Grave digger’s tale: Death in the time of Kashmir conflict
By Aadil Mir
Srinagar: “A wailing mother jumped inside the grave and asked me to bury her along with her son who was killed in cross-firing while on way to school. I could not control myself and my eyes welled up,” says a grave digger who has been at the job for around 25 years.
Etched in the memories of the grave digger are stories of the militancy and violence that has afflicted Kashmir since the 1990s.
“The police used to bring bodies, mostly at night. Many of the bodies were blood-splattered with bullet holes… some had broken legs. It’s hard to describe, these were not normal deaths,” Ghulam Mohd Dar (name changed) told IANS here. He requested that his real name be not used as his work is deemed to be “below dignity.”
Dar said he has held scores of young bodies in his arms to lay them down in a grave, accompanied by the wailing of their relatives. “Some of the bodies were not even recognizable, because of mutilation,” he said.
In 2011, more than 2,000 corpses, believed to be victims of Kashmir’s long-running militancy, were found buried in dozens of unmarked graves in north Kashmir.
Rights campaigners and community leaders in Kashmir have long spoken of the existence of such graves — and often provided documentary evidence to back their claims.
The worst of the violence occurred during the mid-1990s when thousands of militants were pitted against the security forces.
Instances of human rights abuse were routine with militants intimidating local communities and killing so-called spies while the security forces sometimes resorted to extra-judicial executions, as has been documented. The graves, of course, tell their own tale from the period.
Fifty-year-old Dar, from the old city of Srinagar, has dug at least 500 graves in the Srinagar graveyard. He was a youthful 25 when he took on the mantle from his father. Earlier, as a callow 15-year-old, Dar had begun assisting his father in the digging.
Perhaps sapped by the recounting of his morbid experiences, Dar leaned back against the wall of his small two-room house and asked his wife to give him a cup of tea as he was feeling a little uneasy.
His wife said: “It has been his routine … whenever he returns home after digging a grave, he feels like this.”
Dar said that as news of a death reaches him, he sets out to do his job, be it rain or sunshine, snow or storm. “After retrieving my spade and shovel, which remain resting in the shed next to the entrance of the graveyard, I hunt around the graveyard to locate the oldest grave, as space is at a premium,”
He says that the space for the new burial is decided by him depending on when the previous body was buried. He has to assume that the buried body had completely decomposed, becoming one with the earth.
“In some cases, the bones of the buried person are still around, but in other cases, a horrifying sight awaits me — a semi-decomposed or non-decomposed body. If the body is not decomposed, I have to bury it again and dig another grave,” he says.
Because of the ongoing conflict, the number of embalmed bodies had increased, he says, adding that the chances are high that such bodies would not have fully decomposed.
Dar’s chosen work is considered to be tough and mentally sapping and it is often said that only people with abundant courage are able to handle this work. But even a hardened Dar finds his hands trembling when he places a dead body in the grave.
“Initially, when I used to assist my father, my hands used to tremble with terror at holding a dead body. But over time, I have come to terms with my profession,” he said.
Dar said his hands tremble the most when burying the body of a young man as it pained him to think about the loss of a worthwhile future.
“My job is neither rewarding nor thrilling. I, in fact, inherited it. I dig graves for a living. My job doesn’t rank among the coveted ones. After all, a ‘good day’ at work for me is a heart-breaking one for other people whose near and dear ones have died,” he said.