In Kashmir, in November 2000, the author was detained by Jihadi militants for one terrifying — and instructive — night.
THEY BREATHE LIKE us, eat like us, sleep like us, perhaps dream like us as well. The only difference is that they know exactly when they will stop living. In the mysterious world of Fidayeens, where young men shun their names, their past lives, even the urge to live, death is not uncertain; it is planned.
And these six men are ticking bombs.
There is little light in the room as they enter. Six shadows. They drop their Kalashnikovs and fold the shoulder stands that hold them, each fold a metallic click, and the room resonates with strange sounds. I first glimpse them in the dim light of a lone candle. The pouches packed with grenades and bullets, tied to their chests, are carefully unzipped and placed on the patij –- a carpet woven of dry grass. Their faces, to the extent I dare glance at them, seem strangely blank.
The man –- our “host” -– who led us into this room returns with blankets and pillows. He places a kerosene lamp on the floor as far as possible from the little window that opens onto the road. No light is to seep through to the pitch darkness outside. Light attracts attention, and that is the last thing he wants tonight. The two-story mud-and-brick house sits right next to a lane and occasionally Indian army men out on a night patrol take this route through the village. Our host leaves again, closing the door behind him soundlessly. It’s calm in here –- the calm of a graveyard.
This room holds six men, armed with guns and grenades and ready, even eager, to die. The Indian army camp is just a mile-and-a-half away. Hundreds of Indian troops patrol these villages, often in their camouflage uniforms, looking for Islamic militants. If even one of those soldiers gets the slightest hint of the presence of militants here, the story that will follow has no suspense. I have seen it repeated across the villages of Kashmir for years. Hundreds of guns will be aimed at this house waiting for the first light of dawn. Perhaps, with luck, our host and his family might be allowed a safe passage. Maybe even I will make it out somehow. But nobody will be able to stop the bloody gun battle to come.
These boys have been conditioned by a creed of extremist Islam that doesn’t have the word “surrender” in its lexicon, and the army men seldom take Jihadi prisoners anyway. There will be a few more bodies to join the 70,000 already consumed in the daily fighting between the separatist militants and the Indian security forces for the past 14 years, and a pile of debris will be the only reminder that a house existed here. The bodies will be taken to the local army camp where they will be displayed along with the half-burnt Kalashnikovs and other pieces of weaponry before newspaper photographers and TV cameramen. Then the bodies will be handed over to the village elders, who will silently arrange for the burial in their local martyr’s graveyard. The epitaphs will say “na maloom” (identity not known). The “host” will immediately be picked up by the army for questioning. If he is lucky, he will be released soon, but it’s quite possible that he will spend the next two years in prison for “harboring terrorists.” Within a few days even the villagers will forget about this incident because it will be repeated somewhere else nearby. That will be all.
The men are in a remarkably relaxed mood. Four lie with their eyes closed. One silently reads a pocket-sized booklet with a dark green cover –- it must be a Koran — holding it firmly in his hands, his head rocking to the rhythm of his moving lips. Another, by the kerosene lamp, rubs his rifle with white cotton. His deadly belongings: egg-shaped Chinese grenades, a little radio communication set, and dozens of bullets, their deep brown metal shining like trendy lipsticks arranged in a cosmetics showroom. He’s so busy cleaning that once in a while, when the mouth of the barrel swings around to face me, he hardly notices, but shivers run down my spine. I slowly inch back, hoping he will not sense my fear. All of a sudden, he looks up, directly into my eyes, and smiles reassuringly. “Don’t worry,” he says in Urdu. “It is not loaded. It’s safe.” This is the first time since we entered the room that someone has spoken.
I take a deep breath. It’s a great relief. I’m trying hard to be brave — which means simply to act normal. I have seen Kashmiri militants. I have, in fact, grown up with many of them. But these men are not Kashmiri. They are Fidayeens and belong to one of the two Jihadi organizations, Lashkar-e-Toiba or Jaish-e-Mohammad, who recruit their cadre across the Muslim world from Sudan to Algeria, Chechnya to Pakistan.
I am not here by choice. I haven’t joined the militants, nor been abducted at gunpoint, nor is it a journalistic adventure. I had choices of sorts -– two of them actually — and this, in the split second I had to decide, seemed the better one.
THE STORY BEGINS in a small hamlet less than a mile away where I was born and spent the first two decades of my life in a two-story brick and stone home. When the first separatist violence erupted in Kashmir in 1990, our village found itself at the forefront of a war between Kashmiri militants, supported by neighbouring Pakistan, and Indian security forces. Its geographical proximity to the Line of Control –- the de facto border dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan — turned my village into a transit route for militants, who had established base camps in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. Soon violent encounters between the militants and Indian security forces became a daily routine and fear forced my family to shift 40 miles to Srinagar — the capital city of Kashmir — which was considered a comparatively safer place.
On one pretext or another, however, I have continued to visit my childhood home. Today’s return, in November 2000, came after an absence of almost a year. I was to stay with a relative, meet friends, take a walk around.
The bus from Srinagar takes two to five hours — depending on the mood of the soldiers manning the checkpoints — to cover the 40 miles to Papchan, where I hike a mile up hill along the banks of Arin nallah –- a fresh water stream — to reach my village. The bus continues another three miles to Bandipore, the largest town on the Indian side of the Line of Control, the mountain ridges where in 1947 the warring armies of India and Pakistan stopped, exhausted. Three wars, a continuing separatist rebellion already 14-years old, tens of thousands of deaths, and 57 years of hostility, and still this line slices Kashmir like a loaf of bread.
By the time I make it to my village exhausted, the sun is about to set. I dump my bag at a relative’s house and rush out to find friends before darkness sets in. There are no telephones in most of rural Kashmir and so the custom of setting up appointments does not exist. There are only two ways to meet people: you either knock on doors, and if you’re lucky you’ll find them home, or you run into them on the road or by the stone embankment of the Arin nallah, where villagers huddle together in groups to gossip. But all this can happen only during the day. The insurgency has brought with it a cardinal code of conduct –- an unwritten rule -– that puts life on hold across rural Kashmir as soon as the sun sets.
Engrossed in a chat with a school friend I’ve run into, I don’t even sense the darkness enveloping us. It is cold and deceptively peaceful by the Arin nallah.
When we stand to say goodbye, it is already pitch dark and I still have half a mile to go to reach my relative’s house. Barely on my way, I hear footsteps, then a series of metallic clacks as Kalashnikov-wielding men on the other side of the street pull open the shoulder stands of their guns. A moment of silence; then one of them shouts. “Who is it?” in Urdu, which immediately identifies the men as foreign militants, most probably from Pakistan. Sick with fear, I inch toward them, my hands high in the air. By now, my eyes have adapted to the darkness, and I can make out at least three guns pointed directly at me. Soon I hear a familiar voice asking me in Kashmiri –- the local language — what I’m doing out so late. It’s the man from a neighbouring village who will become our “host.” Like me, he has been stopped on the road.
“He is from here and I know him,” he tells the militants before I can open my mouth. The tension eases a bit as two of them consult in whispers. I can’t catch a thing. I stand still –- after all, those guns are still aimed my way. It’s difficult to breathe. Finally, one of them speaks.
I have two choices, he tells me gruffly. I can leave, but if somehow their presence in my neighbour’s house –- their hideout till the next evening –- is discovered by the army, I will be held responsible; or I can accompany them and face the risk they face for a night and a day. In that moment of panic, the option of accompanying them seems wiser.
The militants follow one rule religiously while roaming rural Kashmir: they change their hideouts only after dusk and, unless they plan to attack an Indian security force target, do not emerge till the next evening. So I know I’m stuck for a minimum of 22 hours.
Once at the house, the host starts preparing dinner. “Can you please arrange some hot water? We need to pray,” one of the men says to him.
The host reappears half-an-hour later to announce that the water is ready. A militant stands up and follows him. Then one by one, the host guides each of us to the bathroom. When my turn comes, I find myself alone with the host for a few minutes.
“Be calm, everything will be okay,” he literally mumbles the words in a whisper. “Nobody has seen us coming here.”
“Is there a way we could inform my relatives? They have no idea why I didn’t return.” But even as I say it, I know it’s impossible.
“We need to wait till morning. Let us hope everything goes well,” he advises.
In the bathroom, I follow the ritualistic steps of ablution, though I’m aware that I can’t quite remember the proper sequence. In Islam there is a prescribed order to the way you wash your body parts during ablutions for prayer. Though I haven’t prayed for years, tonight it suddenly feels compulsory.
I reenter the room to discover that the men have already arranged a blanket like a prayer mat and are set to start the fifth and last prayer of the day. I feel drained. I simply want to lie down, but that’s not an option. They assume I am a Muslim, and shirking prayers will certainly be an offense.
A militant with a long black beard arranges his cap and leads the prayers. He has sharp features -– a long nose, dense eyebrows, and black eyes shining in the dim light -– and I have no doubt that he is the leader of the group. He is clad in baggy trousers and a long shirt made of thick cotton cloth, topped by a dark blue sweater. Everything else he wears is black. The other men, who line up with me, are similarly attired.
I look around. One of the men has not joined us; he is sitting next to the window, holding his gun, standing guard while we pray. The prayers take no more than 15 minutes, and the young bearded fidayeen who leads us barely pitches his voice above a whisper. Now duwa (the incantation seeking God’s blessing at the end of the prayer) begins. It is very unusual. With hands in the air, the men shiver as they sit on the prayer mat and seek God’s blessing. Their voices rise. “God Almighty! Keep us firm on our feet and in our promise to sacrifice ourselves in your way. We have chosen martyrdom to all worldly comforts; please help us to keep ourselves on the right path.” The leader prays for determination, and the others join him, repeating his words with passion. When he pauses, the room resonates with “amen”. The duwa, I recall, generally involved praying for peace, life, and good health. But these men have different ideas about life. In fact, their entire philosophy revolves around death.
As we rise I catch smiles. Praying with them has made a difference. I curl up in a corner and we all watch as the lone guard takes his turn at prayers. The leader now addresses me. “Brother,” he says, “I am Asad. What’s your name” I pronounce my Arabic name — the title of a verse in the Koran — as correctly as I can.
One of the militants takes out a tiny Walkman, though it isn’t music he is about to listen to. Other than drums, music is prohibited in orthodox Islam. Instead, he plays taped Koranic verses, passing the Walkman around so that others too, I guess, can catch especially apt passages. Our host returns. Dinner is ready. The men sit down as he spreads a dastarkhan before them. In Kashmir, dinner is generally served on the floor and the dastarkhan serves as a tablecloth. I help him bring in the rice heaped on two large copper plates. The host has done everything possible to make this dinner a feast. Not able to go to the market, he has cooked whatever is available in his house –- three vegetable dishes, hard-boiled eggs, even a chicken.
As we eat, one of the men again sits by the window, his hand fixed on a gun. The tradition is to eat by hand — specifically the right hand -– but before the men pick up the first morsel, they raise their hands and recite a Koranic verse. I recall my mother telling me to begin any meal by saying “Bismillah” which means, “I start with the name of Allah.” These men recite a full prayer instead. Even dinner has a theological dimension. Though I am hungry, I eat slowly and carefully, for the meal has suddenly taken on the feel of a sacramental rite. I sense that in their dangerous world, every meal is a last supper.
Dinner takes half an hour. Asad now calls the guard to eat. Another of the militants rises, rushes to wash his hands, and takes his place at the window.
Now Asad raises his hands and murmurs another prayer. Everyone follows suit. Asad thanks Allah for providing the men with food. The “host” is even mentioned in the prayer.
Two of the men are pacing, while others wrapped in blankets lean their heads on the fat pillows. Asad is smiling, which encourages me to say something. He actually changes his posture, making room for me to sit next to him. “The food was nice,” I comment, an innocuous beginning to a conversation.
“Yeah, it was good. We hadn’t eaten properly for three days. It was a good meal.”
“Why? Have you been up in the mountains?” I ask.
He smiles again. “We’ve been around for some time. We crossed over a while ago,” he says, hinting that he’s aware of my curiosity. “But yes, we were up in the mountains. We generally keep away from villages closer to the roads.”
As he talks, my comfort zone expands. “I believe you are from Pakistan?”
“Yes most of us are from Pakistan.”
Now the other men join in. A circle forms. Everyone is listening. Asad is succinct in his replies, so I try a more open-ended question. “How do you assess the situation here now?”
He pauses, shifting postures. “For us, the situation hardly matters. We are soldiers and this is Jihad. We don’t care.” The other men nod their heads in agreement.
There is a silence and Asad looks at me, perhaps trying to gauge my reaction. Suddenly, he asks what I do. I’m hesitant to tell him I’m a journalist, working for an Indian newspaper, fearing he and his men might view me with distrust. But there’s no way to avoid a reply. “I write. I write for a newspaper,” I say stumbling over the words. I’m thinking of lying about the name of my newspaper. Frozen, I can’t even seem to make one up. But before he can ask any other thing, the host reappears with a pile of bedding. We all rise to help him to spread the mattresses in one side of the room. I’m relieved, even elated, when Asad says, “It’s late. It’s time to go to bed, let’s talk tomorrow.”
There are not enough quilts, so a few of us have to manage with thin blankets in the chill. I take a pillow and lie down in a corner wrapping a blanket around me. The man on guard lifts the glass on the kerosene lantern and blows out its flame. Nobody says good night. I close my eyes. My teeth chatter, but not from the winter chill. I have put on a good act, good enough to fool myself these last hours, but now alone in the dark, I discover I am terrified. My mind obsessively cycles through the worst possible scenarios –- the news of our presence reaching the neighbouring security force camp. I can’t stop thinking about the live explosives scattered around me in the room. I am literally in bed with death. The calm and silence of the night seem fragile indeed. But I am tired of fear too. I try to sleep.
The day begins well before dawn. It’s around 4 am when the men start murmuring, waking each other up. Time to get ready for early-morning prayers. I don’t remember the last time I woke up so early or so cold. The kerosene lantern is already lit and Asad sits on the floor fiddling with the radio transmitter.
A man’s croaky voice whispers from it, but I can’t make sense of the words. Two of the men stretch and yawn. Another, standing in the corner, wipes his eyes with his hands, struggling to keep them open. We can hear azaan (the Muslim call for prayer) from a distant mosque loudspeaker.
The morning prayers are brief. Two men bury themselves under blankets and drop back to sleep. I am amazed. For these men, today could be the last day and still they want to sleep. How do they make sense of it all? They don’t seem to hate life. They don’t look depressed. Nothing I have yet seen indicates suicidal tendencies. So how do they live every moment in anticipation of a violent death?
I feel an urgent need to send a word to my relatives. Asad seems to read my thoughts. “Is everything okay?” he asks.
“I’m a bit worried, my relatives must be wondering where I vanished.” He doesn’t react, which is all the answer I need. Instead, he looks at my black leather coat. “Nice jacket. Where did you get it from?”
“Do you like nice clothes?’” I ask.
He smiles. “I love leather. I used to study in Lahore. When I left, in 12th grade, I had a small group of friends and we all had black leather jackets. I even had leather trousers.”
“When did you leave home?”
Just the year before, he tells me. “I did appear for my final exams, but I had already joined the Jihad along with three other college friends. We were called for training within three months, and now I’m here.”
“Why did you join?” I ask.
“Why? Is an explanation needed?” he replies. I can feel an edge of sarcasm in his tone. I am a Muslim, a Kashmiri, and I live in Kashmir. I am an inseparable part of his story and I am supposed to know the answer. “This is Jihad. We all have joined to fight for the cause of Allah. This war is to liberate the believers from the clutches of those who do not believe in Him. We have chosen to sacrifice our lives in His way.” His voice has flattened. He might as well be reading from a script.
I sense I’ve stepped on the wrong path. I want to get back to his personal life, but my reportorial self melds into an onrushing wave of anxiety and in a single awkward gulp I burst out. “Don’t you miss your parents, your friends, your villages? Why don’t you want to live?”
There is an odd, awkward silence and then one of Asad’s men reacts. “Are we not human beings?” he asks.
Asad chips in. “Of course we miss our parents, our friends, our brothers and sisters. We do. But we understand Allah’s call. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims die after spending their entire lives earning two meals and other meager comforts. And it’s all so useless. Death in the way of the cause gives meaning to life.”
As he pauses, another of his men picks up the conversation. I’ve overheard the others call him Junaid and I have no doubt that it is no more his real name than Asad’s is Asad. Once such men join the ranks of a militant group, they adopt a new name. It evidently gives them a sort of comforting anonymity. At times, the name they choose is inherited like a rank, a position in the organization, one suicidal name passing on, like an honour, to someone new and worthy. “It’s Jihad and nothing else,” Junaid says.
But is that truly enough to drive them to participate in missions from which the chances of returning alive are so slim? Of course, it is. I know that. Such “suicide missions” occur on a daily basis across Kashmir, but here in this room they’ve suddenly become more than statistics. The Islamic militants in Kashmir don’t like to call their “death projects” suicides, because killing oneself is prohibited in Islam. In fact, even Al-Qaida or the Palestinian militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad avoid defining their suicide bombings as suicides for the same reason and rather prefer to call such deaths as “martyrdom.” But in Kashmir, the Islamic groups go a step further; they reject exploding bombs fitted to their bodies, preferring to go in for daredevil raids against Indian security force posts where the chances of escaping alive are remote to nil. They will, for instance, burst into an Indian Army camp, lob grenades and fire indiscriminately, and then hole up inside a building till they get killed. They call themselves Fidayeens –- “those who are ready to sacrifice” –- and speak of their raids as “martyrdom missions.”
“We believe in life after death,” Asad responds. “We know we are laying down our lives for a holy cause, and we have a firm belief that martyrs will go to heaven. Martyrdom,” he adds, quoting the Koran from memory, is the real purpose of the life of a Momin [a pious Muslim].”
“But why can’t you live for your holy cause?” I ask.
“We sacrifice our lives so that others live freely. We choose to give up our today for everybody’s tomorrow,” he says.
Asad now decides to offer me more of his politics. “The aim of our fight is not just to liberate Kashmir, but to merge it with Pakistan and create a pure Islamic state, run strictly under Islamic laws.” He stresses every word. “Muslims of the world are one nation, and there has to be only one country.”
How do you choose who is to go on these missions?
“It is simple. The commanders choose a group and then we draw lots. The men who are picked are the lucky ones.” In fact, he assures me, his militant group holds a special ceremony before every attack to choose members of the next “martyrdom” mission. “It’s the greatest honour.”
Now Junaid chips in with enthusiasm. “We prefer to do it in a mosque. Amir [the commander] of that particular area writes the names of all the men on small pieces of paper and then asks one of them to pick three, four or five, whatever the number needed,” he explains. “It’s a special ceremony. The Fidayeens take showers, perfume themselves, and, if they have new clothes, they wear them. After the names are finalized, shireeni [a kind of sweet] is distributed and all pray together.” The details of the mission are however kept secret. “Even the chosen Fidayeens are given the final details at the last minute.”
Secrecy is an essential part of the lives of these men. They lose their names and their identities as individuals, becoming invisible as soon as they join the group, and then they fight and die anonymously. “How do your families – your parents – react?” I ask.
“There is hardly anybody who seeks permission,” Asad says. “Parents won’t grant permission. They will rather prevent us from joining the Jihad. There are a few exceptions, but generally parents don’t want to even understand it.”
His own parents learned that he has, in essence, decided to die without his even seeing them again. “I left a letter for them with a friend. And I spoke to them after I arrived here three four months later. I actually called them from here. Ammi (mom) cried a lot. I, too, couldn’t hold back my tears. But now it is okay.”
Asad’s eyes are moist. “I miss her a lot at times,” he says.
Almost everyone in the room is wiping their eyes, and these fanatical “holy warriors” look like nothing more than boys who miss their mothers.
One of the men -– Mohsin -– writes a journal entry every evening. A skinny, tall boy with thick black eyebrows, he seems too young to have the full beard he sports. He is shy, so it is Junaid who tells me about Mohsin’s adventures with the pen. I ask him what he’s been writing. He searches his bag and hands me a little notebook –- a thick pocket-sized writing pad with a black leather cover. “I don’t write about the movement. It is a risk. So I generally scribble down my own thoughts,” he says in a low voice.
I begin to leaf through the pages, glancing at random passages in a beautifully written calligraphic Urdu. He seems to enjoy writing his journal, perhaps to keep himself busy in evenings that are always both empty and full of dangers. And he has clearly been thinking about his family all the time. One page catches my eye and I seek his permission to copy it. He laughs with embarrassment. I find a piece of paper in my pocket but I am not carrying a pen and so he lends me his which he takes from his pouch of explosives.
Here is what he wrote: “I don’t know whether they will ever know where my grave is. But I will meet them in heaven inshallah [God willing]. We are like travelers. This world is like an inn and we know it is not our final destination. We arrive here at the time of our birth. We live, and our stay in this world is temporary, like a traveler who takes a break for a night in a roadside inn and then goes ahead. Our final destination is the next world where we go for an eternal life.
“The traveler does not forget his destination to enjoy his stay in the inn. Similarly, we need to prepare for our final destination while we are alive. We are promised to meet with our loved ones on the judgment day. Our mothers who gave birth to us, our fathers who took care of us, our brothers and sisters -– our wives and our children -– all will be proud of us that day. So we should not let anything distract us from the righteous path -– the path of Allah. We may not live, but we will make this world a better place for others.”
Mohsin has also been writing down his dreams. “I dreamt about my mother last night. I was sitting in a garden of flowers when she arrived. She hugged me. She asked me how I was and told me everybody at home is proud of me. I think it is a naveed [a message] from Allah that I will receive her in paradise. I have chosen the path of martyrdom. There is nothing more beautiful than martyrdom -– the Koran says martyrs don’t die, they are alive but we don’t understand.”
Mohsin is 19 and is the youngest in the group, who are all under 30. I flip through his journal and as I am about to close it, I see a few lines from an Urdu love song –- sung by a famous Pakistani ghazal singer – on the last page. I’m about to enquire about it but he winks at me –- his face brightened by a smile. He seems embarrassed and clearly doesn’t want it mentioned in front of the entire group.
I close the journal, return it silently, and then ask him whether his mother knew about his plans to become a militant. “She had an idea. I talked to her about it. I couldn’t convince her. It is difficult to convince mothers,” he says. “They don’t understand what it means to join the Jihad. But I know one day she will be proud to be my mother.”
THERE IS A KNOCK on the door and the host enters. I look at my wristwatch. I can’t believe it’s already 1 pm. We’ve been talking for hours. I hear the host asking Asad whether they would like to have lunch now or later. “It is already 1 pm and it’s time for the prayers,” he says and stands up to follow the host to the bathroom. These men are very particular not to leave the room without his company and I understand why. Their orthodox belief involves the total segregation of men and women. To run into a woman from the household alone would be a sin.
After an hour of prayers, we sit for the lunch. It’s late afternoon and the sky is cloudy. I hear music –- a villager walking by with a transistor radio. I haven’t heard the news since yesterday. These men don’t read newspapers, watch television, or even listen to the radio. Asad looks at his wristwatch. “You can go in an hour,” he says. I know he is waiting for the evening, when it is dark and there are no people on the streets.
There is silence in the room. Soon I see Asad’s men getting ready –- they strap on their pouches, don their jackets. Everybody now awaits Asad’s word. The host, too, is sitting with us. “It was good to meet you,” Asad says addressing me formally. “Please pray for us.” I know it is time to leave. I stand up. We shake hands and I say goodbye. I step into a drizzling rain. The road is dark and deserted.
Postscript: Since I met these six men, in November 2000, I have tried to follow every suicide attack in Kashmir, scanning the faces of the militants at the places where they died, checking the pictures of the bodies of Fidayeens in newspapers. But I’ve never seen them again. Perhaps, I missed that particular series of photos. For I have no doubt that they are dead.
Muzamil Jaleel is a Srinagar-based journalist with the Indian Express.