Missing Rajouri youth bought salt & chilli, did up house, then ‘disappeared’ into the night
Mirzapur (Shopian): Fareeda Lone of Shopian’s Chowgam village was in shock Tuesday. Less than a month ago, on 17 July, she and her husband rented a room to three labourers from Rajouri, Jammu, who had arrived in Kashmir to work in its famed apple orchards.
According to Fareeda, on their first day there, the trio, including a young boy of no more than 18 years, stocked the room with a bunch of essentials like foodstuffs, as anyone setting up a new home would. By the next day, however, they had “disappeared” — when the landlord visited the room to check on them, they found the room locked from inside but the windows at the back wide open.
On Tuesday, she came to know about suspicions that the three men may have been killed in an alleged encounter that took place on 18 July in an orchard 11 km away.
The disappearance of Ibrar Ahmed (17-18), Imtiyaz Ahmed (25) and Ibrar Ahmed (20) , three members of a Rajouri-based family, has emerged as a flashpoint in the Valley following allegations that they were killed in an encounter on 18 July. Their case came to light Monday, a day after their family approached police in Jammu to file a missing persons complaint.
The family had last spoken to them on 17 July, when the men informed them they had safely reached Shopian.
The family subsequently claimed the three slain men in the image were their missing relatives, leading the Army to launch an inquiry into the encounter. The family’s claims sparked horror among local residents, and angry calls for investigations from politicians and activists.
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Speaking to ThePrint, Fareeda said she couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw the photos of the missing trio on social media.
“I saw the pictures (of the three missing youth) on social media and I was shocked,” she said, before describing her brief interaction with the men.
“Imtiyaz had come on 16 July and sought a room for rent but we told him, due to Covid-19, we weren’t renting,” she added. “Then he told me he had been sent by the village head, which I confirmed,” she said, adding that she leased the premises to them for Rs 1,600/month.
According to Fareeda, Imtiyaz worked for the village head. “Soon after the three men moved in, they left to buy groceries and other eatables,” she said.
When ThePrint visited the room Tuesday, the groceries — new packets of salt, red chilli powder and turmeric power — were still there in the small built-in kitchen, placed beside a thermos and a bottle of water. On the shelves, glasses and plates were carefully lined up. The blankets the youths had bought with them were in the sitting area. Their Covid-prevention masks lay beside the window.
Fareeda said she she went to check on the men the next morning, but found the door bolted from inside.
“We called out to them, but they did not respond. Finally we went towards the back of the house and saw the windows open. The three weren’t inside the room,” she said. “The fact that they had exited from the windows instead of the door was also very strange. Now, I am reading reports they were killed in an encounter. It is shocking to me.”
The room they rented is located just a few yards away from a camp of 62 Rashtriya Rifles, whose personnel were involved in the 18 July encounter that, security forces say, was based on intelligence inputs about the “presence of terrorists”.
The identity and affiliation of the men killed in the alleged encounter were not divulged at the time, with J&K Police saying in a statement that it was being ascertained. The men were subsequently buried at a cemetery reserved for foreign militants.
However, the trio’s family told ThePrint Monday they were convinced the men killed in the encounter were Imtiyaz and the two Ibrars. Imtiyaz, they said, had been working in Shopian for the last few years, and had convinced the other two to accompany him there for work last month.
The family said the youth had left home on 16 July and had called the next day. There was no further interaction, and the family finally approached police on 10 August. They didn’t approach police sooner, they said, because they thought the three were in a no-network area or possibly in quarantine.
Tauseef Ahmed, the grandson of the Chowgam village head, said Imtiyaz was a regular employee at their orchard.
“This year, too, he wanted to work as the apple season is about to arrive. He said he will be bringing two more boys whom I did not know,” Ahmed added. “Imtiyaz informed me that they have rented the room and will start work soon but he never came back.”
‘Then we saw the bodies’
At the apple orchard where the encounter took place, ThePrint met owner Mohammad Yosuf, who claimed he didn’t know the three men.
“We were informed by the Army that an encounter had taken place at my orchard. When I reached the spot, our storage structure had been destroyed partially. The officials then took me to identify the slain men, whose bodies were kept on the road,” said Yosuf, who is in his 60s.
“I couldn’t identify them. They were not local residents. The officials then told me some names of local militants and asked if I thought it was them but I told them clearly that I do not recognise any of the three men.”
A local resident named Lal Din Khatana, who claimed to have witnessed the encounter, said the slain men did not look like militants. “Most militants are well-armed and well-clothed, and wear mountain shoes. But these boys were wearing plastic shoes. Their clothes, too, indicated that they came from the economically weaker sections of society,” he added.
Villagers said they heard the first shot around 1 am on 18 July. Then, around 2 am, two more gunshots were fire, they added. “Around 7 am, we heard a loud bang and some shots being fired,” said a villager who did not want to be named. “Then we saw the bodies.”
Meanwhile, Rajouri-based activist Guftar Ahmed Choudhary of the J&K Sociopolitical Activist Movement, said he had met the police brass of the region along with the trio’s family.
“We have demanded a probe and asked for a DNA test of those killed in the Shopian encounter. If they turn out to be our boys, we want their bodies to be returned and a time-bound probe launched,” he added.