Pulwama, India-administered Kashmir – Whenever there would be a gun battle, 40-year-old Hamida would sink with anxiety, fearing that her 20-year-old rebel son might be one of those involved.
On the afternoon of February 14, she was milking her cows when a suicide bomber, only 10km away, rammed his explosives-laden car into one of the buses transporting Indian armed forces in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district.
Hamida says the news of the attack jolted her, but she was not as restless since she believed her son would never become a suicide bomber.
After all, it was only the second time in the 30-year history of the Kashmir conflict that a local boy had blown himself up while targeting Indian forces.
In a similar incident in 2001, Afaq Shah drove his car filled with explosives to the entrance of the largest Indian army cantonment in Srinagar city and blew himself up.
In Kashmir, most suicide bombings (“fidayeen” attacks as they are locally called) have been carried out by foreign rebels.
However, the February 14 suicide attack in Pulwama that killed 42 Indian paramilitary troopers indicated a change in the nature of Kashmir’s armed rebellion, now marked by local boys willing to take extreme steps.
The bomber, Hamida’s son Adil Dar, carried out the deadliest ever attack in Kashmir, which has increased tension between India and Pakistan.
The nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours have been fighting for seven decades over the Himalayan region of Kashmir, now one of the most militarised zones in the world.
The armed rebels in India-administered Kashmir want either independence or a merger with Pakistan.
At her home in Pulwama’s Gundibagh village, not far from the blast site, Hamida’s voice can hardly be heard.
“She is in deep shock,” says her sister.
Among her three sons, Hamida describes Adil as the calmer one. She says he was always ready to help her and wanted to achieve something in life.
Police records also display a similar profile of Adil: “a not-so-orthodox Muslim, who did not offer prayers regularly and was obedient to his family”.
“I did not have a daughter. He helped me in home chores. He worked hard and was a big fan of cricket. He liked the Indian cricket team. He would burst crackers when India would win,” says Hamida.
“One fine day in March last year, he left home and never showed up again.”
“When I heard that he has joined the rebels, I searched for him for a month, waited for him but he did not return. Then, I left it to God,” she says.
Who wants their children to pick up a gun and invite death? What does the death of a young son mean to his parents?
Adil’s father Ghulam Hassan Dar, 50, a frail man with trimmed white beard, is busy attending to a trickle of reporters at their two-story house.
He insists it is the “zulm” (oppression in Urdu) in Kashmir that is forcing its youngsters to pick up guns.
“Tell me, who does not want his son to become a doctor, an engineer or something, to stand on his own feet? Who wants their children to pick up a gun and invite death? What does the death of a young son mean to his parents?” he asks.
Dar says he is saddened by the killings of Indian forces and demands a “solution to the Kashmir dispute once for all to save more lives”.
“We are tired. Everyone is. We want an end to it,” he says as others in the room, including his other two sons, shake their heads in agreement.
Dar’s village Gundibagh became a rebel stronghold after the killing of young rebel commander Burhan Wani in 2016.
Residents say more young men, irrespective of their education or family background, chose the same path after Wani’s death.
In the Dar family, Adil was the fourth man to pick up a gun in the last three years.
Among the other three, all his cousins, one was killed in a gunfight days after joining the rebels, another surrendered and jailed under the Public Safety Act, while the third is still active as an armed rebel.
With no end to the cycle of violence, there is visible fatigue among the residents, who say they feel drained mentally and economically.
We do not want death. We do not want anyone killed on any side.
“We do not want death. We do not want anyone killed on any side. But these boys are just resisting oppression. We lose our children, our houses and our peace of mind. But everyone seems to be deaf,” says Abdul Rashid, Adil’s uncle, whose two sons turned rebels, one of them now dead.
“The way the situation is now, we do not see any end soon,” he says.
Sameer Ahmad, one of Adil’s cousins who was pursuing his master’s degree in geology, also left his home in March last year for his university and disappeared.
A month later, his picture brandishing an AK-47 rifle surfaced on social media, where he announced joining Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), the Pakistan-based group behind the February 14 attack.
“There is no justice. When our children witness harassment, killings and maiming, it forces them to take extreme steps,” Rashid says.
The villagers fear the situation could get worse after the Pulwama bombing.
Wani’s killing in 2016 brought this region in Kashmir to a standstill for more than five months. Since then, civilian deaths, particularly in south Kashmir’s Shopian, Kulgam and Pulwama, have also increased.
Rights groups say nearly 150 civilians were killed in this region in 2018 alone.
The latest civilian killing that has created outrage in the region is that of Mushtaq Ahmad, a 43-year-old shopkeeper with two young daughters.
Four days after Pulwama attack, Ahmad was home when a loud bang on his door woke him up, according to his daughters Momina, 15, and Monisa, 11.
“A civilian called him out and then some soldiers came and asked my father to show the whole house. They checked everything and then took him along. He asked us to remain inside and wait,” says Monisa.
The family claims Mushtaq was used as a human shield by the army, while the police said he was killed when rebels fired “indiscriminately”.
“The moment they took him out, there was heavy firing,” Momina says, as the two sisters struggle to come to terms with their father’s killing.
Villagers say the unprecedented spike in civilian killings has caused more fear and alienation.
“We feel we may also be killed anytime? Life has become uncertain; every day, there is a death. Like Mushtaq, I also have two daughters,” says Ahmad, who did not want to be identified with his first name.
“Even the animals are not spared,” he says, referring to the reported killing of two cows in Pinglan village during a gun battle on February 18, in which four Indian troopers were killed.
“The houses are destroyed [during a gun fight], but they can be rebuilt. But what will happen to the children being orphaned every day,” asks Khadija, who lives 50km away in Srinagar and is visiting her mourning relatives.
The impact of recent violence in Kashmir is visible on its highways. There is a thin movement of traffic from Srinagar to Pulwama, with hundreds of villages nestled among the apple orchards along the road.
The unrest in Kashmir is not confined to Muslim-majority villages, but also in Saidpora, 8km from Pinglan, and inhabited mainly by 80 families from the Sikh community.
“What can we say? Like everyone else, we also want a solution,” says a 45-year-old farmer outside a “gurudwara”, the Sikh temple.
“We have also suffered in this war that is getting more and more brutal now.”
Six Hindu-minority Kashmiri Pandit families living in Tahab village share the sentiment.
“This is our home, too. We never left it in the worst of times. But now, we are fed up of the bloodshed. We want peace, we want a solution,” says Basanti Kumari, 40.
Kumari says every community in Kashmir is bearing the cost of the ongoing turmoil.
“We live with our Muslim neighbours. We have never been touched by anyone, God forbid. But yes, the current situation has increased our anxiety.”
The thing is India is in denial to accept that Kashmir is a political problem.
The fear among Kashmir’s residents has also surged following a recent statement by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
As anger in India over Pulwama attack grew, Modi said the “security forces in Kashmir have been given a free hand” in dealing with the armed rebels.
With tension between India and Pakistan on a high, Kashmiris are certain they will continue to bear the cost of the conflict.
“The way the two countries are reacting, we do not see an end to bloodshed soon,” says Nazir Ahmad, a businessman. “The thing is India is in denial to accept that Kashmir is a political problem.”
In desperation, some Kashmiris even believe a war may resolve the decades-old conflict. “It seems a war is the only solution to our problems,” says 27-year-old Mubashir.
“We are already living a war. We die every day. Isn’t it better to die just once?”