90s, while the other two sons disappeared, including her son-in-law. After the family lost four sons, Saeda’s husband, the only male member left in the family, passed away in 2008. Without any male member left in the family, Saeda now lives with her elder daughter Shakeela Bano who has five kids to take care of. The family is living in poverty. Both mother and daughter have been on medication for the past 10 years now.
In 1992, Muhammad Ayub Bhat was first killed in a gun-fight with BSF troops in an encounter in Bandipora village. “He was fighting with other men who escaped but he received the bullets at the front,” says Shakeela Bano, the elder sister of Ayub. “My brother received all the bullets in his chest,” Shakeela proudly says, and then breaks down.
In the same year, a month after the death of Ayub, Shakeela says her brother Bilal Ahmad was arrested by the BSF troops from the nearby Koele village. “He was arrested and tortured through the night in Koele,” says Ghulam Mustafa, a relative of the family. “He was then killed in a fake encounter along with another local youth,” he says. His body was then handed over to the local police station. He was buried in the same graveyard where his brother rested.
The same year, Saeda’s youngest son, 16-year-old Azad (Abdul Aziz Bhat) disappeared while he was on his way to Srinagar. Earlier, when his two brothers were alive, Shakeela says Azad was harassed and arrested many times by the army and BSF to extract information about the whereabouts of his militant brothers. “One day he left for Srinagar for some carpet weaving work but he didn’t come back home in the evening,” says Shakeela. There has been no trace of Azad since then. “He was earlier arrested and tortured many times for weeks together in army camps to know the whereabouts of his brothers,” she says. “Both army and BSF troops would often come to our house and harass us,” Shakeela says, pointing at the mat near a window where her disappeared brother was once tortured.
Shakeela remembers the first name of one BSF officer who ruled their villages in the 90s with fear. His name was Tyagi, she says, he signified terror. “He would always carry a knife in his hands while moving around in the villages,” she recounts. “He would terrorize people. He had killed many people.”
What happened to him?
“khaber heas,” she says, “soe mae goael paete….” (Don’t know, she says, I guess he later died)
In 1992, Shakeela particularly remembers one harsh crackdown imposed by the army that lasted for seven days in their village. When the army came to our house, she recalls as she looks down, they asked me to lift the veil. Shakeela jumped from the window and injured herself, but she managed to escape. “I had to jump from the window at that time to save my honour,” she says. Her ailing father was at home. Although her father didn’t tell her, she later came to know that he was beaten up. “They had repeatedly hit his hands which were swollen when I saw him,” she recalls.
After Saeda lost all her sons, and since no male member was left in the family, she got Shakeela married within her relations. Riyaz Ahmad Malik, who married Shakeela in 1993, moved to Saeda’s house to take care of the remaining family. But another tragedy was about to befall on the already devastated family.
One day, in the summer of 1993, Riyaz left home to work in his field. Since that day he is missing. “There has been no trace of him since then,” says Shakeela who waited for him for years to come back. “There was rule of army and BSF here during those days,” she says. “How could he disappear in thin air?”
After waiting for some years, in 1996 Shakeela was again married to another man who moved into their house. Saeda, however, says he is more keen to grab a share in their property than taking care of their family. He sometimes doesn’t come home for weeks together. Sakina has six children, five from her second marriage, and one from the earlier marriage with Riyaz.
Although the family received one Lakh rupees in the name of one of their disappeared son, the money was distributed among five daughters of Saeda who are married. There has been no help from any quarter. No minister visited their house. Saeda receives a paltry widow fund of Rs 200 every month from the social welfare department.
Saeda’s husband, Muhammad Abdullah Bhat, passed away in 2008. “The troops would often harass him and asked him to persuade his sons to surrender when they were alive,” Saeda says. “But he never asked them to surrender and they never surrendered.”
“Tem draye panene khoshe seath,” Saeda says about her sons who picked up arms in the 90s, “Team kadnae kansee.”(They left on their own; no one asked them to..)
Saeda is concerned about her elder daughter now, and her kids at home. “What will happen to them after I die?” she asks. “Ames gasen noukri daen,” she says. (She should be given some employment).
In between long pauses Saeda speaks about her beloved sons who are no longer with her. “They would come home on some days and then leave quietly,” she recalls and then touches a different topic altogether. “What will you write?” she asks me abruptly. “Will you write that you came here and talked to an old woman who was having food…” she goes on, wanting to say more before her daughter interrupts her. “Sometimes she talks about other things which don’t make any sense,” her daughter tells me. The tragedy has taken a toll on her mental health.
Sometimes Saeda talks in verse about her loss: “Dore-dunya rozenae khen akelo, yae chuna bawafa baekelo….” At times she falls silent, unable to recount all the details about her sons. Sometimes she asks questions, like: ‘why have you come here? What do you want from an old woman like me?’ Sometimes she is unable to summon all the memories of her sons. “Ask my daughter,” she says at such moments when she is at a loss for words, “she knows everything…”
At times she stares at you, as if wanting to say something important which she just forgot. Saeda has been unwell since she lost all her sons. She has been on continued medication since then. “She is also mentally disturbed,” Shakeela informs. “We are both surviving on medication.” Shakeela herself has to take three different medicines everyday – all of them for hypertension.
All the photos of Saeda’s sons have been kept away from her. They are with her five daughters who took them away as she couldn’t look at them. “The photos cannot be kept within her sight,” Shakeela says.
Saeda often goes to the nearby graveyard where her two sons are buried. Accompanied by Shakeela, she often prays at their graves and weeps inconsolably. “Shuer che kabristanas manz….,” she says. Sometimes Saeda forgets to come back home in the afternoon. One of her relatives then brings her back to home from the graveyard.
Saeda believes her two sons picked up arms because of their conviction, because they had ‘jazbe’, as she puts it. “Bilal seab drav…Ayub seab drav…” she explains why her sons left one after another and picked up guns, “teman aus jazbae… tem kaed nae kansee.” (No one asked them to take up guns, they left on their own)
When Bilal would come home, Saeda remembers him telling her: “myaen khaet masherevzae.” Forget about me, he would tell his mother. “Yaetpeath bae shaheed gasea, kosh rozezae,’ he would often tell his mother. (Be happy when I achieve martyrdom)
“I wish one of my brothers were alive,” Shakeela says as she wipes her tears with one end of her scarf, “he would have taken care of my mother and our family.”
When Saeda speaks about her sons, she also talks about their fine work of carpet weaving which all of them had expertise in. My sons would do such fine work, weaving exquisite carpets, she says with pride about the work of her sons. “You should talk to people from other villages and in Srinagar,” she says, “and they will tell you how beautiful was their qaleen qari…”
Interrupting and consoling Saeda, who at times talks to herself, Shakeela says if her mother goes on talking and trying to recount more about her sons, it can be extremely painful for her. ‘She will then remain ill in the coming weeks,’ says Shakeela, ‘let’s not talk more about it.’
“Ames maje gase athe thavun phathe,” she says at the end as tears again appear in her eyes. (We should take care of such mothers)
(To help this family, readers can contact this writer at email@example.com