A tribute to Atta Mohammad

Angana Chatterji

Atta Mohammad (1940-2016) was a gravedigger and caretaker of the unknown, unmarked and some mass graves at Chehal Bimyar located in the Northern Kashmir district of Baramulla. For those seeking to locate persons missing and disappeared and to access local knowledge and the events of history, Atta Mohammad’s commitment to remembrance rendered navigable complex modes of power that organize landscapes of subjection. Once he helped next of kin from Srinagar to locate 10 to 15 cadavers from Chehal.

In an interview in 2008, Mohammad said : “The blood in my veins is still. Sleep is haunted with dreams of the earth, thick soil separated into graves, pressed with bodies dead from fake encounters.” Atta Mohammad cared for the graves and circulated the details of the cadavers within the community, he said, “Out of faith, and a larger conviction of duty to the dead. Such obligation is necessary to care for the living.” 

Atta Mohammad buried about 203 bodies on a hillside adjacent to the Jhelum River between 2002-2006. He would say: “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.”

Atta Mohammad generously hosted the International People’s Tribunal in Kashmir (IPTK) team at his home in June 2008. He enlightened the team about his labor in burying and caring for the graves. Following the publication of BURIED EVIDENCE he met me a few times between December 2009 and January 2011, when visiting Kashmir. We would meet at the IPTK office at Lal Chowk. He would ask about my life, how I was doing, always generously sharing his thoughts. In a meeting on a dusty afternoon in 2010 we talked about the anticipation of death, “death-bound-ness,” as it encodes the act of living in Kashmir and Mohammad said to me: “Living is entwined with death. The young men in the graves, they knew death even before it took them. We live among these graves. For decades, we have been forbidden from talking about them. It chokes the heart. We are also forbidden from talking about freedom. Life is lived here with the threat of death, very close to [atypical] death. Not having freedom is death, a different form of death than a ‘fake encounter.’ Survival in Kashmir means learning how to live with death.”

Angana Chatterji is the lead author of BURIED EVIDENCE: Unknown, Unmarked, and Mass Graves in Indian-administered Kashmir (2009). Angana has co-founded the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir with Parvez Imroz.

Photo Credits: International People’s Tribunal in Kashmir at http://www.kashmirprocess.org

Concept/Layout: Ather Zia;  Homepage slider image credit: SamiSiva

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