By Junaid Rather:
Bilquees was waiting for her turn on the banks of Wular Lake to take a ride when the boat capsised. Moments later she saw her sister Rehana drowning. “Her last words to me were – papas wanta mi bachaw (tell father to save me),” she says.
The vast lake was abuzz with activity on that bright summer day. Girls running around, boys playing hide-and-seek in nearby thickets and teachers disciplining tots to sing poems of hope and a brighter tomorrow. The usually silent Wular had come to life. In the afternoon, children were goaded at a place for lunch. Almost everyone spoke of the joyride that was to be taken once the lunch was over.
A Boat Assault Universal Type (BAUT) speedboat came cruising towards the banks and the children thumped the ground in jubilation. It belonged to MARCOS – highly trained marine commandoes belonging to the Indian Navy, who have been stationed at the lake since the outbreak of insurgency in the state in 1989.
The first batch of students and teachers boarded the boat and it set out for a joyride that was a ‘gesture of friendship’ offered by the MARCOS. While a group of children and their teachers got off safely from the first two rides, the small speedboat, with over 30 on board, and which is meant for 16 fully equipped combat troops and two crew members, capsised in the middle of the lake. The negligence on part of MARCOS cost 22 lives including 20 children.
Shaista was among the children from Burning Candle School who were in the boat when it capsised. “We were almost 35 people in the boat. There was a hole in the bottom of the boat where from water was continuously coming in,” she says.
Contrary to the Navy’s claim that the children had assembled on one-side and the boat lost balance when it took a sharp turn. She says, “Water had seeped into the boat through the hole and it lost balance and collapsed.”
Abdul Hamid, a resident of Watlab – situated on the banks of the lake says, “I was watching these kids from other side of the lake. They were very happy. Once they reached at centre, the boat collapsed.” He adds that the boat “didn’t take any steep turn.”
Locals here say these deaths could have been prevented if men from the Navy hadn’t stopped them. “When kids shouted for help, people from all adjacent areas gathered. But the Navy personnel didn’t allow us to interfere. Despite that we rescued six kids. If the Navy hadn’t stopped us we could have saved more,” says Hamid’s friend Mohammad Ramzan.
Classmates, friends and siblings died after the boat capsised in Wular on May 30, 2006. Not far away from the Handwara market in a desolate alley is the house of Ayesha Bano, who lost her six-year-old son Mehraj-ud-din and 10-year-old daughter Shameema in the tragedy.
With tears rolling down her eyes she regrets her decision to send her children on a picnic despite their father opposing the decision. “I compelled my husband to give permission to the kids for an excursion,” she says amid sobs.
He did not allow, but, Ayesha joined the chorus with along her children and made him agree.
“The teachers of Burning Candle Public School assured that they will not take kids to a place where there was a water body,” she says.
Sources say that the school authorities changed their mind after the Navy offered them the joyrides as a “friendship gesture”. Instead of going to picnic to the shrine of a saint in Reshvoor, they headed to Watlab on the banks of Wular.
“If I would have come to know earlier that school authorities are going for excursion under the Indian Navy. I would have never sent my kids with them,” she says adding, “It seems that Indian navy and school authorities had pre-planned for the murder of 20 kids.”
Like Ayesha, Farooq Ahmad who lost his two daughters was not aware that the excursion was in collaboration with the Navy. He was also kept in the dark about the spot chosen for the excursion. The lie cost him his daughters Samreena, a student of Class IX, and Suraya, who was in Class II.
“School authorities assured me that they will take kids to Baba Shukur Din Shrine. But notwithstanding their promise they took our kids to Watlab,” he says.
The pain keeps on manifesting for Farooq and his family. “After one month, Samreena’s teacher gave me my daughter’s picture and told me that she had clicked it half an hour before this episode,” he says.
Had it not been for the local fishermen, Farooq would have lost his third daughter, Shaista. “She was among the children who drowned but was rescued by local fishermen,” he says.
Names of children who drowned are inscribed on a stone. All the children have been buried in a graveyard near Handwara where smiling roses ornament the graves. “The children share graves here. Brothers have been buried together, somewhere three children are buried in the same grave,” says the caretaker.
In the hearts of its survivors, the tragedy is still fresh. “I also boarded the boat, but my Didi (sister) made me get down saying that it is dangerous to travel in it as it was already overloaded,” recalls Sufiya, who lost her two sisters in the tragedy.