A Kashmiri Father Digs The Land Every Day to Find His Dead Son

Eight months after his son, a soldier, was likely murdered by militants, Manzoor Ahmed Wagay, an apple farmer, won't abandon the search for his body. He's exhausting his savings digging: in orchards, besides streams, by roadsides and in the snow. Sometimes, he gets help, sometimes he digs alone.


QADRI INZAMAM & HAZIQ QADRI

Rifleman Shakir Manzoor, 24, went missing eight months ago/PHOTOGRAPHS BY HAZIQ QADRI

Reshipora, Shopian: The last time Manzoor Ahmad Wagay saw his eldest son alive, his eyes had welled up. Manzoor said Shakir Manzoor had the gaze of a man looking at something for the last time, as if he were gently letting go of a lifetime’s worth of memories.


Shakir, 24, was tough and sturdy, he did not let the tears flow. He got into his car and drove away from his home in Reshipora in South Kashmir’s Shopian district. But Manzoor had a premonition of imminent grief. He remembers the precise time: 4.58 pm on 2 August 2020, eight months ago.


Shakir never returned home—not even his dead body.


Five days later his tattered clothes, smeared with mud and blood, were found in an apple orchard nearby. A tree close by bore blood marks. An acquaintance told Manzoor, who owns apple orchards, that the night before he had witnessed around seven armed men torturing Shakir, who was tied to the tree.

The tree with blood marks.

After Shakir’s clothes were found, Manzoor Ahmad was sure his son was dead. Now all he could hope for was to find his body and bury him somewhere close to home. With that hope, he started digging the land around the spot where Shakir was last spotted, but found nothing. A nearby Rashtriya Rifles battalion brought in sniffer dogs, but they could find nothing, except for a torn piece of Shakir’s shirt.


A defeated Manzoor returned home. “That was the last time I felt defeated,” he said. Since that day, 56 year-old Manzoor leaves his home every day with spades and shovels to dig at spots where he suspects his son may be buried.


There are days when he rents excavators to gouge out the earth. The search for his son’s remains has been relentless and, as Manzoor put it, “painfully exhausting”.

Manzoor's rugged face showed no sign of his misery as he mechanically recalled all the events leading to and after his son's abduction—perhaps because of repeating them over and over, to visitors or to himself when he struggled to find a clue about his son.

Manzoor Ahmad Wagay with his wife Asha Bano.

The Abduction

Shakir was a rifleman with the 162th battalion of Indian Army’s Territorial Army (TA), camped in Balpora village, Shopian, 50 km south of capital Srinagar. He had come home on 2 August to celebrate Eid and have a meal with his family. When it was time for Shakir to head back to camp, Manzoor had a premonition of doom and cautioned his son.

Shakir was a rifleman with the 162th battalion of Indian Army’s Territorial Army.

Shakoor Parray, a police deserter from a nearby village, who had revived militant outfit Al-Badr and was its top commander, was active in the area. “I told Shakir to be cautious,” Manzoor recalled. “I just blurted it out when he was leaving. I had an intuition of sorts.”


A few minutes later, Manzoor got a call from Shakir, saying he might be late reaching camp and he should inform his Commanding Officer in case he enquired about him. Shakir also called his Commanding Officer around then, telling him that he would be late by an hour. After that, Shakir’s phone was switched off.


Based on information from various eyewitnesses, and after connecting the dots, Manzoor stitched together the sequence of events that had led to his son’s abduction: Shakir left home and, on his way to the camp, he was intercepted by militants who, an eyewitness said, were hiding behind a mulberry tree. There were several cars and a few motorbikes. Some of the men got into Shakir’s car and others followed them.


His brother Shahnawaz saw Shakir driving and called him to stop, but Shakir insisted he go home. Shakir was taken to an apple orchard in a nearby village and his car was parked on the road. A person who knew Shakir recognised the car. Manzoor later went to the spot, but there was no trace of the vehicle or his son.


At around 9 pm, the Army confirmed that Shakir’s car was found burnt in the neighbouring district of Kulgam. There was no sign of Shakir.


Shakir remains a “missing person” in police records. “Police have not closed the case and investigations are on. So far, there are no traces of the TA soldier from Shopian who went missing some eight months ago,” director general of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) police Dilbagh Singh said during a press conference on 20 March. “It’s not clear where he was buried by the militants. Whenever we get any information, his family will accordingly be informed.”

Shakir’s family said the police and army had done little to trace his whereabouts. “We demanded a CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) investigation into this case, but nothing has happened. The police investigation also led nowhere,” Shahnawaz told Article 14.


Shahnawaz said his brother did not deserve a “missing person” tag. “He should be declared a martyr. He was killed in cold blood.”

Shakir's brother Shahnawaz spreads his brother's clothes carefully on the floor.

The Frantic Search

All that remained of Shakir were his blood-stained clothes, which Shahnawaz took out of a bag. He carefully spread them out: a saddle brown shirt torn into three pieces, its buttons ripped off, a sleeve stuck inwards, the cuffs buttoned, intact.


He gently took out a black inner T-shirt that was ripped and a pair of jeans that were surprisingly clean and buttoned. He spread them out on the floor, side by side. The bloodstains on the shirt had dried, specks of wild grass were still stuck to it at places. The blood had formed several dark brown spots on the inner t-shirt. “These clothes are untouched, we have not even folded them, or washed off bloodstains or soil. They are as they were found,” Shahnawaz said.


Manzoor surmised that the condition of the clothes corroborated the eyewitness account that Shakir was tortured: the unbuttoned cuffs, ripped shirt and inner T-shirt and bloodstains imply he was tortured and forcibly stripped.


But more than evidence of torture, the clothes are the last memory that connects them to their son, untampered evidence of his existence, a relic of pain.

Few days after Shakir’s abduction, Manzoor Ahmad issued an appeal on Facebook to the militants to release his son. He even apologised on his son’s behalf. There was no response.


A week after the abduction, an unverified audio surfaced on social media in which a suspected militant claimed to have kidnapped and killed Shakir. The authenticity of the audio clip could not be verified by the police or Shakir’s family.


“We understand the pain of the soldier’s parents and his relatives. But we are not handing over the body to his family because of Covid,” an unidentified man said in the audio message. “This is what the Indian forces do when they deny the bodies of Mujahideen and bury them at unknown places. We have performed his last rites.”


He went on to say that they had received complaints against Shakir and “after collecting evidence against him for long, we finally abducted him and he met his fate”.


That did not give closure to Manzoor or his family.


Manzoor kept digging places where he suspected or intuited his son might be buried. “Sometimes I would go alone to dig the land, sometimes neighbours would accompany me. There were times the police and the Army brought in their teams to help us dig the land,” Manzoor said.

Manzoor went all out to find the body of his son. He met the families of militants he believed were involved in the kidnapping and requested them to help him. “They said they were not in touch with their sons anymore. There was no help they could offer,” he said.


Manzoor claimed that shortly after his son disappeared (and before his clothes were found) he even talked to Shakoor Parray on a video call and “begged him” to release Shakir. “I asked him to release my son, but he denied having kidnapped him,” Manzoor said.


A few weeks later, Parray was killed along with three of his associates in an encounter with Indian forces in a Shopian village. Manzoor believed the men knew the whereabouts of his son. Despite this setback, he kept searching.


“After what I have been able to investigate on my level and what many eyewitnesses told me, Shakir must be buried somewhere near, maybe within around 10 km. I am digging within that precinct,” Manzoor says.


There are days when Manzoor randomly chooses a place to dig, just hoping for a miracle. But most days he chooses a spot after he gets a lead.

“A woman told me she had seen Shakir with some men in an orchard, the next day we gouged out the land there. A girl from an adjacent village told me she had seen Shakir with militants in the evening and she had tried to run after them, but she was sent away. We dug land there the very next day but found no trace. We don’t want to leave any stone unturned. There should be no regret,” Manzoor said.


In hopelessness, Manzoor discreetly looks for divine signs. Few days before Manzoor spoke to Article 14, his niece had a dream. Shakir had told her he was buried at the spot where his clothes were found. “It sounds strange but we acted on her dream and went there to dig the land. We found nothing,” Manzoor said. The day we met Manzoor, a few neighbourhood boys were digging land in an orchard a few kilometres from his village.


An image of a day's digging from Manzoor's phone.

Manzoor’s phone gallery is filled with images of spots where he has dug land, gory images of dead bodies that the police asked him to identify with the hope of tracing his son. He browses his gallery and pauses at a photo of a shepherd, his face and body mutilated.


“Last month I got to know that the police had found this body, so I rushed there to identify him. It was of a shepherd,” Manzoor says as he shows photos of other unclaimed bodies.


During his search, he even stumbled on a body of a sarpanch who was allegedly abducted by Parray and his associates. “We were digging land in an orchard and we found the body of the sarpanch kidnapped by the same militants who abducted my son,” Manzoor said as he showed the photo of that day.


In February, the J&K police arrested wanted militant Hidayatullah Malik from Jammu. Manzoor said he met him when he was brought to Kashmir. “When I asked him if he knew the whereabouts of my son, he testified he was tortured in an orchard," said Manzoor. "But he said he left after that and had not witnessed his killing."


Hidayatullah told Manzoor that he had learnt Shakir was buried in a brook. From the very next day, some of his neighbours accompanied him and they started digging nearly a 2 km stretch of a brook. “We were sure Shakir would be there. We did not leave a spot untouched," Manzoor said as he played videos of the digging. "We turned everything upside down despite the snow.”

Manzoor was sure Shakir’s body would be found that day because Hidayatullah’s lead helped make sense of another piece of information from a few months ago.


Manzoor said that after his son was abducted, someone told him he had seen militants taking shelter in a nearby village. “Their clothes had been wet and smeared with mud. They were the same militants who had abducted my son,” he recounted. “After Hidayatullah’s testimony, I joined the dots: they might have buried him in that brook that night and that is why their clothes were in such condition.”


Manzoor said he would not stop until he found the body of his son. “I am sure I will find him," he said. "I will not let the search stop."


Manzoor says he has so far spent over Rs 10 lakh on his quest: on labourers and equipment, even excavators. He’s including the Rs 2 lakh he donated to various charities in the name of his son. His earnings from the orchards dried up after he embarked on the quest to find his son’s body, but that hasn’t deterred Manzoor.


Shakir’s family and his neighbours in Reshipora village remembered him as an affable boy who loved the outdoors. His father said his son had donated around 42 pints of blood since he was a teenager. “That is why people in this village and around are still in shock and have not stopped looking for him,” Manzoor said.


A Reprisal?

When suspected militants in the audio clip said they would not return Shakir’s body, they were clear in their message: it was a reprisal.


Since 2020, the J&K police have adopted a policy to discreetly bury militants in far-off graveyards. In the beginning, the police said the reason for not handing over the militants’ bodies to their families was to avoid large gatherings given the Covid-19 situation. But it served another purpose: avoid conventional massive funerals which the police said glamourised militants and incited others to join their armed ranks.


According to a report in The Hindu, in 2020, the police buried 158 militants at isolated locations.

The policy was widely criticised when the father of Athar Mushtaq, one of three boys killed in an encounter in Srinagar in late December, dug a grave in his village in Pulwama that remains empty to this day. The police denied the family Athar’s body, instead buried him in Sonamarg, some 110 km away.


See Related Story: Kashmir’s Empty Graves & The Criminalisation Of A Father's Grief


In the audio recording released after Shakir’s abduction, the voice stressed this police policy and added that they too had performed the last rites, discreetly.


Manzoor said he found it difficult to explain his love for Shakir. “It’s like blazing embers scathing your heart,” he said about why he keeps looking for his son.


“Isn’t it strange,” Manzoor asked, “to plough orchards to find a dead son?”


(Qadri Inzamam is a freelance journalist based in Kashmir. His stories have been published in Foreign Policy, BBC, Al Jazeera, The Diplomat, The New Arab, Caravan, Scroll and several national and local media publications.

Haziq Qadri is a journalist based in Kashmir. His stories have been published in BBC, Al Jazeera, Guardian, Foreign Policy, Discovery Channel, TLC and other media publications.)