Bisma Bhat and Bilal Ahmad piece together the last moments of a Kashmiri family’s search for their missing son, whose three-day sojourn as a militant has left the family grieving and clueless.
The spring evening of 6 April marked the end of a budding engineer-turned-militant's story when a local playground hosted his funeral prayers just three days after he had joined the militant ranks.
Rahil Rashid Sheikh (23) would often be seen playing cricket in the ground, which lies just a few metres away from his home.
The three-day-old militant is believed to have joined the Hizbul Mujahideen militant outfit on April 3 and was killed along with his associate during a gunfight with government forces in south Kashmir’s Shopian district on April 6.
“It came as a shock. He never discussed anything related to militancy with us nor did he show any inclination towards it,” said one of his friends, who lives near Rahil’s home.
Rahil was pursuing M. Tech at Desh Bhagat University, Punjab and was on leave for last seven months as his niece was diagnosed with cancer. After learning about his niece’s sickness, he came back in June last year to offer support and counsel to his sister who struggled with coping with the ailment of her child.
Rahil’s family says that he was extremely attached to his studies and wanted to continue his M. Tech but due to the worsening health condition of his niece, he decided to stay back.
“He was very passionate about his studies and was career oriented but after he came to know about his niece’s illness he decided to stay back and he had said that until his niece doesn’t recover he will not go back,” one of his family members told Wande.
A resident of Nunar area in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district, Rahil was an aspiring engineer, who went missing from the morning of April 3.
On April 3, Rahil, as usual, woke up early to offer Fajr (morning prayers) in a nearby mosque.
“That morning, we had a lengthy conversation and shared some hearty laughs over breakfast. If only we knew this was the last meal that we are sharing together,” Rahil’s brother said with a sigh.
It was on the same fateful day that Rahil asked for money from his elder brother Rizwan to purchase new clothes for himself. Rizwan went to a nearby ATM to fetch money for Rahil. At around 11 a.m. on the same morning, Rahil took the money and left his home only to return dead three days later.
On April 3rd evening, Rahil’s family called on his cellphone several times but found it be turned off. Initially, the family didn’t make much of Rahil’s phone being turned off.
He will be back home by late evening, they told themselves.
When Rahil didn’t return, his brother Rizwan started asking around from friends and relatives. Another hour passed, and with no sign of his brother, Rizwan nerves frayed and he became anxious.
“Initially I thought that he had gone to visit his friends and he might his phone battery might have been exhausted as he may have been playing games on it. But as hours passed and we didn’t get any clue of where he was or his return, I grew worried for my brother,” says Rizwan.
Rizwan began to inquire about his younger brother’s whereabouts by calling Rahil’s friends and people in their neighbourhood but all in vain.
“I called many of his friends whom I knew but no one had any idea where Rahil was. He hadn’t informed any of his friends about his journey,” lamented Rizwan.
As night fell and with no clue of Rizwan, his family became restless. They spent the night in the hope that a phone call will wipe away the anxious thoughts that were clouding their mind.
On the following day, Rizwan began making calls to all their relatives in the hope of finding any clue about his missing younger brother but no one had any trace of Rahil.
When the two-day search proved unsuccessful, the family had no option other than to take help of police to trace their son. Rizwan went to the nearby police station on Friday, April 5 evening and registered a missing report about his younger brother.
“After registering the missing report, I was called several times to the police station for collecting all the necessary details regarding Rahil,” Rizwan recalled.
On Saturday, April 6 evening, Special Operation Group (SOG) called-up Rizwan and told him that he is coming to their house to collect details in the investigation of Rahil’s missing.
“The SOG personal came to our house and was taking details regarding Rahil when his phone buzzed with notification of encounter in Shopian,” narrated Rizwan.
After learning about the encounter, the SOG personal hastily left their house and headed towards the police station.
On the same dreadful evening of Saturday, Rizwan was summoned to the police station which is where he heard the news of his brother’s killing.
“One of the policemen showed me a photograph of Rahil on his phone and asked me if the person was my brother? I said yes,” Rizwan says.
Rizwan was told that his brother was killed in brief encounter with government forces at Shopian. “I was shocked and I felt as if the earth was slipping beneath my feet,” Rizwan says.
The news came as a big jolt to Rizwan who couldn’t surmise as to why his young brother would take such a path death is imminent.
“I couldn’t believe that my brother had taken up this path and I thought that he was killed in a fake encounter. But after few days when I saw his video on social networking sites, my apprehensions vanished,” Rizwan said.
Rahil’s friends remember him as kind and gentle. One of his friends said that his sister was Rahil’s teacher. “Since she learned about his killing, she is traumatized,” he said, adding that, “She has stopped going out and barely speaks to anyone.”
Rahil’s killing has come as a rude shock to his family and friends, something many families in this restive region of Kashmir are forced to feel and live with for the rest of their waking lives.
His friend says life isn’t same anymore. “Rahil’s home is no longer the home that it used to be.”♦