He was no ordinary man. For 13 years, he was the custodian of the dead. Corpses, often mutilated, faces disfigured, limbless and at other times headless would be handed over to him by security forces for burial. He would bury them and take care thereafter. Today, the graves without name plaques are there but the caretaker is no more.
A resident of Bimbyar in Baramullah of Jammu and Kashmir, Raja Atta Mohammad Khan, known for burying nameless people has departed from the world, leaving behind a barrage of unanswered questions. No organisation would pay him for service to the dead. Religious obligations and conviction were enough to satisfy this frail, white-bearded shrivelled old man.
His long journey of burying the unknown dead started in 2003 when he was busy tilling his fields.
“A policeman came to the fields and told my father to bury an unknown man. He refused but the cop did not listen. Intimidation and persuasion by the policeman forced him to dig a grave. That was the start of a painful journey for my father,” Khan&’s son, Manzoor Ahmed said.
For the next 13 years Khan buried a large number of unknown people handed over to him by security forces, among them a six year old girl. Remarkably, he would remember the dead by their injury marks or bullet wounds.
The continued burial of the dead not only took a toll on his body but also on his mental health. He developed heart complications during this period of time.
“Before 2003 he never complained about any physical or psychological ailment. With the passage of time he would often call me to describe what he was going through,” said Ahmed.
“He would often cry in his sleep. He experienced nightmares. There were times when we thought he would die of shock,” Ahmed added
Although every person he buried made an impression on him, but there were certain instances when he was “completely broken”.
On one occasion, his son recalls, police asked him to dig nine graves. The weather was dull and there was a stench of death in the air. When he finished digging at night, he left the place with the graves wide open. He came back next morning only to find that the police had already buried people in those graves. Among them was his nephew, Salim Khan..
Ahmed would often plead with him to discontinue this work. “In 2004, I don’t remember the exact date, my father received five bodies, all mutilated and drenched in blood. Among them two had flesh torn from their legs which made their bones visible. He tied their legs with cloth and buried them. When he returned home he started crying,” recalls Ahmed. “I could see the pain and agony he was going through” he added.
“What was the condition of the body? Where was the bullet wound? Was he tortured? Which part of the body was missing? These were a few of the questions relatives of a missing person would ask my father when they come to look for their loved ones. Most of the time he would stay numb because he was never able to describe the condition; and these were the most painful and agonised moments of my father&’s life,” said Ahmed.
Another ordeal which Atta had to suffer was to exhume the dead. On one occasion, he was busy digging graves. He asked help from a few people sitting at a distance but they refused. “The following day, one of them, Ghulam Mohi-ud-din, came to our house and said that one of the buried men was his son," said Ahmed. The irony of the situation was that, Ghulam, a resident of Jalshiri village, Baramullah had no idea that his son was being buried while he stood a few meters away watching.
Ghulam got permission from the Deputy Commissioner Baramulla for exhumation of his son&’s body. Atta told him not to do so, however the family denied his request and went ahead to exhume the body.
Atta was the only person to testify in two preliminary reports published by the International People&’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-Administered Kashmir (IPTK) titled “ Buried Evidence ” and Association of Parents of Disappeared Person&’s (APDP) report “ Facts Under Ground”
“He was perhaps the only gravedigger who did not mind being identified by his name publicly despite being intimidated by the police” reads a joint statement released by APDP and JKCCS.
In “Buried Evidence” he described his pain by stating, “I have been terrorized by this task that was forced upon me. My nights are tormented and I cannot sleep, the bodies and graves appear and reappear in my dreams. My heart is weak from this labour. I have tried to remember all this… the sound of the earth as I covered the graves… bodies and faces that were mutilated… mothers who would never find their sons. My memory is an obligation. My memory is my contribution. I am tired, I am so very tired”.