Atta Mohammad Khan, 65, doesn’t know the dead or their names. He remembers them by the ‘bullet wounds and torture marks’. After burying over 230 unknown people, Khan, the lone caretaker of Chachal graveyard in Uri’s Bimbyar village is an exhausted man. His old eyes have lost sight, yet a look into the past makes tears roll. These tears that shine on his cheeks hold the secret to the unmarked graves where nameless dead dubbed as militants lay buried.
From a year-old girl to people as old as him, Khan has been a part of their journey to the unknown. “A year-old girl, who was flung into river Jhelum by her mother, while she was escaping the wrath of army troopers searching for her family, lies buried here,” he says.
Chachal had to take care of the nameless dead, soon after neighbouring Kichama graveyard had no space left for them. Khan claims that 235 persons were buried in the graveyard in six years and there was no space left now.
On an occasion, he dug nine graves in a day and at times the dead shared a grave. “One morning as I buried two bodies, a group of five persons sitting under a tree at a distance were watching. The following day, one of them, Ghulam Mohi-ud-din, came to me and said that one of the buried men was his son,” he says.
Ironically, Din, a resident of Jalshiri village was unaware that his son was being buried while he stood few meters away watching. In such cases where the dead were identified, Khan suffered another ordeal. The dead had to be exhumed. As he says, “I requested Din, after he got permission from the Deputy Commissioner for exhumation of his son’s body, not to open the grave.” The family denied his request.
While Din’s son was exhumed quickly, there were dead who were brought out after many days. Khan says that a body of a youth from Haigam village in Sopore was exhumed a week after his burial.
In 2004, two years after he took the job of the caretaker, police had asked Khan to dig eight graves. They asked him to leave the place as bodies would not reach till the next day. “The next morning, I went to visit my daughter in the neighboring village, and on my return, I saw the graves filled,” Khan recounts. It was only after being told by a villager did he discover that his nephew Salim Khan was also among those buried covertly by the police.
At times he ‘resisted’ the police who used to keep the dead person’s belongings. “One night, the police told me to bury two bodies. One was a middle-aged man and the other was in his 20s. When I started burying the younger one, the policemen saw the watch that he was wearing and asked me to take it off. I refused. Later, the policemen took it away. I wept,” he laments.
Unable to see these days, he, however, remembers the dead by their wounds. In the same year, Khan received five bodies – of these, two had the flesh on their legs torn and their bones were visible. “I tied their legs with cloth and cleaned the blood stains that covered their bodies. At one point, I felt as if they were alive,” Khan recalls.
Such gory sights would often get him into heated arguments with the troops and the police. “The army used to keep the bodies in sacks and then drag them from mountain top. At times, they used to throw the bodies from the top to their colleagues at the base of the mountain,” he says, adding that sometimes the bodies would remain in the open for days.
Many times he posed a question about the whereabouts of the dead to the government forces, but they meted out a ‘standard reply’. “I always asked the army and police to reveal the identity of the slain, but every time they said that he is an ugarwadi (terrorist),” says Khan.
Of the 235 buried, very few have been identified. People from as far as Shopian and Srinagar have visited the graveyard in search of their missing relatives.
“The family members of the missing come to the graveyard to relieve themselves from pain and agony. They cry on the graves before leaving,” he recounts. The people who came searching often had numerous questions for him. Answers to the questions would be taken back home, instead of the bodies of missing family member. “Some people used to ask me how the buried persons looked. Where they were hit? If they had any signs of torture on their bodies?”
The toll of guarding the unknown dead is far too evident on Khan’s face. “I can’t sleep properly. I have lost my eyesight now, but I continue to guard the dead,” he says in his broken voice.