Shopian, Indian-administered Kashmir – When darkness descends on the quiet villages of Shopian, everything falls silent.
But Sunday evening was different. A quick rattle of gunfire echoed through Pahnoo village in Shopian, a southern Kashmir district that has witnessed increasing violence in recent months.
Six men, all locals and two of them rebels, were killed in an ambush that threatens to push the disputed region into a spiral of protests.
Hundreds of police and paramilitary forces guarded the streets on Tuesday as the region remains tense. While high-speed internet was restricted in most parts, services were completely suspended in the southern part of the region, including Shopian.
The killing of the men is one of the bloodiest single incidents in Kashmir in recent years and sparked spontaneous protests with tens of thousands taking to the streets.
On Monday, the day of funerals, the streets of Shopian were deserted as people came to the six villages where they offered prayers for the dead and made vows to continue the fight against decades of Indian rule.
Helicopters hovered in the air as soldiers and police were restricted inside their fortified bases to avoid confrontations with mourners.
When he was late to return home on Sunday evening, Gowhar Ahmad Lone knew his mother would be anxious. He called her and promised to return in half an hour.
Throughout the night, the family says, they made several calls to him but without an answer.
At 7am on Monday morning, the restlessness and wait of the family turned into a tragedy when they received a call that Gowhar’s body – a bullet pierced through his back – was lying on the driver’s seat in his car.
He was one among the six young men – two of them rebels and four civilians – killed by the Indian army in the southern part of Indian-administered Kashmir’s Shopian village.
The men were killed at a checkpoint in a quiet village of Shopian, a district known for producing apples and has become a bastion of anti-India rebels. The killings brought thousands out of their houses to funerals and to the streets to express solidarity with the rebel cause.
“We are in complete shock. We had no idea that he has been killed,” Gowhar’s father Abdul Rashid Lone told Al Jazeera, while meeting dozens of mourners at his single-story house in Mool village.
Gowhar was the youngest of his siblings and had recently returned to Kashmir after pursuing a degree in physical education from the Indian city of Nagpur. He took a job in the fertilizer business to support his family.
“He called us in the evening and said he will reach home in some time, that’s the last time we heard of him,” his father said.
The whole night, the family kept on dialing his number, hoping that he might revert. “We really don’t know what happened to him. We just received his dead body,” Gowhar’s father said.
In adjacent Pinjoora village, surrounded by apple orchards, men and women gathered in six separate rooms at the two-story house of Suhail Ahmad Wagay, 22, another civilian killed on Sunday evening.
Suhail, a class XII student, belonged to a well-to-do family of apple merchants and was killed just a kilometre away from his home where the soldiers had set-up the checkpoint. The villages lie adjacent to each other and are now united by grief.
He was driving his car along with Shahnawaz Ahmad, 23, and another civilian Shahid Khan, the family told Al Jazeera.
Suhail’s family, like the families of the others, has no idea what exactly happened as the incident took place in the darkness on Sunday evening.
“Suhail was supposed to pick up his mother. We were continuously calling him. We heard the firing shots for five minutes and after that, his phone was switched off,” says Suhail’s brother-in-law, Nissar Ahmad. “This is a cold-blooded murder. He was just a student.”
The situation in Kashmir continues to deteriorate since the killing of a young rebel leader, Burhan Wani, in July 2016. The incident triggered large-scale protests for five months resulting in the killing of more than 100 unarmed protesters.
Angry with media
The grief-stricken families initially refused to talk to media, angry with the coverage of Indian news channels “labeling everyone as a terrorist”.
“We don’t want to talk to any media. We don’t want any Indian news channel to spread lies about us. They call everyone a terrorist. They justify the killing of our children by one or the other way,” a family member of Suhail said.
The army says the civilians killed in the incident “were accompanying the terrorists”, a claim that their families and residents strongly denied.
“This is what works here, no one listens to us. Our brothers leave home and never return,” says Suhail’s 19-year-old cousin.
Of the four civilians killed on Sunday, Shahid Khan, 18, was the youngest. Shahid left home in the late afternoon to play cricket and didn’t return, his father Bashir Ahmad Khan told Al Jazeera.
“He left home saying he will go to play cricket. We waited for him but when he didn’t return, we called him. But his phone was switched off. At night, we learned that he was killed,” he said.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti in a tweet said the civilians were caught in the crossfire adding she was “deeply distressed”.
The Kashmir police chief, Swayam Prakash Pani, told Al Jazeera that they are investigating the matter.
The family of Shahnawaz Ahmad, a school dropout from Trenz village, had no idea about his death until late at night.
“He dropped school to help family and now he has been killed without any reason,” says his brother, Farooq Ahmad, a carpenter. “We can’t ask questions. We are numb. We don’t know what to say.”
Dozens of young people who gathered outside Shahnawaz’s home were angry and agitated. “Innocent killings force youth to pick guns,” says Naveed, 26.
Kashmir continues to be one of the longest unresolved conflicts between India and Pakistan as both states claim it in its entirety.
Anti-India sentiment runs deep among Kashmir’s mostly Muslim population, and most support the rebels’ cause against Indian rule, despite a decades-long military crackdown on dissent.
Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.