As India and Pakistan armies fought its first formal battle over Kashmir in 1965, a small village in Budgam paid the ultimate price. At the height of war, the village and its orchids were emptied to make way for bunkers and ammunitions. Almost half-a-century later villagers still wait for compensation. Zubair Sofi reports
Tall radars overlook, as well as dwarfs, small wood-and-brick houses in nearby Nowshad Kralpora village in Budgam district.
Octogenarian Abdul Razak Sofi, who is lying on a bed in his room, looks out of the window, towards the radars station, with pained expressions on his face. He vividly recalls how the entire village was destroyed during 1965 war.
“There were announcements on loudspeakers asking villagers to vacate their houses,” recalls Sofi. “They said Pakistani planes are coming to attack.”
The announcement panicked everybody in the village as people started packing up. “We had no place to go,” recalls Sofi. “But there was no choice either as forces occupied our houses the same day.”
By dawn the entire village wore a deserted look, as villagers moved to nearby vacant piece of land, just across the Doodhganga canal. “It was a forced and hurried evacuation,” said Sofi.
From across the canal villagers helplessly watched their houses turned into make-shift bunkers and their cowsheds into ammunition dumps. “Our houses were in front of our eyes yet we couldn’t go there,” said Sofi. “We lived in tents made with bed sheets.”
As the war begun we villagers could see planes flying over their village. “We saw our village getting destroyed but were helpless to do anything,” said Sofi.
After the war ended and situation improved, people rushed to their village to check the condition of their houses. “We were moved to tears at the sight of destruction,” recalls Sofi. “The entire village was destroyed. There was not a single house standing.”
With the end of war the forces who had occupied Sofi’s village shifted their base to the nearby Karewas. “They camped there,” said Sofi.
The said Karewa was main source of income for villagers as it produced finest quality saffron and almonds. “They took our livelihood. It had devastating effect on the entire village.”
The Karewa suited army as it wanted to guard Srinagar’s airport from future attacks.
“First war destroyed our houses and then forces took our fields,” said Sofi. “We were left at Allah’s mercy.”
As time passed, villagers started to pick up their lives from the scratch, trying to forget the brutal events that left them vulnerable. “It took me six years to build a new house,” said Sofi.
Seven years later (1972), Sofi recalls how one day a team of officials came to their village and started surveying the land next to the garrison. “When I was young I used to work in the fields,” recalls Sofi.
Later villagers came to know that the survey is being conducted for setting up a radar towers known as Signal Unit 727 (SU of Air force). “The land suited them because of its elevation and proximity to the Srinagar airport,” said Sofi.
A few days later, a group of geologists approached Sofi, who was working in the fields, and offered him Rs 5, asking him to dig a pit.
“After I dug the pit the geologists told me to put a stone in it,” recalls Sofi. “This was the first foundation stone laid for the radar.”
Then a man from the group told Sofi to put more stones in the pit and recite some verses of Quran for a great start.
Within six months, the land around the tower was fenced. That included the graveyard of the village.
Villagers requested the authorities to leave the graveyard out of the fence. “They did not agree at first. It took us few months to motivate them,” said Sofi.
A few months later, when Sofi’s grandmother passed away, villagers took her body to the graveyard for burial. “Armymen guarding the tower panicked as they saw people approaching towards them,” recalls Sofi.
The funeral got delayed by over three hours as army men refused villagers to visit the graveyard. “A few years later army permanently separated the tower from the village. They constructed a concrete wall and pitched bunkers on it,” said Sofi.
All one can see is watchtowers that guard the radar station from all sides. “It is a connected landmass. From tower to old airport to the new airport,” said Sofi. “It used to have finest almost trees and beautiful saffron fields.”
The loss of cultivable land proved catastrophic for the villagers, as a large chunk of land adjacent to the tower became inaccessible as well. “We watched like helpless creatures while they took away our land and livelihood,” said Sofi.
One evening the entire village illuminated with huge lights, attached to the watchtowers erected around the radar station. “They erected these lights to keep check on our houses,” recalls Sofi. “It irritated us in the beginning but we had no choice.”
As time passed the villagers got accustomed to the surveillances.
Despite occupying the land no compensated was given to the villagers. In 1999, finally government issued an order directing the army to compensate the owners.
The order was implemented partly in 2015. “We were given half the due amount while rest is still pending,” said Sofi.
The cost of the land per kanal was estimated as Rs 6 lakh.
“It was less than the amount we used to earn from sale of crop and fruits,” said Sofi.
With time as the population of this village swelled people started looking for space to live. However, no one was allowed to construct a house near the wall as the area was handed over to Indian Air Force (IAF).
“It hurts to see how the land was slowly taken from us,” laments Sofi.
No one is allowed to walk near the wall. High voltage electric wires are placed in front of the wall. The wall runs all the way up to the new airport.
The latest irritant for the villages is regular training of cadets inside the garrison. “They fire shots for training which is nuisance,” said Sofi.
It is not possible for the new generation to see the ancestral land. Razak tells the tales of this land to his grandsons and granddaughters. “This history which I witnessed is not penned anywhere. I am trying to preserve by sharing it to new generation,” says Sofi.