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|January 27, 1998||
'I heard the cries of my mother and sisters'
Mukhtar Ahmad in Wandhama
The two dozen-odd militants dropped in for tea, around 2030 hours. And left a little after midnight.
When they arrived, the foothill village of Wandhama, 30 km outside Srinagar, boasted four families of Kashmiri Hindu Pandits, numbering around 23. When they left, there was none.
Not alive, that is. Barring a terrified, grief-stricken Vinod Kumar Dhar, all of fourteen, seeing through brimming eyes the bodies of his mother, sisters and relatives, their bodies marred with bullet holes, their last resting place a pool of their own blood.
"When they came, they assured us they wouldn't harm the four Pandit families... one Urdu-speaking gunman asked for tea and my mother made it for all of them and served it to them herself... then time passed, and other militants began entering the other three houses, of my relatives," Dhar recalls.
Dhar was in the upper story of the house, fighting sleep and waiting for the "guests" to leave before retiring for the night, when the death-rattle of automatic weapons broke out. "I heard the cries of my mother and sisters, I heard the sounds of shots from the homes of my relatives as well... I hid upstairs, scared they would search the house... they didn't, but two militants set it on fire before leaving... I came down, but all I saw was bodies lying scattered everywhere... my mother, my sisters, relatives... all, dead... when I went out, I saw the other three houses burning, a temple near our home was also in flames..."
Kashmir's Divisional Commissioner S L Bhatt, who knew some of the Pandits personally, was quick to arrive at the scene of the carnage. "This is the worst incident I have witnessed, I believe foreign militants were involved in the massacre," Bhatt says. "In all, 23 people -- nine women, six children and the rest males -- were gunned down."
While this correspondent was talking to Dhar and Bhatt, a group of outraged Pandits from adjoining villages gathered outside, shouting slogans and demanding that they be given security to enable them to reach Jammu. The group of Pandits was supported by several Muslims, mostly women, who had come to the scene of the carnage to express sympathy and moral support.
Two Muslim women were seen ministering to a grief-stricken Hindu girl, who was mourning the death of her dearest friend, a victim of the massacre.
"These families were happy here in the village, they never migrated despite all the troubles, they always said they would be part of our community, would live and die with us," said a grief stricken Ghulam Rasool, native of Wandhama. "I had been pressing them, saying they should migrate to Jammu, they never listened, they said they loved their village and wanted to stay there. And since we never had any problems here before, I thought they were right."
Rasool and other natives of Wandhama expressed their anger at the tardiness of the police and the administration, arguing that despite the proximity to Srinagar, help came very late. Dhar agrees. "Last night, while our houses burnt, I ran around looking for help but there was no one here," he sobbed.
Interestingly, when this correspondent reached the venue it was brimming with police and security officials -- all of whom were accompanying the minister of state for home, who was paying a condolence visit.
While the shocked Dhar, and a visibly moved Bhatt, spoke to the minister and his entourage, surviving villagers -- almost exclusively Muslims -- gathered firewood for the cremation.
Twentythree pyres were erected, bearing the bodies of the victims. And Dhar, lone survivor of the carnage, went tearfully from one to the other with burning brand in hand, consigning his mother, his sisters, father and relatives to the sacred flames -- which rose against the backdrop of the four torched houses where, a day earlier, four families of Kashmiri pundits had lived in peace and amity with their neighbours.
"Where will I go now?" a sobbing Dhar asked as he was led away, out of range of the scorching flames. "There is no one for me, no one to look after me, no one to care for our fields, our orchard and cattle... there is no one left for me..."
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