Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – On an unusually tense afternoon when Indian-administered Kashmir was under full lockdown, Osaib Altaf Marazi, made a fatal decision.
The 17-year-old boy, who loved to travel and take selfies, left home to play cricket with his neighbourhood friends on August 5 last year – the day New Delhi stripped Kashmir of its autonomy.
He never returned.
Osaib’s body was later fished out of the nearby Jhelum river.
Saleema Bano, Osaib’s mother, has struggled to come to terms with her youngest son’s death. For five months, she has broken down almost every day.
“He was a beautiful boy,” she said. “Everyone asks me to endure but how can I forget my son who would be in front of my eyes every hour of the day.”
Saleema remembers the day vividly. “I told him to have lunch first and not to go out but he insisted he will be back soon,” she said.
Quest to get death certificate
That was the last time Saleema saw Osaib. The events that followed forced her family to embark upon a traumatic quest to even prove his death and seek a death certificate.
After four months of denial, Kashmiri police finally admitted that Osaib’s death had been the first in the wake of the abrogation of Article 370 of the constitution that had granted special status to the Muslim-majority region.
On August 5, roads across Kashmir were blocked and checkpoints, manned by Indian paramilitary troopers, were set up. A tense atmosphere descended upon the region as phone networks, internet services and TV channels were blocked.
The crackdown seemed designed to prevent Kashmiris from protesting against New Delhi’s decision to scrap Kashmir’s limited autonomy.
The Marazi family mourned Osaib’s death as Kashmir endured the longest internet shutdown imposed by a democracy.
Suhail Ahmad Marazi, Osaib’s older brother, was not home on August 5. He later gathered witness accounts of what happened to his brother in the moments before his death.
Osaib had been with his friends and together they walked a short distance from his home in Palpora village on the outskirts of Srinagar, the main city in the region, when they found themselves surrounded by paramilitary forces.
“They were 10 boys. As they reached the middle of a footbridge they saw CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] personnel running after them from both the sides. They were scared and jumped into the river,” Suhail told Al Jazeera.
Osaib did not know how to swim.
“The other boys who were present at the spot told us that Osaib held to the edge of the bridge for [a] few seconds before the armed men hit him with a stick on his head and hands and he slipped into [the] waters. It was a murder,” he said.
At home, Saleema was doing chores when boys from the neighbourhood came running and knocked at her window.
“They said Osaib had been martyred,” Saleema recalled, overcome by emotion.
“I wait for him every day and call his name every time when I serve the dinner. He was afraid to sleep alone,” she said. “I just cannot forget his face for a second.”
Osaib’s body was handed over to the family for burial but the hospital refused to issue a death certificate. Officials at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital in Srinagar asked the Marazi family for a First Information Report (FIR), a police complaint, to certify Osaib’s death.
It was the start of a months-long battle to secure a death certificate.
“From the hospital, I went to one police station and then another and both said that they will not be able to register the FIR as the area does not come under their jurisdiction,” Suhail said. “It was a helpless situation.”
Detention of minors
In September, after two child rights activists, Enakshi Ganguly and Shanta Sinha, filed a petition in India’s Supreme Court to investigate cases of rights violations involving children in Kashmir, the court tasked the juvenile justice committee with investigating cases involving minors who were being detained in the region.
In the midst of their struggle to prove Osaib’s death, his family was shocked by a written submission by police to the juvenile justice committee admitting that they had detained 144 minors.
But the police dubbed Osaib’s death “baseless”.
“Osaib Altaf, the incident as reported has been found to be baseless as no such death has been reported to the police authorities as per verification report received from the field formations,” the police report said.
The family then approached the lower court to request the FIR.
“We approached the court because how can they deny our child’s death? It is very devastating for us that we struggled to prove that he died,” Suhail Marazi, said. “While we were mourning at home, every week we had to go to the court as well.”
Last month, the police finally submitted a report to the court admitting Osaib’s death by drowning.
“It is prayed that on 05-08-2019, the deceased Osaib Marazi aged about 24 years allegedly drowned in river Jhelum,” said the status report submitted by the Parimpora police station to the court.
Osaib’s school records show he was 17, not “about 24” as the police claimed. He was a grade 12 student at a local school.
“No one gets justice here and we do not hope for it either. But we want that we should be provided the death certificate,” said Suhail, adding that they will continue to fight for the certificate.
“Our neighbour Danish was killed the same way in 2016, and even they did not get any justice. They [the police] have found a new way to kill children in Kashmir.”
Authorities in Kashmir, who now come directly under India’s interior ministry, have denied any killings took place in the wake of the August 5 decision. But local human rights group Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) said, in its 2019 human rights review, that six civilians had been killed by the Indian armed forces.
The list included 17-year-old Asrar Firdous Khan from Soura, Srinagar, who was playing cricket with his friends on August 6 when soldiers shot him in the head several times with pellets, according to his family.
Asrar’s medical records showed his death occurred due to pellet injuries to his skull, but the police refuted that, saying he was killed when a stone was thrown at him. The police did not specify who threw the stone.
While Osaib’s family continues to struggle for acknowledgement of his death, Saleema struggles with her pain and longing.
“I want to tear my heart open to find my son. It seems the light of my eyes has gone away.”