Anantnag: It was 20 March, 2000. The sky was murky and overcast. Just after dusk, worshippers were walking back home from the temples in the Sikh-dominated Chittisinghpora village in south Kashmir's Anantnag district. Some were chatting by the roadside while the women were busy preparing dinner.
It was a routine evening. Nobody would have thought that the small pastoral hamlet with a stunning natural landscape was about to change, that the idyll would be shrouded in horror and distress.
A group of masked gunmen in army fatigues barged into the village. They split into two groups and rounded up 36 Sikhs, including teenagers, the young and the elderly. They made two groups of Sikhs stand outside the two gurdwaras in the area located just 150 metres apart. The terrified Sikhs were unsure what was going to happen when in unison, both groups of gunmen fired indiscriminately at point-blank range. All, except Nanak Singh, then 39, died.
Nanak Singh, the line survivor of the Chittisinghpora massacre. Image courtesy: Aamir Ali Bhat
The gunmen left, leaving behind a trail of dark memories that still haunt the villagers. The massacre had sent shockwaves across India. Around 30 women were left widowed and scores of children were orphaned that dreadful night.
The memories of the carnage are still fresh in Nanak's mind. The soft-spoken and grey-bearded survivor of the Chittisinghpora massacre is a retired government employee. He lost his son, brother and three cousins that night. This is his recount of the tragedy:
Winter had just passed in Kashmir. It was still a bit cold outside. I had donned a pheran. Like every day, we were gossiping as we walked home from the temple. A group of gunmen in army fatigues entered our village through a narrow lane from the back, their faces were covered with a mask. Their sudden presence didn't frighten us as it was normal during those days. We thought they were fauji (soldiers).
Later, their actions signalled that something unusual was going to happen. I don't know how many of them were there, but it was a huge group and one leader was giving them directions. They broke into two parties. One group went down the road towards Shaukeen Mohalla Gurdwara.
"What's happened, sir? Is everything alright?" we asked the gunmen.
"Yes, everything is alright. We have to check your identity cards. It will take 10 minutes. Stay here," they replied.
The wall in the background contains pictures of those killed in Chittisinghpora massacre Image courtesy: Aamir Ali Bhat
Some of them barged into houses located close to the two gurdwaras and brought more men out. Among them were my son Gurmeet Singh, who had recently passed Class 10 exam, my 28-year-old brother Darbari Singh and three cousins " 22-year-old Sartaj Singh, 20-year-old Kulbeer Singh and 25-year-old Ujjal Singh. Sartaj had been married for 10 months while Darbari was a farmer with two kids. Both his children aged less than 10 years.
"Where are the militants? We have information that some militants are visiting this village," they said.
"We haven't seen any militants, Sir. You may have the wrong information," we replied.
Sinister thoughts crossed my mind. I murmured into the ear of my neighbour Charan Singh, standing by my right, that we were going to die today. We could sense a murderous frenzy in the actions of the gunmen.
They lined us up outside Singh Sabha Sumandri Hall Gurdwara. There were 19 of us. My son was beside me. I still remember I was seventh from the left side.
At the same time, the other group of gunmen placed 17 Sikhs in a row outside Shaukeen Mohalla Gurdwara, 150 metres down the road. It was 7.45 pm. There were eight to 10 gunmen in front of us. We were still unsure about their plan.
The first spot of the Chittisinghpora massacre where 18 Sikhs were killed. Image courtesy: Aamir Ali Bhat
One of them fired in the air " a signal to the other group to get ready to kill. Then they shot indiscriminately at us. The firing continued for a few minutes. All of us fell to the ground.
I didn't receive any bullet, but I dropped to the ground and played dead, I was murmuring, "Waheguru Ji, Waheguru Ji", under my breath. They stopped firing and flashed torches at us. "Akh round aur maro saalu ko. Koi nahi bachna chahiye (Shoot these idiots again. Make sure everyone is dead)," one of them ordered. I became ready to die this time.
They fired at us again, and one bullet pierced my left leg and broke my right thigh joint. I didn't scream. As they left, vanishing through the route they had come, they chanted 'Jai Hind!', 'Jai Mata Di!' and 'Bharat Mata Ki Jai!'
I was bleeding profusely. I opened my eyes and found someone had clutched me with his arm. I lifted his arm and looked closely, it was my son Gurmeet. I shook his body, I called him, tried to wake him up. Then I touched his head; it was soaked in blood. Tears rolled down my face. I was not able to stand up. I wanted a sip of water.
A pile of bodies was lying before me in a pool of blood, some were still shaking and wobbling. Each man was hit by 10 to 12 bullets. That dreadful scene is imprinted on my mind.
My cousin Sartaj was robust. With his bullet-riddled chest, he walked up to our house. Then the villagers came, beating their chests. They picked me up. The gunmen had turned our village into a slaughterhouse. The road ran red, and blood squished under shoes.
The Bullet marks are preserved at the second spot where 17 Sikhs were killed in the Chittisinghpora massacre. Image courtesy: Aamir Ali Bhat
Sartaj and I were placed in a room. There was no vehicle in the village. Men, women, children, everyone was crying and screaming for help. Some young Sikh villagers ran to the police station, around seven kilometres away from our village. I too was crying. Shrieking. I had witnessed the brutal death of my loving son.
"Why are you crying? Stop screaming," Sartaj was telling me in a broken voice.
By the time police reached our village, Sartaj had taken his last breath. He might have survived if he had been given immediate treatment. The police took me to Anantnag district hospital, from where I was shifted to Bone and Joint Hospital, Barzulla, Srinagar. The next day, I was referred to the army hospital, where I stayed for 25 days and was operated on once.
I was still unable to walk. I went to Amritsar, where the Sikh committee took me to a senior doctor. I was operated twice. My damaged hip joint was replaced by an artificial one.
It took me months to recover. I didn't even take part in my son's last rites. I stayed with my relatives in Jammu for some time, to get over the shock. Nothing is worse than to witness the gruesome murder of your loved ones.
While the gunmen were conversing, I had heard three names " Pawan, Bhansi and Bahadur. I don't know if these names were fake or real, but they still reverberate in my ears.
As the lone survivor of the massacre, I gave scores of interviews. I was an eyewitness in a number of courts and government offices. Nothing happened. Then we lost hope of justice. It was a premeditated massacre. We only saw a flawed inquiry and later, fake promises.
The massacre was carried out to give a wrong message about Kashmir to former US President Bill Clinton, who was visiting India.
Everyone is aware of the Pathribal fake encounter, in which five innocent civilians were killed, and later dubbed militants responsible for the Chittisinghpora massacre. Even the CBI report suggested that the five civilians were killed in cold blood in Pathribal.
After the massacre, people suggested I migrate from Kashmir. But I refused. Why would I leave my village? I was born here. I lived here and will die here. We didn't make an issue of the massacre. Everyone in Kashmir had been witnessing death and destruction for decades now.
We still live happily with our Muslim brothers. The criminals failed to break our bonds.
I can only say that it was a miracle that I survived, for hundreds of bullets were fired at us at point-blank range.
Three-day mourning for Chittisinghpora massacre victims
Nanak now lives with his other son, Manmeet Singh, also a government employee.
Every year, on the anniversary, Sikh villagers of Chittisinghpora commemorate their loved ones. They observe three days of mourning and memorial events. They have preserved the haunting memories of the massacre, but have lost hope of justice. Nineteen years have passed, and the killings are still shrouded in mystery.
After the Chittisinghpora massacre under SRO-43, every victim's family was given Rs 1 lakh and a government job.
The author is Anantnag-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters