The Vale of Burning Pines

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By: Bazla Syed

The night wasn’t starry at all, yet it had a mysterious beauty. A few clouds were wandering freely all over the sky, sometimes veiling the moon and sometimes letting it out to light up the valley. Otherwise, the whole valley was in black out. Not only for today, but it was a routine for the dwellers of the valley.
The wandering clouds had now covered the moon adding to the darkness of the vale. All of a sudden this darkness was pierced by the headlights of a vehicle. It was an army vehicle with six others following it. In fact, it was a whole troop going somewhere to make a dark night even darker for someone. The residents of the nearby houses peeped through their doors and windows with trembling hearts and praying lips to keep everyone safe from the soldiers’ atrocities.
The troop stopped after several kilometres, reaching a remote area, took their positions and marched towards their target. Without any warning they opened fire on a small house.
A few bullets were fired in defence but what damage could they have caused to a fully equipped army? So the response ceased for a few minutes. After another round of fire, a brave heart started firing in defence by coming to the window, injuring a few of the soldiers but definitely it was just a straw for a drowning man. The conclusion was so obvious. They fired directly at him and saw him falling down inside. After making sure no one else was inside, they went in to see their victim.
In a pool of blood, lying he was... a youth of 23 years. Nearby placed, was a diary, one of the pages of which he might have written a while ago.
“We knocked down the rebel, Sir,” called out a contemptuous voice. ***
A soft light of moon was coming through the window panes and lightening up her face, as she slept calmly. Then she turned on her side and opened her eyes. The faint sound of azaan was coming from the nearby masjid. She saw the time and got up. For a few moments, she kept listening to the pleasing and serene voice and then stood up for ablution. Calmly and peacefully, she offered the Fajr salat and made a long du’a before the Almighty... a du’a for blessing her martyred husband with Jannah, a du’a for keeping both her sons safe and a du’a for the freedom of her land.
Wiping her tears, she folded the prayer mat and headed towards the room next to hers. Kissing both her sons on the forehead, she woke them up for salat and for going to their institutions. The elder one woke up instantly while the younger one resisted.
“You need to throw a pail of water on him daily to wake him up mom,” this was Arham, 20 years old, Noor’s elder son laughing at his younger brother, Ayan, who was 15 years old.
“Don’t make fun of my little son. He’ll learn to wake up early pretty soon I’m sure,” Noor Begum smiled to her son, making another attempt to wake Ayan and succeeding in doing so this time. Sending him to change, she headed towards the kitchen to make breakfast.
This small family, living in Indian Occupied Kashmir, was of Muhammad Hasan who was martyred by the Indian army when his elder son was five and younger was only one year old. Since then, depending on the earnings from a rented house, Noor Begum, their mother, had nourished them with love and care. Much like the other children of the valley, they had grown up seeing routinely curfews, raids on homes, killings of youth and elders, protests, strikes and stone pelting. But both of them had never taken part in stone pelting, protest or any kind of political activity because their mother had always forbidden them from doing so, advising them to focus on their education only like normal children do.
But, daily happenings around had obviously played a part in never letting them forget that their lives were not quite normal because they were the dwellers of an oppressed land.
***
“Open the door or we’ll break it in. We want to check who’s inside,” shouted a coarse voice outside and Noor begum hugged her younger son tightly. Her heart trembled as a memory of 15 year ago came to haunt her.
Upon hearing the violent knocking once again, she staggered towards the door with terrified son behind her back. Frail trembling hands opened the door and they rushed in. Checking every nook and corner, scattering and breaking the household things.
“Where is he hiding?” one of them inquired harshly.
“There’s no one here except me and my son. About whom you are inquiring?” she asked.
“You can’t hide a rebel from us as we have heard he’s here. You...” one of them used an expletive. So they were searching for a so-called freedom fighter or rebel, in their eyes, but it was just a pretext to raid another home as usual.
“Hey! My Mama just told you we don’t have any rebels here and what she says is true.” The soldier’s expletive for his mother made the 15-year old Ayan furious and he spoke out. They all frowned at him. She held his hand and hid him behind her.
“Please...” a plea for mercy in her eyes.
“If not here now, will be here soon. We don’t believe in sparing a future rebel.”
And the guns loaded. She was pushed aside forcefully, knocking her unconscious. Guns raised. Bullets fired. A loud cry.  Then silence. Utter silence. And the six military boots stepped outside, leaving behind the body of a 15-year old Kashmiri youth, who was going to be a terrorist according to them just because he too was going to ask for freedom one day.
***
She woke up sensing some faint movements around her. She left the bed. Her younger sister and her son were sleeping in her home since the martyrdom of Ayan. Her elder son had gone missing for the last few weeks with no news to the family.
She heard someone jump in the back yard and went outside, crossing the verandah. The moon was in its last phase and she was unable to see in the darkness. And then someone grabbed her.
“Mama...” she heard a whisper.
“Arham! My child, my life. Where have you been? Why are you coming home like an intruder? Didn’t you know how I felt after losing Ayan and you too left me alone?”
Sobbing and whispering to her son she led him inside. Suddenly she got the answer to all her questions. There he was, her studious and peaceful son, dressed as a freedom fighter. She stepped back and shook her head in disbelief.
The glimpse from the past made her tremble. Twenty-five years ago, when one of her brothers had come to meet her mom in the darkness exactly like today, she had wept bitterly. Her brother had joined the freedom fighters after their younger brother had been killed brutally while stone pelting during a protest. It was not long ago that she had seen the dead body of her eldest brother too, martyred for the crime of fighting for freedom.
Now after losing her husband and younger son, seeing Arham in such a get up made her lose the control. Continuously shaking her head, her eyes were flowing. He made her sit on the bed and sat near her feet. Wiping her tears and putting his head in her lap, tears fell from his eyes too. Then raising his head, he whispered, “Mama! I know that after losing Baba and Ayan, you won’t be willing to lose your only son for this struggle and you have always tried to keep us away from all these things but Baba, Ayan and many of the people we know have been martyred without any reason, so randomly. I don’t want to die like them Mama. If I too have to be martyred at their hands, I would prefer to die fighting with them... not while going to school, sitting at home or in their captivity. And you have to pray for your son to attain martyrdom like a brave heart. You have to be strong Mama...”
With tear-filled but a smile on his lips, he was asking his mother to pray for his martyrdom. A prayer too difficult to utter for a mother. But she had to. Because the brutality of the Indian army had transformed one more Kashmiri youth into a freedom fighter like all those who had been and were still fighting for the freedom of their land, for the right to vote for the country they wanted to join.
***
“Dear Diary, do the fighters really pick up arms because they like it? I have been pondering over this question since my childhood. I have seen many people joining this freedom movement. Many of the boys from my neighbourhood, boys from my college and even some of my class mates. But I never understood why a person spending normal life would suddenly quit everything and throw himself into a battle where certain death awaited him? Stepping into teen age I got to know that after they see their family members, relatives, friends being killed so brutally by Indian soldiers, they are forced into armed resistance. Although I have always respected these freedom fighters but whenever I used to hear the news of martyrdom of a freedom fighter, I used to think... is it so easy to quit everything and leave everyone behind and die fighting at such a young age? Did the piercing bullets cause them no pain? Was it really so easy?
And now I have become one of them too. After the martyrdom of my beloved brother Ayan, the only thing I could think of was joining the freedom fighters. In only this way will I be able to do something for the freedom of my land where no innocent youth will ever be killed.
But the thought of leaving mama behind was truly heart-wrenching. But I prayed that may Allah ta’ala make her the last mother to bear this pain. May we succeed in achieving freedom soon so that no other mother would suffer such agony again. Hundreds of thoughts of possible and impossible wandered through my mind and helped me to come to a decision. I took the brave step of leaving everything and everyone behind.
Yes, first of all, a freedom fighter should be brave to leave everything. And I left my home, my loving mother, everything.
With each step I took away from my home, one by one my dreams smashed. The dream of becoming an engineer... the dream of a happy, normal life. All smashed. And I walked over them to reach this place where I have been living for two years not knowing when I’ll get martyred. But I’m satisfied and proud that I will die for my land. There are many others here like me. What if we had to leave our studies, our families and homes? What if we are not spending a normal life? A day will come when every kid of Kashmir will live a normal life with his friends and family. No one will have to quit their studies and pick up arms. This is the hope and prayer that has led me here. All of us believe in the same thing. Whether with arms or with politics we will continue to fight for our rights and freedom until each and every flower the traitors have set ablaze, will blossom in the melody of freedom once again...”
Absorbed in thoughts, he hardly noticed his colleague enter the post.
“They have surrounded the whole place and we don’t have enough arms to resist. We can stop them only for few hours and then...” he left the sentence incomplete.
“Well, we have always been chasing death. And now if we have been destined to be martyred today, let it be so,” he replied in a serene tone and the other guy nodded approvingly.
“Let it be...”
And the army started firing at their hide-out. They fought furiously and accounted for a good many enemy soldiers. The enemy scattered and they drew a sigh of relief. But they were not off-guard. Suddenly the enemy attacked from all sides. He saw one colleague fall and then another. Five out of the six freedom fighters now had abodes in Jannah. Only he was left.
 As he dug in, memories rushed through his mind. Mama, baba and Ayan. And suddenly he felt as if he had got the answers to all the questions he always had.
“Was it easy?” When you have only two choices... death with grace while fighting or a death of disgrace in their captivity, it all becomes so easy.
Yes, it was easy.
Firing a burst at the enemy, he felt a piercing pain in his chest... a cold sensation throughout his back. Blood poured out and was absorbed by the soil. And then sleep. An eternal sleep of a martyr with a smile on his lips.
As the moon hid itself behind the clouds on another youth lost, the gentle wind turned the pages of his diary lying nearby, opening the page he had written, now covered with his own blood. Only one sentence was visible...
“We will continue to fight until...”