Kashmir Through The Memory Of A 75-Year-Old Grave Digger

Posted by 101reporters in Kashmir, Society, Staff Picks
December 21, 2016

By Mudasir Kuloo for Youth Ki Awaaz:

The tombstones stand like sentinels over the graves, one beside the other in neat rows, marking the graves of the Kashmiris killed in the violence that has been the bane of the Valley since 1989.

The Martyr’s Graveyard or the Mazar-e-Shahuda tells a bloody history. And an old man keeps a watch over the graves all his waking hours. His name is Habibullah Khan, a 75-year-old grave-digger who has dedicated his days to give the dead what they couldn’t get in life – Dignity.

The Mazar-e-Shahuda is located at the Eidgah in Old City Srinagar. It has nearly 1500 graves in it, so far. Khan, who is of Afghan descent, remembers most of the dead and the circumstances under which they were brought here.

“Most of those buried in this graveyard were young, in the age-group of 15 to 25, but there is also the grave of a 105-year-old man here who too was a victim of the conflict,” says Khan. “My body trembles when I bury small kids. There was a five-year-old boy from Maharaj Gunj and a two-year-old named Saqib Bashir. What was their fault? Why were their lives snatched from them?” he asks, tears welling up.

Habibullah Khan at the graveyard that was once a children’s park.

Etched in Khan’s mind are the stories of the conflict that has afflicted Kashmir since 1989. All the bodies of the people brought to the Mazar-e-Shahuda carried the marks of the wounded dead – bullets, bombs, pellets, tear gas shells and torture, says Khan.

Wearing a Pheran, the loose-fitting gown-like winter-wear of the Kashmiri, his grey beard neatly trimmed, Khan gives the impression of a stately scholar. Add to that his sensitive nature, and you wonder what he would have been in another life.

For now, though, he is the face of Mazar-e-Shahuda. The idea of ‘Martyrs Graveyard’ was conceived by Khan along with locals of Eidgah locality in 1989 when 10 to 15 people would get killed, on an average, daily in the Valley.

“This place was turned into a Mazar-e-Shahuda, to bury people who get killed in the conflict. In the beginning, there were several of us to bury the martyrs brought here but now I am the only one alive,” says Khan.

The 75-year-old happens to be an accidental grave-digger. He got an idea of how to dig a grave from watching a grave-digger dig a grave for his mother when she passed away.

“I saw and learnt how a grave-digger digs a grave. Now I am digging graves for martyrs for the last 27-years,” he says in a matter-of-fact manner. Till then, he was running an electrical appliances shop, which now stands shut.

Khan remembers the first body he had buried in the Mazar-e-Shahuda, brought to the graveyard in 1989 from Soura.

“We buried him but came to know only three days after the burial that he was Mir Mushtaq,” recalls Khan. Mir Mushtaq was among the top militant commanders in Kashmir and was first one buried there.

He says many of the dead brought to Mazar-e-Shahuda were unidentified people killed in the conflict in Kashmir. Several others were Pakistani citizens who had infiltrated into Kashmir from across the border and were killed in encounters with security forces.

Age has not deterred Khan from devoting himself to the service of the dead in the graveyard. Several times in a day, even in the harsh winters, he can be spotted making his rounds, tending to the flowers blooming on the graves.

Of course, there are those who look down upon him for taking up the job of a grave-digger, but he’s not fazed by such people. “I don’t mind what people say about me; some even disrespect me. I’m determined to do this work till the last breath of my life. I will get my reward from Allah,” says Khan.

Khan is married and has three children. “My grandfather migrated to Kashmir from Afghanistan and settled in the Valley. I’ve two daughters and a son,” he says. “My son did not take up grave-digging.”

Interestingly, the man who has buried more than 1000 dead does not charge a single rupee for the job from the families whose dear ones are brought to the martyr’s graveyard for burial.

He survives on a monthly remuneration of ₹1500 he gets from the Mirwaiz Umar Farooq-led Hurriyat Conference. The Mirwaiz spends another ₹20,000 per annum on the maintenance of the cemetery.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s father Moulvi Farooq is also buried in the same graveyard. He was assassinated by some gunmen in 1990.

“The leaders of India, Pakistan and Kashmir must decide. They have to find a solution which will stop the bloodbath in the Valley. How long will this violence continue? The Mazar-e-Shahuda is filled with victims of the conflict,” says a visibly anguished Khan.

Asked about the nearly 9000 people who have gone missing in Kashmir since the conflict began, Khan says that all those who were victims of the conflict, especially from Old City Srinagar, are buried in Mazar-e-Shahuda.

From a distance, the graveyard looks like a park, but as one approaches it, the inscription on the ornate gate catches the eye – ‘Lest you forget, we have given our today for your tomorrow’.

The graveyard, which before 1989 used to be a vast playground, is surrounded by a concrete and iron wall. There are some telling epitaphs on the tombstones on the graves. They point to the sentiments of “freedom and feeling of subjugation” in the Valley.

‘When slaves are martyred they are relieved of their pain’ reads one tombstone, that of 22-year-old Ashiq Hussain, who was killed on August 20, 1996.

Another epitaph ‘Labour of love’ is for Tufail Mattoo, a young boy who was killed after a tear gas shell exploded on his head six years ago. That killing, says Khan, triggered the 2010 unrest in the Valley.

Close to Tufail’s grave is that of Wamiq Farooq, a class 7 student who too was hit on the head by a teargas shell during the 2010 unrest.

The youngest “martyr” buried in Mazar-e-Shahuda was two-year-old Saqib Bashir, killed in 1992. Locals allege he was killed by security forces along with his mother. Khan says many people were killed the day Saqib’s body was brought to the graveyard. All of them are buried alongside Saqib.

A photojournalist Mushtaq Ali is also buried in the martyr’s graveyard. He was killed by a parcel bomb on September 10, 1995, in Srinagar’s Press Colony.

Besides, there are also the graves of Kashmiri militants who were killed by the security forces since the conflict in Kashmir began in 1989.

Among the most recent burials that took place was that of Qaisar Sofi, a 16-year-old resident of Shalimar, who was buried in the graveyard in November this year.

Sofi was found in an unconscious state a day after he went missing on October 27. He breathed his last in hospital. His family alleged that Sofi was poisoned and tortured by the police but the police claimed that the boy consumed poison on his own.

Khan never forgets to keep one grave dug up in advance, ready for a burial. “One grave is always kept ready. We don’t know when somebody will get killed in Kashmir,” says Khan.

A telling statement on the never-ending cycle of violence in the Valley. In 2010, 120 civilians were killed; this summer, the toll has crossed 100, mostly youth.

About the author: Mudasir Kuloo is a Srinagar-based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.