Shopian, Indian-administered Kashmir – As he walks through the ruins of his home, Abdul Ahad Bhat keeps returning to his cow. He sidesteps the rubble of the fallen ceiling, points at the burned out frames of the windows, and feels with his fingers the bullet holes on the walls, but it is the image of his dead cow that seems to symbolise for him the destruction of his home in Batmurran village in southern Indian-administered Kashmir.
“My brother and I carried the burned-out carcasses of our two cows on a tractor and we could see the remains of the calves inside them,” he says. “They were both seven months pregnant. Of everything that burned here, that haunts me the most. The calves had burned inside their mother’s wombs.”
Bhat lost his home and his cow on December 19 in a gunfight between the Indian armed forces and rebel fighters in Batmurran village in Shopian district.
Bhat’s four neighbours also lost their homes in the same gunfight and together they joined the fate of uncounted families rendered homeless in the frequent gun battles in the disputed region.
Between talking about his cow, 66-year-old Bhat, a butcher by profession, speaks about the lifetime of hard work through which he had made this new house two years ago. He says he wanted to gift his family a strong house, one that would last.
“But it couldn’t even last a few hours,” he says, standing amid the utensils and debris of what used to be their kitchen. “Years of work and savings blown up in two blasts. And now we are homeless, seven people living in a room in a neighbour’s house.”
At least two rebel fighters and a civilian woman were killed in the gun battle while five houses along with two shops, a car and a motorbike were destroyed.
According to the officials in the region, over 210 rebel fighters have been killed in gunfights by the Indian forces in during the past year – the highest since 2010.
The Himalayan region claimed in full by both India and Pakistan erupted in deadly protests after a popular Kashmiri rebel commander Burhan Wani was killed by Indian security forces in 2016.
Thousands of civilians have been injured, many of them blinded by pellet guns fired by the security forces, drawing criticisms from human rights organisations.
India has stationed nearly half a million security forces to fight an armed rebellion that erupted in the late 1980s. In recent years, however, the armed resistance has given way to often deadly street protests.
Last year saw a record number of gun battles as Indian forces launched ‘Operation All Out’ amid a spurt in violence.
In most of these gun battles, the Indian armed forces, including the local police and its special counterinsurgency wing, have prior intelligence inputs about the presence of rebel fighters down to the specific house.
When the militants are in hiding in small houses in villages, it becomes easy for us to just blow up the houses and kill the militants inside rather than engage in a drawn out gun-fight
They lay cordon around the house and empty out the houses around it before the operation begins by generally blowing up the houses they suspect for the presence of rebels.
“When the militants are in hiding in small houses in villages, it becomes easy for us to just blow up the houses and kill the militants inside rather than engage in a drawn out gunfight,” the spokesperson of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Rajesh Yadav, told Al Jazeera.
“Why waste time and expose our soldiers to the possibility of casualty during a gunfight when a few IED’s can take care of the whole thing.”
While the explosives kill the rebels easily, they render people homeless. There are no specific figures on the total number of houses destroyed by the use of explosives as both police and the civil administration have failed to compile data. The gunbattle in Batmurran on December 19 left at least 34 people homeless.
Mohammad Yaqoob Bhat has still not come to terms with the destruction of his house in the Batmurran village. An employee in the region’s Information Department, Yaqoob and his five family members now live nearby with his sister.
“We come here sometimes, I, my wife, my children and we look at our house from a distance. We cry for a while and then we return. What else can we do?” he asked.
The only thing that survived from his home, Yaqoob says, was a kanger – the Kashmiri firepot to keep warm in the winters. He carried it with him this icy December afternoon.
“For 30 years I have been working. Except for the marriage of one of my daughters, I had put everything in this house. A geyser one month, then a power backup system after saving for months, a beautiful cupboard in the kitchen, computer for my children. And it is all gone.”
No one from the government has come yet, they say, and if it weren’t for the neighbours, they would be living on the streets.
None of the houses burned down in Batmurran had any insurance, their owners told Al Jazeera. Their efforts to find shelter and reconstruct their houses now depends on the compensation from the state government and the money raised by their neighbours and relatives.
Six members of Ali Mohammad Sheikh’s family and his wife’s parents, whose house was also burned in the Batmurran gunfight, stay in a two-room shed of a neighbour.
“The neighbours collected money for us to buy some ration and medicine, and they opened their houses for us. Nothing from the government so far,” one of the men in Batmurran says.
The regional administration says that it takes time to process the compensation for the families rendered homeless.
“We do compensate the families who lose their houses in these gunfights but we need a report from the police and intelligence department clarifying that the house owners were not involved in giving shelter to the militants. That takes a little time – two months I would say,” Aijaz Ashraf, Deputy Commissioner of Shopian district, told Al Jazeera. “If the families have given shelter to militants then there is no compensation.”
Ashraf said that a completely destroyed pukka (concrete) house gets a compensation of seven lakh Indian rupees ($11,000) while a damaged kaccha (mud and brick) house receives around four lakh Indian rupees ($6,300). If the house is partially damaged, he said, then the compensation is calculated accordingly.
Ashraf however, refused to comment on specific cases like Batmurran or give the exact number of houses destroyed over the last year in his district, but said that they had released funds for several burned houses over the past year.
An hour away from Batmurran, through vast apple orchards stripped bare by the winter, 26-year-old Ajaz Ahmad sits in his shop in Kellar market in Shopian district where he sells cheap plastic shoes.
Ahmad lost his home in Bamnoo village in the adjoining Pulwama district during a gunfight in July last year. For six months, Ahmad said that he along with his mother, two brothers, and a sister – have been living in a single room in a neighbour’s house. In another room in the same house, his uncle lives with his wife who suffers from cancer; their house too was blown up.
“The neighbours have four room, they gave us two. If it weren’t for them, we don’t know what we would do,” Ahmad says. “But six months is too long to live at someone’s house. I feel a sense of shame every evening going in there.”
Deputy Commissioner of Pulwama district, Ghulam Mohammad Dar, told Al Jazeera that “the administration had provided compensation to the people who had lost their homes in gunfights, including the five families in Bamnoo village”.
They can say whatever they want. Why don't they complain to the police then? I have no information about any such incidents
On the ground, however, the victims say that none of them have received compensation yet.
“We have been going to the offices. They say they will give the compensation soon. We keep telling them that we have sisters and mothers and we have no money except to eat two meals a day. But who listens to the weak?” Ahmad says, sitting amid the shoes and slippers in his shop. “We wait.”
Many people allege theft of their valuables and belongings during the gun battles, something, they say they find hard to prove.
“The Indian forces drove us out and took position in our home during the gun battle and they stole my 20000 rupees ($300). I had saved the money by sewing clothes for over a year,” 21-year-old Sakeena Bano, a resident of Arwani village in Anantnag district, told Al Jazeera.
Sakeena says she wanted to buy a motorised machine with the money she had saved by working eight hours every day.
“When I returned, they had pulled out the lock of the steel trunk where I used to keep my money,” said Sakeena referring to the security forces who had camped inside her house during the gun battle.
Her family said that some utensils and the little gold they had been gathering for their daughter’s marriage are also missing. Sakeena’s neighbours, who lost their house, too complained of theft by the armed forces.
According to the people, their cash, gold, clothes, utensils, beddings, and in one case a generator, were stolen from their homes. Bhat, the butcher, who lost his home and his cow in Batmurran village, found all the knives missing from the butcher shop near his home.
“Last month I had brought the knives for 10,000 rupees ($150). They took even the knives,” Bhat told Al Jazeera.
The Inspector General of Police in Kashmir region, Munir Khan, while speaking to Al Jazeera, rubbished civilian claims.
“They can say whatever they want. Why don’t they complain to the police then? I have no information about any such incidents,” Khan said.
The people say that they don’t register First Information Reports (formal police complaint) with the police out of fear, adding they see little point in complaining to the police when they believe that the police, along with the Indian paramilitary and army, were part of the theft.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a senior police official accepted that thefts happen and defended it by calling it ‘war booty’.
“These people are sympathisers of militants. They give them shelter, night after night. Why should we not take away their things after killing the militants?”