An Orchard of Graves



In last two decades eighty-year-old Abdul Ahad Bhat, has buried eleven of his relatives, including his teenage son and brother in a graveyard that used to be his orchard.

Every morning Bhat would walk past a small brook, through a thick cover of willow and walnut trees, to visit the graveyard. After his son, Farooq Ahmad Bhat, alias Aslam was killed in a gun battle in Bandipora in 1993, Bhat decided to bury him in a piece of land near his house.

But little did he know that within no time the graveyard would be full with the people he knew, grew up with, and shared joys and sorrows of life.

At the peak of armed conflict between Kashmiri militants and Indian forces, death became a frequent visitor to Bhat’s household in Takiabal (Lar), a small village in Ganderbal district famous for its grape vineyards.

Carrying a walking stick, not to lean on but to keep stray dogs away, Bhat goes to the graveyard to meet his relatives.

One day a foreign journalist came to see Bhat and asked him how many people were killed in Kashmir during last two decades of conflict. She told him that there are conflicting versions regarding the number of deaths in Kashmir. “I don’t know about entire Kashmir. I never had time to count deaths happening in other parts of Kashmir. But I can say for sure that I have lost almost my entire family to the conflict,” Bhat told the visiting journalist. “I have buried them all so there is no doubt about their number,” said Bhat plainly.

“They (Army) would kill them and send them here. I only know how many I buried,” said Bhat, sarcastically.

Out of twelve people buried in Bhat’s  orchard turned  graveyard, six are his close relatives, five are relatives from his wife’s side and one  militant named Abdullah.

Bhat’s son Farooq was 18 when he was killed in a gun battle with army in Bandipora. He had just passed his 10th standard examination and joined militant outfit Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.

After his son’s death Bhat’s household became a regular stopover for army and government backed gunmen Ikhwanis. “They used to come at all odd hours to harass me and my family,” says Bhat.

On one occasion when there were inputs about movement of foreign militants in the area, Bhat was arrested. He was taken to a local army camp. “There I was produced before an high ranking army officer who after looking at my wrinkled face offered me a chair and said, ‘you seem to be a good Muslim. It doesn’t suit you to side with militants,’” says Bhat. “I told him that I have no knowledge about militants. I am a Muslim and I am not lying,” says Bhat.

After looking at his face for a while the army officer ordered his junior to let Bhat go. “He really does not know anything. He won’t lie,” army officer told his junior.

For a few years Bhat was not bothered by men in uniform. “But once that officer was transferred. The entire cycle of harassment restarted,” says Bhat.

The new army unit that arrived in Lar brought new set of woes for Bhat. “The very next day they raided my son’s graveyard and desecrated graves. They damaged gravestones on almost all graves,” says Bhat.  “They left a trail of destruction behind them. There were empty wine bottles all over the place.”

Bhat, who has travelled to Syria, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, says he is ready to pay any price to keep his son’s memory alive. “They can kill me for being a militant’s father. But they cannot kill the resentment inside me against their oppression,” says Bhat.

After Bhat’s son was killed, he was devastated. He shut himself in his room and cried for days. It was senior separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani’s hand written note, which now hangs in a wooden frame in his room, that gave him courage to fight on. “He sent this letter to me acknowledging our family’s contribution to the freedom struggle,” says Bhat whose face lit as he read the first few lines of the letter.


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