ZOONA BEGUM: The woman who risked it all for the tehreek

Today at Zoona’s house, her children live with nothing but their poverty and memories of the valour of their parents — far away from the plush offices of the tehreek’s ‘leaders’ who either play sport with the State or fight for space in the newspapers.

In the hey days of armed militancy in Kashmir, the tiny house of Ghulam Hassan Magray in the Kandi village of Kupwara was a big draw for militants. Magray was a die-hard supporter of militants and the azadi movement. His house provided a safe shelter for militants and every- thing else they needed. But it wasn’t Magray who was the militants’ real darling. It was his dare-devil wife Zoona Begum who would risk it all to help militants.

Zoona’s daughter Parveena, who was a kid then, remembers her mother as a vocal supporter of the tehreek — the freedom movement. “She was very passionate about the cause and treated militants like her own children. She saw herself as one of them. She was known all over Kupwara for her pro-tehreek sentiments,” says Parveena. She adds that everyone in the village knew their house was a shelter for militants. “The villagers would often say that our home was ‘mujahidan hyund gad’ — the den of militants.”

The militants would often come to Magray’s home for rest, to have food or to procure any essential items. But the critical work came from Zoona. It was Zoona’s sheer courage and ingenuity that made her a very valued asset for militants. Some of her acts are reminiscent of the Algerian women’s ingenious methods of hiding arms inside their burqas during Algeria’s liberation war against the French occupation. “She would strap the militants’ weapons on her body or hide them under her pheran and transfer them from one place to another,” recalls Parveena. Essentially she was an arms courier. For a woman to do that takes immense guts and gumption — that too when the retributive costs are so punishing.

Kupwara is a heavily militarised zone with army having a well-knit spy network to inform on militants as well as their helpers. And if the army finds out about any militant supporter, that is always like a death sentence through torture. Zoona was aware of this, yet chose to risk it all for the tehreek. Her relatives often warned her about the consequences.

“Mother was often admonished by her in-laws that she would bring trouble to her family by her acts of helping militants,” says Parveena. The Magrays would see a constant stream of militants week after week trooping into their house. Zoona had become a reliable comrade among the militants. “They trusted my mother with weapons, money and other items and also with their life,” remembers Parveena. “They were very kind and playful with us children too. We could do anything for them.”

As the Magrays played hosts to militants, the army finally got air of it. On the night of 10 August 2003, five militants came over to the Magray’s house. They had come for food and a night stay. “My mother and father were in the same room chatting with them. My father was writing down a list of items the militants needed from the market. The militants usually would give my father money to buy things from the market and he would gladly do that,” says Parveena.

While the chatting and food was on, Indian army personnel surrounded the house. “They called out on the militants to surrender. The militants refused to come out and an encounter began,” recalls Parveena. But the Magray family wasn’t too worried about how it would unfold. “This wasn’t new. Our village had seen many such encounters before and several mujahideen were martyred in our village.”

Quickly, Zoona and her husband began rushing the children out of the house to take refuge in a relative’s home nearby. “Mother was adamant in finding ways to help the militants in whatever way she could. She was the last one to sneak out of the house.” But when she reached the outer gate of the compound, recalls Parveena, a bullet from the army men pierced her and she fell on the spot.

Zoona’s children watched their mother fall from a near-by house where they had taken refuge from the fighting. The children began to cry. As news of Zoona’s death spread, the villagers made an announcement over the mosque loudspeaker appealing the militants and army to cease fire for sometime so that Zoona’s body could be retrieved.

Some good sense prevailed on both sides. The firing was stopped for a while. “The villagers brought my mother’s body to my uncle’s place,” Parveena recollects. The firing picked up again and raged through the night. Two militants were killed while three managed escape.

Later the militants came back for condolences and help to the family of their fallen comrade. Parveena says the militants offered their help in her mother’s burial. “They helped us with money and also bore the entire expenses of the funeral process.”
The encounter between Indian army and militants left the Magrays house damaged. Parveena says it was militants who helped them rebuild the house. “It was their way of paying respect to my mother who had always helped them by putting herself and her family in danger,” says Parveena. Jaana Begum, a neighbour of the Magrays remembers Zoona as a brave woman who would do anything to help the tehreek. “She was a true worker of the movement. Teym tcha zabardast keam kermich (She has done incredible work),” she says.

Later the army set up a camp in the forest near the Magrays house. That stopped the militants from coming over for shelter to their house. But it wasn’t just mother’s loss, there was another tragedy waiting to unfold for Parveena and her eight siblings.

Her father Ghulam Hassan was a broken man after Zoona’s death. He couldn’t take it any longer and two and a half months after Zoona’s death, he too passed away.

“My father was taken into custody by army several times and was tortured too. His life was a living hell, but he still kept helping the cause of tehreek till the moment he died,” Parveena adds.

With the help of other villagers the Magrays had registered a case against the Indian army. “We registered a case against an Indian army Major for killing my mother. They offered us a job, but we refused it. We felt that the killing of my mother was not some trade-off to get a job for a family member,” says Parveena.

Thirteen years have passed since Parveena and her eight siblings lost their parents. Some of the children have lived in an orphanage in Handwara. Four of them, two brothers and two sisters are married now. One of the sisters Meema was married off by the militants in the village Drugmol of Kupwara district. The militants bore the entire cost of the wedding.

Today at Zoona’s house, her children live with nothing but their poverty and memories of the valour of their parents — far away from the plush offices of the tehreek’s ‘leaders’ who either play sport with the State or fight for space in the newspapers.

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