The killing of a freelance filmmaker-journalist in Ukraine on Sunday stirred up some long-latent memories. I was reminded of the day I learnt the meaning of the word, speechless. I couldn’t utter a sound, try as hard as I might. Not for several interminable minutes.
It was the summer of ‘94, and I had just been staring down the lethal end of a black gun. On the surface, Kashmir used to seem like an empty shell in those years. So, we trundled fast down the highway, as I sat beside the driver of my Ambassador taxi. We were returning to Srinagar from the Sangrama area in the north.
A young man in a black shalwar suit suddenly leapt out of the ditch beside the road and landed on the road, pointing a gun directly at me as the vehicle approached. He clearly expected the driver to stop, but my driver pressed the accelerator instead.
It all happened in an instant, but in that instant, the man could have pressed the trigger. He chose instead to leap out of the way of the car instead. Speechlessness followed. The memory lingers.
A nightmarish night
My mind also leaped to the night I had spent in a Kashmiri village, high in the forests at the edge of the Valley. It was 2002 by this time, and I was researching my first book on Kashmir. A relative of a Kashmiri journalist suggested that he would take me to this village, where I could perhaps interview some foreign terrorists. They come there at night, he said.
I agreed, thinking I ought to try and understand the motivations of those who become terrorists, and how much they actually know about the situation in Kashmir when they sign up. We were supposed to go there in the evening, since the terrorists only came at night. We got delayed, and only arrived in that village much after dark. There was no power. So, it was pitch dark, except for lanterns.
I was put to bed on a mattress in an upstairs room of an adobe house with a thatched roof and wooden shutters. Soon, a storm that seemed like a scene from a horror film, or a melodramatic staging of Macbeth, was raging outside. The window shutters repeatedly slammed, the wind howled, and thunder and lightning raged.
Lying alone in the dark room intermittently lit by lightning, I found myself thinking of Daniel Pearl. The US-born journalist had recently been killed gruesomely in Pakistan while trying to interview terrorists. And here I was, trying to do the same thing. What had I been thinking when I agreed?
The horrifying sound and light show outside underscored the extreme danger in which I was. There was nothing to be done, however. I was well beyond the range of mobile connectivity there, and stepping out at that hour would have been even more foolhardy.
It’s probably a good thing that no terrorists turned up. We left at dawn, well before sunrise.
Not a job but a vocation
Recalling all this gave perspective to the news of the film journalist being killed. I could empathise with his decision to go to Ukraine, as I could with Daniel Pearl’s decisions in Pakistan back then.
We follow our instinct to try and get to the facts, to understand the situation as it is on the ground, to shed light in the hope that deaths might be prevented.
It is not just a profession, it is a vocation. One could even call it a journalist’s dharam in terms of the Bhagavad Gita.
It is that instinct that made me seek, and get, an interview with Majid Dar, the deputy chief commander of Hizb-ul Mujahideen, not long after that nightmarish night in the storm.
Dar had recently returned to Kashmir, after spending years in Pakistan, and had engaged in peace talks — evidently changing the parameters that the ISI had approved. That had caused a schism in HM, and he was lurking not far from Srinagar.
I was told to wait at a particular spot one morning. I waited there for a very long time before a bearded man came up on a ramshackle scooter and asked me to get on the pillion. We went to a house, from where I was taken by a circuitous route to another house, where a Canadian journalist was already waiting. Dar too came a little later.
I did not feel threatened on that sunny day, but was tense nonetheless. Anything could go wrong. Death could be lurking.
I was less tense when I went to interview some leading lights of the ‘Ikhwan’ mercenaries who were then working with the forces. Yet, that turned out to be a far more scary exercise.
The mercenaries began with the narrative they must have got used to giving journalists. It was full of holes, but I quietly heard them out for a while. Then, I began to ask questions, some of which stumped them. I had already conducted hundreds of interviews, and knew a plethora of details about what had happened, when, and to whom.
When the officer who mentored the mercenaries realised I already knew far more than he had thought possible, he began to yell apoplectically that I must be an agent. ‘Who told you these things,’ he kept demanding threateningly.
I couldn’t possibly list the vast numbers of people I had interviewed, and soon felt terribly unsafe. I realised I was in a house surrounded by high walls, plus barbed wire and other fences. It also struck me, as he yelled, that I hadn’t told my local friends where I was going.
I was able to calm him down, and get away, but such is the vocational urge to discover, and to dig, that I would probably do it again. Maybe even that drive back to Srinagar.
May Brent Renaud, the film-journalist who died in Ukraine, rest in peace. Daniel Pearl, too, and all the other brave women and men who follow their vocation, even at great peril.
May their tribe thrive.
(David Devadas is the author of The Story of Kashmir and The Generation of Rage in Kashmir.)
[Disclaimer: The opinions, beliefs and views expressed by the author are personal.]
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