KULGAM: A semi-broken wooden staircase provides the only access to a room measuring not more than 6x10 ft on the first floor. Clothes hang on two strings tied across the room while gas stoves, cooking utensils, blankets and apples are strewn on the floor.
A single bulb is the only source of electricity in this cold and squalid dwelling unit that served as home for the five labourers from Murshidabad in West Bengal who were gunned down in cold blood on Tuesday night barely 50 metres away.
The militants, as yet unidentified but suspected to be a mix of local and foreign, dragged them out of their rented room, took them to a makeshift shed containing hay and wood cut from trees, and shot them dead.
At the scene of the incident, blood diluted by water spilling out of a broken drinking water pipe and bullet marks on the wall bear testimony to the mindless two minutes of terror. The room is close to a J&K Bank branch where customers frequent during daytime.
According to the locals, seven labourers were living in that rented room. They had intended to leave for their native places on Tuesday, but due to non-availability of transport, they deferred it by a day, a decision that proved fatal.
"Their killing is a loss for us. The whole village is shell shocked and in grief. My young daughter-in-law has not eaten anything since yesterday. She is in total shock," said an elderly person Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, who lives close to the site where the six labourers were shot at by militants.
Another villager, Abdul Majid Wani said the labourers were like their family. “We used to treat them like our family. We used to tell them to live with us. But they used to say that since they were a group of seven, they will live together as they enjoy each other’s company,” he said. According to the villagers, the labourers have been living in the village from the last 18-20 years. “They used to do all kinds of labour work including in our fields, houses, etc. They were good people and their killing is unfortunate,” he said.
The West Bengal labourers had left the place a few days after scrapping of Article 370 and bifurcation of J&K into two Union Territories (UTs) by the Centre on August 5 and returned about 25 days back. The villagers said there has been no militancy incident in the Valley so far and neither has any encounter taken place between militants and security forces.
“It is first such incident and has taken place when a delegation of European Union parliamentarians was in Valley to assess the situation. We don’t know why such killings take place during visit of high-profile visit,” said Wani.
Police and army have increased their presence in the village after the incident. The police and army men were patrolling the village and top police and army officials also visited the spot on Wednesday.
The villagers were in the morning asked by the army to assemble in the premises of a local mosque.
“Following the directions, we assembled in the mosque premises at 9.30 pm. Initially, they had told the local village head that from the mosque premises people should move towards the nearby army camp. However, later they changed their stand and allowed us to return to our homes,” a villager said.
The locals said police have detained at least 14 people, including an elderly shopkeeper Ghulam Nabi Sheikh and his partner Abdul Rashid Bhat.
Sheikh has a butcher shop a few yards near the spot, where the labourers were shot dead and another injured.
“At around 11.30 pm, a police party raided our house and detained my father and his partner,” said Farooq Ahmad son of Ghulam Nabi Sheikh. He said police also detained those who shifted the injured labourer to the hospital. “Police have also taken Identity Cards and mobile phones of some people,” Farooq said.
A police officer present on the spot told this newspaper that they have not formally arrested any person. “The investigation is on. We are trying to ascertain the identity of the militants and the group involved in the killings,” he said.
General Officer Commanding of south Kashmir-based Army’s Victor Force Major General A Sengupta said it was a gruesome incident and a joint group of 4-5 local and foreign militants were involved in it.