The day was proceeding lazily, like any other day in Srinagar, with sighs and repetitions. In the late afternoon, I heard news of firing and killings at a place called Pattan, thirty-five kilometers away. It didn’t immediately strike me as anything new or remarkable. Some more people dead, another report of violence, another family mourning their loved ones. Little did I know what I was going to witness would leave an indelible imprint on my mind forever.
Some time later, I received a phone-call from a journalist friend telling me that the victims would be shifted to the government hospital in Srinagar. Slinging a camera on my shoulder, I quickly made up my mind to visit the hospital. A crowd of journalists and photojournalists had gathered there. After waiting for over an hour, we learned that the injured would be taken to another facility in Soura, the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences. As people started making their way there, a few friends and I decided to visit the exact spot in Pattan where the disturbance had been reported.
Six of us took off on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad highway. I was on my bike. We had ridden for about sixteen kilometers when we suddenly encountered cordoned and blocked roads. The atmosphere was tense. I realized the army was all around us. There were barricades on the roads for as far as I could see. For the first time, we realized the gravity of the situation. As we rode along, this time slowing our pace, army personnel in the distance raised their hands and made terse signals pointing to the “Road Closed” sign, ordering us to go back. Just as we stopped, not too far away, one of them made a chilling signal indicating that he would shoot us if we did not pay heed.
We had no choice but to turn away from the road. We decided to make our way to the spot of conflict anyway, via paddy fields, village roads and marshlands. As we took a dirt road to the village Wusson, we suddenly heard the sounds of gunshots in the distance. Strangely enough, after a while, even these began to sound normal—an occasional sinister reminder that something somewhere was remiss. There were no other signs of any disturbance at Wusson, but the air was gloomy and we quickly heard of the three killings that had taken place there not too long ago.
Around five in the evening, we reached a small playground near Wusson, where the body of Showkat Ahmed, a young boy of seventeen, had been placed. He was lying on a hospital stretcher, surrounded by a crowd. The sounds of wailing pierced the evening sky, as it solemnly turned crimson. As I stood there watching and taking some photographs to record the moment, people of the mohalla formed a procession to carry his body to his home. Amidst the chaos and crowds, I could spot the boy’s father, in shock, unable to stand or walk. His mother was sobbing uncontrollably, trying to give her son water. One by one, all of Showkat’s family members and relatives went to embrace him one last time, as he lay lifeless in the middle of the courtyard of the home in which he had grown up in.
One may wonder why I am writing about an incident that happened six years ago. Indeed, such killings happen with such regularity that the Kashmiri psyche has almost become inured to them. Every form of protest against unlawful disappearances, and every life that has been untimely taken away in Kashmir, has its own unique space and horror associated with its memory. But for me, Showkat’s funeral procession is an event I saw closely. While covering it and shooting photographs, I became a part of it.
During the 2010 uprising, around seventy deaths had already happened in street protests in Kashmir. Most of the dead were young Kashmiris killed by the State’s forces. In this context, Showkat’s death was unique and he almost became an iconic face for the conflict and resistance towards State brutality. Newspaper reports stated that an innocent young boy was heading to the market, running errands, and became a victim of a conflict that he had unfortunately inherited, and which ultimately took his life.
As I look at these photographs today, I realize how overwhelming the moment had been for me to see everything, absorb and cover the scenes through photography. I now relive the horror and the sickening dread of the moment, the sheer emotional impact it had on me. I experience a renewed sense of shock when I revisit the photos. In covering Showkat’s funeral, for the first time, I saw the human face of a funeral procession; a family’s loss and its earth-shattering cries are still alive in my mind and ears. Even if I want to, I can never forget those scenes.
On that afternoon in September, I inadvertently became a witness of death of a Kashmiri boy, whose name is now merely a part of an unending list. Perhaps, the only other moment I would not be able to shake off from that day, is that eerie warning by the armyman, pointing us to go back—a small glimpse of an uncanny terror rising within me, as I set out to uncover Showkat’s story.