On the eve of the Indian festival of Maha Shivratri, a deadly gunfight between Pakistani militants and security forces in Jammu and Kashmir forced the inhabitants of Karan Nagar district to flee their homes. But Vijay Koul and his family stayed back despite their single-storey home in Srinagar being in the line of fire.

On February 12, a massive gunfight was raging around a building under construction near their house, where two heavily armed militants were hiding. As bullets struck the Kouls’ house, they took refuge in a corner room. While surviving the gunfire, they whispered their prayers as it was Shivratri — a Hindu festival celebrating Lord Shiva’s wedding with Parvati.

The Kouls are among the few Kashmiri Pandit families who stayed back in the Valley after most members of the minority community migrated in early 1990s, during the onset of armed insurgency in the region.

“If we did not leave our house at that time, there was no point leaving now. Moreover, where would we go when none of our relatives live in Kashmir anymore?” Vijay, flanked by his wife, told Asia Times.

At around 4.30am on the fateful day, a vigilant Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) officer at a nearby camp spotted two armed militants. As the junior officers opened fire, the militants disappeared in the dark.

After sunrise the situation looked normal for around an hour till the militants were spotted hiding in the concrete building, which triggered a gunbattle that ended with both the extremists killed.

Surviving the bullets

Surviving the encounter, which lasted for 30 long hours, wasn’t easy for the family, including Vijay’s two sons, Sumeer and Ansheel, and Ansheel’s wife Soniya. It was a close shave for Ansheel, Soniya and their newborn baby Sayien, with bullets pierced through the windows of their bedroom in the wee hours of the day.

With the infant crying in their lap, the couple crawled to safety in the adjacent room. “As the scared Sayien kept crying amid the deafening gunfight, we tried to plug his little ears with cotton swabs. But thousands of explosions and continuous firing next door are too much for anyone to bear with,” said his grandmother, a teacher by profession. “Pepper gas” used by officers in the operation had left the entire family “coughing and ailing for over a week,” she said.

Another challenge, the family says, was to prepare food in the kitchen facing the block at the center of the gunfight. Vijay’s wife managed some “quick cooking” by risking her life. “During an intermittent lull in gunfire, I would jump into the kitchen, switch on the gas for cooking and instantly leave. After a few minutes, I returned the same way to switch off the gas and take away the food.”

The elder Koul couple, both in their 50s, noted that the majority of Muslims were not indifferent towards them even though they are a lone representation of the previously-persecuted Kashmiri Pandits.

The family said the police, local people and even the separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq were concerned about their well-being during the melee. The latter had phoned them to ask if they needed any assistance.

Karan Nagar was once seen as a plush Pandit-majority locality but is now mainly home to paramilitary camps. Security forces have occupied most of the houses left behind after the mass exodus.

The Koul family lives in a lane dominated by these paramilitary camps. In fact, when the family decided to stay – despite local police advising that they should get out – during the encounter, junior officers deployed at an adjacent CRPF camp identified the room where it would be safe for them to hide.

“But the first bullet which hit our house was fired from their (CRPF) bunker,” said Koul, pointing towards a mark on the house’s façade.

The family had rebuilt their three-storey house four years ago after it collapsed during the devastating floods of 2014. Instead of leaving, they camped in a nearby home till their home was reconstructed.

Kashmiri Pandits can’t return to their homeland

The government has been struggling to restore peace in Kashmir despite a deadly revival of militancy. Meanwhile, ceasefire violations along the frontiers have heightened tensions between India and Pakistan; the latter is accused of fuelling the unrest.

Even today, the situation remains hostile for the Kashmiri Pandits to return to their homeland and that is a huge challenge for the Indian government.

Thirty years ago, the Pandits opted for mass migration following deadly attacks on their community by insurgents. There are, however, some contradictions in the figures pertaining to Pandit killings.

In March 2010, the then government said 219 Kashmiri Pandits had been killed by militants since 1989. But a year later, the Kashmiri Pandit Sangarsh Samiti, a Srinagar-based organization, said at least 399 Pandits had been killed.

Apart from individual killings, there were also instances of Pandits being massacred. In the Sangrampora massacre, seven were killed on the night of March 21-22, 1997 in Budgam. Then, 23 were killed in Wandhama on January 25, 1998, and a further 24 murdered in Nadimarg on March 24, 2003. The perpetrators behind all these incidents remain largely untraced.

The Koul family, however, says they are “proud to be connected to their roots despite all odds” and holding on to their ancestral property. And amid their own misery, what they regretted most was the loss suffered by their Muslim neighbor, whose house was destroyed in the gunfight. “Nobody will compensate him, as there’s no insurance for such loss.”

Being able to live in their homeland is what keeps them going. “Reposing faith in Shiva, we decided to stay back and we’re here to tell the tale of surviving the encounter, which was like war!”