A Strange War

It’s snowing. I look out the win­dow at the snowflakes, which are as big as cotton balls. Not even an ant can cover an inch without receiv­ing the white burden. The Lolab valley in winters can be cruel.

“The wrath of the snow Gods for all the sins in Kashmir,” I think. I pull the chair closer to the bukhari1. A knock, and I escort in two surrendered mili­tants of the RK party.

After an exchange of pleasantries, I size them up. The first guy has an unkempt black beard and thick spec­tacles. The AK-47 rifle hanging on his shoulder seems incongruous on him. He looks more like a college professor rather than a retired militant. But the man behind him grabs my attention.

He is a giant, standing at 6 feet, 4 inches. His rifle looks like a toy in his huge hands. Thick, curly, reddish-brown hair covers his head and chin. His skin is a rich tan, with deep creas­es under his eyes and on his forehead. A thick layer of kohl accentuates his mocking eyes, which reflect his out­look on life: Enjoy yourself while the sun shines, for who has seen tomor­row? A hooked nose adds a villainous touch to his appeal. A black firan2 and ankle-high leather boots complete his attire. He looks more like an Englishman playing the role of an Afghan horse trader in some great game plot. A fantastic male specimen.

He is aware of his powerful pres­ence, for his demeanor is confident and easy. There is something likable about him. He extends a calloused hand, and I shake it vigorously, pull­ing myself up to maximum height and looking straight into his eyes. Like most big men, he tests the flimsy campstool before gently easing him­self into it. Then, like a child, he sur­veys the room.

“Abdulla, here, knows about a hideout in Gagal,” says the professor. “It’s in a house. If you have men who will follow us, we’ll lead you to it.”

“Don’t worry,” I say. “I have men who’ll follow you to jahannum3, but not till I am convinced it’s worth going there. Firstly, this is stale news. The militants must have cleared out by now. Secondly, visibility is poor, and vehicles can’t move. If I have contact, Allah have mercy on me. And thirdly, why me? There are three Army posts before this one, and another two be­tween here and Gagal. Gagal doesn’t come under my area of operations.”

The professor smiles. “It was Abdulla’s idea that we come here. You see, sahib, it was because of your team that he surrendered.”

“Is that so, Abdulla?” “Yes, jenab4,” he says in a weary tone. I catch a sad shadow flit across his brown eyes as his mind wanders. Then his rugged face cracks into a grin. “Remember an operation in Gagal a few months back? It was summer.” “The one in which we got a kill?” “Yes, jenab” he nods his head gravely. “The man you shot was a close friend of mine and a good mujahid. I was next to him. You missed me. It was not my day to meet Allah.”

“I’ll be damned,” I say, getting up and thumping his back affectionately. How could we miss such a big target? I wondered.

“Wonderful meeting you, Ab­dulla,” I say. “I must confess to my remorse at missing you that day. You would have been a perfect mujahid, for the record.” Both of them laugh.

“How many of you were there, Ab­dulla?” I ask.

“Quite a few, sir. One party was moving along Baran Gali. They ran into an ambush. The Para boys were there and we lost a guest mujahid. The others managed to get away. Then your parties started climbing from the village and all hell broke loose.”

“Tell me, which way did you get out?”

“The Changri side, jenab. You should have put an ambush there too.”

“Yes,” I say. “What a pity. If only we had more troops. You know, even if the center column had climbed up fast enough, we would have cut you off.”

“You are lucky they didn’t, jen­ab,” he replies, “or you would have mourned a few losses. We had laid an ambush for them.”

“I know, my friend,” I say. “We were getting your radio intercepts. Our party at Andarnar could see your movements.”

“That’s the only reason we broke contact,” replies Abdulla, smiling. “We guessed you had a party watching us.”

The impending operation is for­gotten when we discuss old battles over tea. The place is becoming more and more like the Northwest Frontier during the days of the Raj, I think. One day the Afridi tribal snipes at you. The next day, he joins the Scouts to fight alongside you. All past crimes forgot­ten, buried under the strange existing code of war—the spirit of a true war­rior sportsman.

Abdulla is a mine of information, having surrendered just two months back.

“You see, it was after that operation,” he says, “the narrow escape and the death of Farooq that had me pon­dering over my fate. With you people laying ambushes on the ridgeline, movement became difficult. I knew Allah would not hold my hand twice. It was a matter of time before my name was added to the list of shaheeds5. So here I am, having tea with you.”

“Sensible, but how did you guess it was us that day at Gagal?” I ask.

“Ah, jenab, we live and fight in a small place. You’ll be surprised at the amount of information we have about you.”

“Abdulla can’t do without his food and women,” says the professor. “And both had become a rare sighting.”

“Well, why not? He’s a big fellow. His demands are more than yours and mine,” I say. “Doesn’t he look like an Afghan?”

“That he does,” replies the profes­sor. “In fact, even the Pathan mujahids would call him Afghani. You must tell him, sir,” continues the professor, “that the Nazam he belonged to, the Hijbool Mujahideen (HM)6, has issued a fatwa in his name. They have already made two attempts on his life. But this man just doesn’t heed our advice. He takes off alone after his numerous women.”

“And what are you going to do there when I am meeting my wom­en?” says Abdulla, winking at me.

“Jenab” he says, “the H M is desper­ately gunning for me. I was an Area Administrator when I surrendered, rising fast in the hierarchy. After I surrendered, quite a few others fol­lowed suit. The Nazam can never for­give me. But why bother? If one can understand that life and death is in the hands of Allah, one wouldn’t sweat over such matters.” Then he recites an old Urdu couplet.

“Oh, who can extinguish Allah’s flame? For who can wipe out anyone, If Allah stands to protect his name?”

“When my time comes, I’ll go to my maker. And by the oath of Allah, a few of them will go with me. They won’t get me without a fight.”

In the future months, Abdulla and I operate together a few times. He al­ways leads, with a devil-may-care at­titude, and has to be watched in the presence of the fairer sex. Then I go on leave. By the time I come back, we are moved to another location, and I lose touch with Abdulla. Many months later, I run into the profes­sor at Kupwara. He has visibly aged. I inquire about Abdulla. The professor takes a deep breath, pushes his spec­tacles back and strokes his beard.

“Abdulla finally decided to get married to this beautiful young girl. He was in love for the first time. All his other women were forgotten as he showered his attention on her. Spend­ing most of his time at her place, he broke the cardinal rule in this game. He set a pattern to his movement.

Alas! He was betrayed by one of his ex-lovers. His erstwhile comrades raided her house. He was sleeping with her when they fired indiscriminately into the room.”

“Don’t tell me he’s dead,” I inter­ject, shaken by the story.

“Oh, I wish he was, jenab,” contin­ues the professor, “The girl took the burst. We found him the next day. It was a heart-wrenching sight. The big man shattered, weeping like a little child. She died in his arms by morn­ing.” Shakes his head gravely, he con­tinues: “One day, she was a lovely, vivacious girl. The next day, a gory human sieve. She was 16, jenab.”

“What about Abdulla?” I ask.

“He did the only thing a man ought to do. He shot the woman who betrayed him. Having done that, the choice was limited for him. It was ei­ther the hands of the law or the wild, free life of militancy. He chose the latter. For, as he told me before he left, a score had to be settled. To kill a mujahid, you have to be a mujahid. He is now operating with the Harakat group. Someday, he’ll run into those HM killers. Allah may save them from his wrath. Women, jenab,” he hisses. “The root of all misery in Kashmir. An . Urdu couplet sums up Abdulla’s life, jenab.”

“Neither Allah he met, nor the face of his lover he saw.” “He was neither here nor there.”

“Very unfortunate,” I say, thinking of Abdulla sitting in a hideout some­where on a mountaintop. “Revenge is a season in hell. Are you in touch with him on the radio?”

“Yes, I often speak to him.”

“Good, then do convey my salaam. And tell him,” I add before parting, “the next time I meet him. Inshah Al­lah, I won’t miss.”

Abdulla was later killed on the border with an ex-filtrating group, trying to cross into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

This story was part of the Borderlands section of The Outdoor Journal Monsoon 2013 edition of the print magazine.