‘Everything is lost’

A poet in conflict-torn Kashmir laments the destruction of his life’s work.Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, known in literary circles as the poet Madhosh Balhami, stands in front of his home, destroyed in a gun battle between Indian forces and militants.

BALHAMA, Indian-administered Kashmir — The poet was scribbling verse one Thursday afternoon when gunshots rang out. He dropped his pen and looked around for signs of danger.

Minutes later, three armed men pushed their way into Ghulam Mohammad Bhat’s house, ignoring his wife’s protests. The militants told Bhat and his family to leave. “They told me I can take away any precious thing from the house. They wanted to die and attain martyrdom,” he recounted.

Bhat and his family ran. The 52-year-old poet abandoned his life’s work — about a 1,000 pages of poetry — in his home, not knowing that within hours it would be reduced to ash.

In Indian-administered Kashmir, clashes between militants and Indian troops frequently break the peace, and in this case the flow of artistic imagination, with tragic consequences. The Muslim-majority region has been caught in conflict between bordering India, Pakistan and China for decades. India and Pakistan have fought three major wars over it, and border skirmishes and insurgencies flare frequently.

Bhat’s home became the scene of the latest tussle. A gunfight between the three militants and Indian troops raged all night, and the family waited it out at his brother’s house nearby. In the morning, Bhat returned to find debris and dust where his proud, two-story home once stood.

On Monday, his family dug through the remains to salvage anything that might have survived the fighting — copper utensils, photos and his eight notebooks of unpublished poetry, a lifetime of work. But there was only rubble.

After the gunfight, Bhat found the remains of two pillars and carved a couplet in ash:

“Many have been robbed until now.

“Many heads are being severed.”

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“Everything is lost,” said Bhat’s 24-year-old son, covering his face as he and a group of laborers shoveled rubble in what used to be his bedroom.

“The poetry was more precious to me than anything else,” Bhat said. He had filled 1,000 pages with verses about major events in Islamic history, including the death of prophet Muhammad’s grandson, the Iranian revolution and his own broken land of Kashmir.

Kashmiris gather around war-ravaged houses after a gun battle between Indian forces and Kashmiri militants March 16 in the Balhama area of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir. (Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)
Treading over the remnants of his home, Bhat broke into verse:

“I sense the smell of the burning of hay.

“The cruel man was burning my house.

“The one who refused to give me water at the time of death is mourning.”

The militants who seized Bhat’s home March 15 were members of the Ansar Ghazwatul Hind, according to Vidhi Kumar Birdi, Kashmir’s deputy inspector general of police.

The group calls itself a local affiliate of al-Qaeda. Its leader, Zakir Musa, appeared in a video in May, advocating for sharia law in Kashmir and threatening to hang the severed heads of separatist leaders in Srinagar’s main market.

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Police said the three men were seeking shelter after a failed assassination attempt on a local politician, a member of India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party. They had fled the scene of the attempted attack just 25 minutes before reaching Bhat’s house, in the hills above Srinagar.

Indian soldiers take part in a search operation following a battle between militants and government forces in Balhama. (Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images)
Militant groups in this area, including some backed by Pakistan in Kashmir, have been fighting for independence from India since 1989, and since then a crackdown by the Indian army has led to almost 70,000 deaths, according to some estimates. The strife in Kashmir has been mostly over territorial control, but Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda have long sought to establish a presence here, although their influence in the region is disputed by experts.

Bhat published two volumes of poems in 1985 — “Pain of Loss” and “Voice of Abu Zar” under the pen name Madhosh Balhami. Too poor to keep publishing, he started collecting his writings in his home, hoping to one day have enough money to release a new volume.

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He took up a job as the press secretary of the Jammu and Kashmir Anjuman-e-Sharie Shian, a separatist party, earning around $122 a month, while writing in his spare time.

Between 1996 and 2000, Bhat served time in jail after he was criminally charged for reciting his poems at the funerals of militants. His family sold a part of their land, and his sons eventually dropped out of school to earn for the family.

The loss of his home now has deepened Bhat’s penury. His family has moved into a small kitchen in what remains of his house. Their possessions include little more than a handful of quilts and mattresses and some cooking utensils. “I couldn’t even take out an extra pair of clothes,’’ said Bhat’s wife, Fazee.

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But amid the tragedy, Bhat’s old poems are finding new fame in WhatsApp groups and on social media.

“The poetry is revolutionary in spirit,” said Bhat’s friend Tahir Chalkey. “It has been widely shared, which has only made him more endearing to people.”

Bhat said he found some solace knowing that his story was moving others: “It helps me alleviate the pain of losing the work in the fire.”