Three eyewitnesses, who saw death around them, as terrorists pumped bullets into a bus (GJ09Z9976) carrying 56 tourists headed to Katra from Srinagar recount their horrors a week after the attack.
Apart from bus cleaner Mukesh Patel, none of the eyewitnesses Rediff.com's Prasanna D Zore spoke to saw the terrorists or what they were wearing.
The trio were seated in the left rows while the seven pilgrims who died were seated behind the driver, on the right side from where terrorists sprayed between 60 to 70 bullets in about 40 seconds.
Photographs: Hitesh Harisinghani/Rediff.com
It's time for another surgical strike: Yogesh Prajapati, Tour manager
Tour manager Yogesh Prajapati was sitting to the left of the driver, on the cleaner's seat.
Harsh Desai, the bus owner's son, who took three bullets but survived, was seated on the gearbox, sandwiched between the driver to his right and Yogeshbhai to his right.
The cleaner, says Yogeshbhai, was standing on the stairs behind him.
According to his account, the terrorists first fired a few rounds from the front of the bus and then as the bus didn't stop they continued firing as the bus passed by them.
His first impression was they were attacked by stone pelters. But when the terrorists continued their firing unabated, as the bus passed by them, he realised the danger they faced that night.
"Khushkismat toh hai; upar wala baitha hai (I am fortunate and I thank God for it)," he says pointing his fingers skyward inside his small office outside the Valsad bus depot in Gujarat.
As soon as he realised that it was a terrorist attack and not stone pelting he asked the driver Salim Sheikh to drive fast (in an interview Salim said he was asked by both Yogeshbhai and Harshbhai to step up; bus cleaner Mukesh Patel, however, said he heard only Harsh Desai asking Salim to step up).
Yogeshbhai says there were noisy, scary, scenes inside the bus.
Some passengers asked the driver to stop; some cried in horror and some asked the driver to speed up.
"It is only natural that people who were hit by the bullets and were still alive would cry out in pain and ask the driver to stop the bus. People on whom the dead bodies fell too must have been shocked by this sudden attack," Yogeshbhai describes the condition of the passengers of the bus.
"But we did not stop the bus and Salimbhai, very courageously, stepped up the speed."
It was then, says Yogeshbhai, he asked the cleaner to close the door of the bus, which he did.
Refuting the driver's claim that he had to kick the door shut to prevent a terrorist from entering the bus, Yogeshbhai says, "I was sitting on the left side of the driver and I did not see any terrorist attempting to board the bus. Also, at 60, 70 km/hr that is simply not possible" he reasons.
Harsh, he says, did not realise he was hit by three bullets, and kept urging the driver to step up.
When they reached the army camp and there was some light they saw blood dripping out of Harsh's nose and mouth.
In the dim light outside the army camp they could clearly see that a bullet had grazed his nose and stomach and one bullet had entered his (left) shoulder.
Fortunately, Harsh was in his senses and spoke to them as he was taken to the hospital.
Yogeshbhai asks some critical, controversial, questions related to the safety of tourists in Kashmir en route to the Amarnath Yatra and refutes the charges that he and his group were not registered for the yatra.
This is what he says:
"We left Srinagar around 4 pm and you cannot say we started late."
"We were allowed to leave the Baltal gate by the army on July 9 at 4 pm and if you leave Baltal at 4 pm then how can you rule that no vehicle should ply on the road after 7 pm?"
"Are you saying that we should stop on the road if we don't reach our destination by 7 pm?"
"We did stop on the road for three hours the next day (July 10, when the terrorists attacked the bus), but who took our care?"
Yogeshbhai also wondered why the security forces could not stop this attack.
"If you had prior information (about the terrorists' plans to attack the Amarnath pilgrims) from the IB (Intelligence Bureau) then even if we admit we made a mistake (by starting late and continuing our journey after 7 pm), how come no army vehicle stopped by us and asked us not to venture ahead?"
For three hours, he says, the bus was stranded at the puncture garage; in those three hours, Yogeshbhai claims, he saw many army vehicles pass by, but none cautioned them.
"When no military vehicle cautioned us not to proceed, we thought there was no problem ahead and so went ahead with our journey," he says justifying why despite knowing the rule not to ply vehicles after sunset on that route they went ahead with their journey to Katra.
About registration of the vehicle, he says, "Without registration no vehicle is allowed to enter the Jammu army camp. All pilgrims heading to Amarnath have to first register their names at this camp."
No bus gets a security clearance if the vehicle's registration is not in place.
After security clearance the bus got a sticker 'B' for Baltal pasted on the front of the vehicle and also a sticker that listed the names and mobile numbers of the officers who were leading as well as trailing the bus.
"Every time we go to Amarnath (yatra), while entering Jammu and till we finish the yatra, the security is very tight. But once this is done the security given is not adequate. There is no guidance either to pilgrims like us about where to stop or not stop."
Yogeshbhai has a simple solution to the menace of terrorism in Kashmir.
"My only request to this government is tava garam hai, hathoda maar do (the circumstances are opportune; take advantage of it and hammer out the terrorists)."
"The whole world knows where these terrorists are and where they come from. It's time for another surgical strike"
'"Ramesh, Ramesh, save your uncle," my aunt kept screaming': Ramesh Ganubhai Patel
For almost two months the Patel womenfolk in Vadoli, an industrial area in Gujarat's Vapi area, were making the plan to visit the Amarnath shrine in Kashmir.
They were scheduled to travel by a different bus, but since the tour manager could not muster enough numbers the families of Ramesh Patel and his uncle Ratilal Patel were asked to join the ill-fated bus.
When the terrorists attacked the bus on the night of July 10, Ramesh Patel and his wife were seated on the left side of the bus adjoining his uncle Ratilal and his wife's seats to his right.
"My wife was sitting at the window on the left side of the bus and I was sitting next to her. My uncle was seated beside me on the right side of the bus and his wife was at the window seat," he says.
His uncle died on the spot when a bullet lodged itself in his head, his wife was also hit by bullets, but survived.
Ramesh received a bullet injury but his wife escaped unscathed.
"The bullet penetrated my right foot after ripping through the bus. I did not realise that I was hit by a bullet. I felt the pain only after we got down from the bus and saw blood coming out from my leg."
"I saw my uncle's jaw was completely ruptured. The bullet must have passed through his jaw and into his head. I shook him vigorously to see if he was alive, but he did not utter a word," Ramesh recalls.
"'Ramesh, Ramesh, save your uncle,' his wife, my aunt, kept screaming, but he was dead," he says sadly.
Ramesh is the only eyewitness we met who said the bus was attacked in a bazaar in front of some shops to the right side of their bus.
"The mechanic who repaired the puncture did not check the tube valve properly. When he fitted the tyre and checked the tyre pressure he realised there was a fault with the tube valve too," Ramesh says.
"So, the tyre was again removed for repairing the faulty valve. This took almost three hours before we started our journey again," he explains why it took them three hours to mend a punctured tyre.
"I think the mechanic purposely delayed repairing the puncture until after sunset. He should have checked for this fault before fitting the tyre. But he didn't," he says.
Ramesh also insists that the bus came under fire in front of shops and there were people around those shops.
"I am sure the shopkeepers must have seen those terrorists. The shops closed only after soldiers went there in search of the terrorists," he adds.
'I couldn't even think of helping my wife': Prakash Vajani
Fifteen people on the bus hailed from Maharashtra's Dahanu area. Two of them were killed in the terrorist attack, says Prakash Vajani, who along with his wife, his brother, his brother's wife and their son, went on the 20-day tour.
Nirmala Thakur and Ushaben Sonkar made their return journeys in coffins.
The Vajani family, except Prakash's wife, were seated on the left side of the bus.
His wife Pushpaben was chatting with fellow passengers about their visit to Srinagar, how they had visited the Shiv temple, the Shailmar Gardens, the Chashm-e-Shah Garden and enjoyed a shikara ride on the morning of July 10.
"We were seated to the left of the driver. The firing must have happened between 8.10 and 8.20 pm and lasted about 35, 40 seconds," Vajani says remembering the events that night.
According to him the bus was traveling at 60 km/hr and the terrorists could have got only about 35 to 40 seconds to take a direct shot at the passengers on the right side of the bus.
"Whatever I am saying about the timing and speed is from my judgement because we were so scared that nobody thought of seeing what was happening around. Most of us were ducking to save our lives," he says when asked about the accuracy of his description.
Vajani, who got a small gash on his head after a glass shard hit him, says, "I couldn't even think of helping my wife who was sitting in the middle of the last seat and chatting with the others."
While the Vajanis' account of the delay in mending the puncture matches that of Ramesh Patel's, they disagree with Patel's view on where the firing took place.
"Once we left the garage where we repaired the puncture there was not a single shop on the road ahead," the couple say.
On tours like these people gather fond memories of total strangers who meet them during the journey.
Vajani had such memories about Ushaben Sonkar and Nirmala Thakur who died.
While he could not remember the date the bus was attacked, he remembered the day it happened.
"It was Monday and I can say it with confidence because Ushaben (Sonkar) and Nirmalaben (Thakur) were fasting because they said Shravan (the month when Hindus fast) had begun," he says.