Blurred lines in Kashmir Conflict: Last call between a rebel son and his mother

Haseena’s last phone call with her teen son Zahid before he died in a gun battle with Indian forces went viral when she did not stop him from the fatal fight. But she says, life in India-administered Kashmir is not as black and white.

Bashir Ahmad Mir was woken up by the sound of his phone ringing. It was half past midnight and he didn’t know the number.

Mir, in his early 60s, did not take the call, thinking it was Indian soldiers at his gate again.

Bashir and his wife Haseena were alone in their small house in Wokei village in southern India-administered Kashmir. None of their sons were home, choosing to sleep instead at their neighbours’ and relatives’ homes out of fear of frequent late-night raids by the soldiers.

The phone rang again, and again Mir ignored it. By now the couple were fully awake, waiting for the banging at the gate, the hail of stones on their tin roof and their windows, the subsequent search of the house and questioning by the soldiers.

Then Haseena’s phone rang, and she picked it up.

“Hello,” the voice of her youngest son, 16-year-old Zahid Ahmad Mir, at the other end.

“The moment I heard my son’s voice on the phone, I knew what it meant,” Haseena tells . “He had never called any of us before.”

It was Zahid’s first phone call to his family since he had left home two years ago to join the armed movement against Indian rule in the region. He was 14 when he picked up the gun.

And that early September morning when he called his mother, Zahid was trapped in a house with four other armed rebels in Chowgam village, 15 km from Wokei. Surrounded by the Indian armed forces, under the shadow of an impending gun battle, Zahid made his last call home.

What ensues in this phone call, between Zahid’s “hello” and Haseena’s parting words is the final conversation between a mother and a son in the face of imminent death.

A recording of their final words has been doing the rounds in the region on Whatsapp groups, Facebook feeds and on YouTube, with over 185,000 views in the past three weeks.

It’s an unexpected conversation where the mother tells her son that he must fight, that surrender is not an option.

This eight-minute dialogue reveals the changing landscape of war and resistance in Kashmir.

We travel to Wokei village in Kulgam, a picturesque old village 75 km south of the capital city Srinagar, to meet one of the voices in the momentous phone conversation to understand one thing: why didn’t Haseena ask her teenage son to surrender and live?

Haseena, who is in her early 50s, sits beside her husband who is puffing away at an old hookah pipe in their modest living room. One of their four remaining sons Mudasir sits in another corner while we speak.

“There was a time when I could ask him to surrender,” Haseena says. “And I did. Now was not the time to ask such a thing. It would have been a betrayal on my part.”

Haseena speaks without fear even though tiny cues in her behaviour suggested that she wasn’t entirely trustful of our presence there.

“He was giving me courage in that phone call, and I answered with courage. That was the least I could do,” she says

Excerpt from call

“What do you think?” Haseena asks.

“I think we have to fight, Inshallah [God willing],” Zahid replies.

“You have to fight?” she responds, without any change in her voice.

“Yes,” is his reply.

“May God give you courage and success,” the mother says.

“Ameen,” he answers.

“May God accept your martyrdom,” Haseena says.

She can be heard asking him to forgive her and the family if they had ever hurt him. In turn, the 16-year-old boy seeks forgiveness and asks her to do the same on his behalf from everyone at his funeral the next day.

She says everyone knows that he had walked in the path of God, “God had given you to me as amanat [safekeeping], I vouched to send you back to him …“I am happy in this as well. You should be successful in your mission,” she says.

“Do you owe anyone anything,” she asks then.

No, he says. “The SP (superintendent of police) is talking to us,” Zahid says.

“What is he saying?”

“He is asking us to surrender,” he answers.

“No, no,” she says. “Why will you surrender? Tell him we won’t surrender.”

“There is no way we will surrender,” he replies.

“If you have a chance to escape, then escape.

But don’t surrender. If there is no chance of escaping, that is no worry either. May God accept your martyrdom.”

From pigeons and skinny jeans to an armed rebel

 Zahid left home on the afternoon of August 31, 2016, and Haseena says she remembers that day and the subsequent days so clearly, as if it all happened yesterday.

“Zahid came home from a protest in a neighbouring village and had lunch with us,” Haseena tells.

“When he set out again, I stopped him saying, ‘Don’t go, you will be hurt, they are firing on the protesters,’ I said. ‘There are thousands of people there, nothing will happen,’ he said,” Haseena recalls.

At that time, Kashmir was in the throes of a full-blown people’s rebellion against Indian rule, and the southern region was the epicentre.

The revolt started on July 8, 2016 after Indian forces killed 21-year-old militant commander Burhan Wani. The revolt unravelled over three months.

Over 90 Kashmiri demonstrators were killed by Indian forces during that time, thousands were wounded and a similar number incarcerated. Several hundred were injured or blinded by the pellet guns.

“That day, my brother was part of a large procession of people who ransacked the house of a pro-India politician and some guns were snatched from his security personnel,” Mudasir, Zahid’s elder brother, tells.

“That is how my brother joined militancy; we found it out later.”

Haseena says the family and the entire village searched for Zahid, thinking that the army or police must have picked him up or that he might be wounded and lying in some hospital. “For 11 days, we searched without rest and then we went to the police and registered a missing report. Later, they told us that he had become a militant; I never believed it though.”

“What is a 14-year-old? A child,” Haseena says.

“He always talked about pigeons; he wanted to bring home pigeons as pets,” she recalls.

“The day before he left, he asked me again if he could get pigeons home, and I said there was no place for pigeons in our home. I wanted him to study, to not waste his time, but he was all about the pigeons.”

It was hard for Mudasir too to believe that his brother had become a “militant.”

“He was a model. Spiky hair, taking selfies … And when he bought jeans, he always opened them up and then sewed them back, tapering them, thin like pencils,” he says.

“He was always taking our clothes, always asking for five rupees, ten rupees; he was the youngest of the five of us, and we really saw him as a child,” Mudasir says.

“Even the day he left to become a militant, he was wearing my trousers.”

Haseena says she doesn’t know what exactly transpired to prompt her son to choose this way of life, but she thinks his actions were a response to the times and the life in Kashmir.

“There is so much oppression here that a child who wanted pigeons and nice clothes had to pick up a gun and fight thousands and thousands of soldiers. If there was no oppression, he would have been here with me today.”

Eleven months after he left home, the family says Zahid returned for the first time one evening with at least a dozen other rebels.

“The moment he removed the mask, I embraced him,” Haseena remembers.

“I took him to another room, and I told that he must surrender. I said being a militant is a harsh life, and you are too young to contribute anything to it.”

One of Zahid’s fellow rebels who was lurking just behind the door tugged at his arm, and they left instantly.

While Zahid was hiding in forests and seeking shelter in other people’s homes, the police arrested his brother Mudasir. They held him for nine-and-a-half months.

“They made it seem as if they recovered weapons from me, said I was in touch with my brother and was working for him. All were made up charges, to harass us, to weaken my brother, to set an example for others,” Mudasir says.

But Zahid, Haseena says, never called on them while his brother was imprisoned and at times they wondered if he even knew that his brother was in prison.

A few days after Mudasir was released, the family says Zahid visited home for the second time, on the second evening of Eid.

“He was a different person. I hadn’t seen him since he had left. I almost didn’t recognise him,” Mudasir says.

“He spoke with calm and respect and I spoke the same way to him. He said these tribulations were a test in the path of truth and we must not back away from them,” Mudasir says.

Haseena says she asked Zahid again to surrender, but that time she was not so hopeful.

“I saw that he was not that child of mine anymore. He was another person, and he asked me very calmly to never mention it again. When he said that, I knew I must not. It was the last time I asked him to surrender.”

She saw her son once after that, in a ‘rally of mujahids’ walking with over a hundred other armed rebels and followed by thousands of people, shouting slogans for Kashmir’s independence from India. The procession stopped outside her home.

“That is the last time I saw him,” she says. “Three times in two years, for a few minutes altogether. And then that last phone call.”

The first time she saw Zahid since he left home, Haseena says, he was just her 14-year-old child, and she had to ask him to surrender.

“In the phone call, he was a militant, and if I had asked him to surrender and had he surrendered, he would have fallen into the hands of the Indians and lived to die a million deaths,” the mother says. “He would have always cursed himself and me.

“A mother can have many children, but she cannot bear this kind of separation. It is not easy, but that was the path he chose, in God’s way, and I accept it wholeheartedly.”

She remembers their last conversation like something from a dream. Haseena says she did not know her son was recording it, and it was much later that she found out that Zahid had uploaded it on the internet before his death.

In the recording, Haseena is heard asking him to seek permission from the house owner to fight from his house in which they are hiding, since it would be demolished in the gun-battle with the Indian forces.

After a while in the conversation, Zahid mentions casually that he would be coming home tomorrow, by God’s grace.

Slowly Haseena and Mir’s neighbours gathered, Haseena tells us, when they heard them talk to Zahid on the phone. Then the village gathered; and all those, she says, who were fated to speak to him in that last call spoke to him.

While others in the phone call cry, Haseena’s voice never wavers.

She says she told everyone, her husband and her children, that no one should cry over her Zahid. “This is not a thing to cry over, I told them,” she says.

Does the phone conversation becoming viral mean anything to you, we ask her. No, she replies.

There is no sorrow here in this house but a quiet pride.

Over a dozen pictures of their son are pasted on the front of the house, on the doors of the rooms and along the corridor.

“We downloaded them from the internet,” his father says, “and we put them up here after his martyrdom.”

In all these pictures, Zahid is holding a gun or standing with other armed compatriots, the pictures marking his journey from a fresh recruit to a known militant.

I ask them for an older picture of Zahid, when he was still that ‘stylish pigeon loving’ teen.

They hesitate, saying there is no such picture. When the father and brother seem willing to take a look for one, Haseena stops them.

“There is no older picture of him,” she says. “We lost them all through the night raids and searches.”

We press again, saying it would just be a photograph of any picture they have, even a school identity card.

“No,” Haseena says, her voice riding over that of her husband and son. “No such picture,” she insists.

“What about an old school bag?” we ask. “Or his clothes, or his room, or anything that belonged to him before he became a militant?”

“No.” Haseena is stern; “There is nothing of the sort. His only pictures are pasted outside.”

When asked about his former friends, in whose homes he looked after pigeons, with whom he played cricket, the boys he swapped fashion tips with, Mir and Mudasir mull a few names between themselves, wondering if any of them would be home.

Again Haseena cuts them off.

“They are children,” she says, “You will find nothing about Zahid from them.”

There are no images at all from Zahid’s former life, and if there are, his mother has decided to keep them to herself.

The only image of him in the world shall be with a gun. Or as a martyr during his funeral.

Haseena’s rebel son belongs to the people, her 14-year-old boy, to her.