Life was normal for Mattoo’s till that ill-fated cold, breezy November 3 afternoon in 1993 when ‘a ghost came from dark’ and took away their seven-year-old son, Javed Mattoo.
This was the time when India launched a massive anti-insurgency operation against pro-freedom and pro-Pakistan militants – who had returned from across the border after getting trained in firing AK-47’s and other automatic weapons.
Almost two decades later, the family’s home in Pulwama, 30 km south of Jammu and Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar, stands only to tell sordid tales of State oppression, festering wounds and aching reminiscences.
Javed, according to his father Ghulam Nabi Mattoo, was having lunch with family when a column of Border Security Forces or BSF soldiers raided the house. “The patrol party was headed by Gurmeet Singh [Inspector] and his other two assistants Sukhu Singh and Tirlook Singh. They took away my Javed,” Mattoo Sr. says.
The counter-insurgency forces were given unbridled powers to curb the anti-India militancy that had erupted four years back in 1989 – the immediate motivation being the massive rigging of elections in 1987. Thousands of youths were rounded up by armed forces during search operations and crackdowns. Many among them never returned home.
“The BSF party had arrested over a dozen youth in the village during that raid. All of them were released; only my son (Javed) was held up in the (BSF) camp,” Mattoo Sr. says.
Javed, a student of 1st standard at Government Public School in Kareem Abad, who should have been sitting in a classroom with his friends, was now lodged at a BSF camp where he could only see strange men brandishing automatic weapons and conversing in an alien language.
His crime, however, was never known, and he wasn’t even taken to a juvenile home – although no such homes existed then.
Under the Public Safety Act or PSA, armed forces can detain anyone for a maximum two years without any trial. They can detain a person on the basis of suspicion alone.
Mattoo’s rushed to the nearest police station after hearing that Javed had been shifted there. “We tried to contact the police officials for his release but they kept on telling us that he would be released day after tomorrow. We were very worried,” he reminisces.
Initially, police, according to Mattoo Sr., refused to file a case against the BSF, saying Javed had escaped from the BSF camp.
Six months after he was taken away, Javed’s sister died – the family believes she died because of her brother’s mysterious disappearance.
According to various human rights organizations, more than 8000 people have disappeared in the custody of armed forces in the Valley. The families of these disappeared people who have been fighting their cases under two breakaway factions of Association of Parents of Disappeared People (APDP) have at least one thing in common: they have been making rounds of various military installations and incarceration centers in the Valley in search of their loved ones.
Mattoo Sr. has been no exception. He has been running from pillar to post in search of his son. “Every time we would visit the BSF camp to meet Javed they would ignore us saying that the officer is not present. This continued for months together. We always returned home disappointed and distraught,” he sighs.
After managing to get an FIR registered, Mattoo’s went to the BSF camp again, but this time they had to hear a different story: they were told that Javed fled after identifying a militant hideout.
Mattoo Sr. can’t believe this version of the story. He asks: “How can a seven-year-old know about a militant hideout?”
After eight months of Javed’s disappearance, an old man working as a carpenter at National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Srinagar brought the family news they have been awaiting for months now.
The old man informed the family that Javed was kept in a hidden room at the University campus.
“The old man told us that he had met Javed in the campus and had a small chat with him. Javed had told him that he was picked up by the BSF forces and wrong information of his escape was conveyed to his family,” says Mattoo.
The family contacted the Army officials at the NIT only to learn that they had received ‘wrong information’. “And in a jiffy all our hopes went down the drain,” adds Mattoo Sr. with a husky voice.
Like most Kashmiris, Mattoo’s have a question: Why was their innocent son targeted. Why is the State silent?
“We have harbored this pain for almost two decades now. We want to know if he (Javed) is alive or dead. We will fight till we live. None of the political or economic packages can heal our wounds,’’ says Mattoo Sr.