A job to do on the Srinagar streets
After offering special Eid prayers to mark the end of Ramadan, I got myself ready to cover the large Eid prayer congregation at Eid Gah in downtown Srinagar where senior separatist leader, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, was scheduled to address thousands of Muslims.
Soon after the end of Eid prayers, Farooq called for a protest march to Lal Chowk, the heart of Srinagar. Continually shooting pictures I followed the tens of thousands of demonstrators shouting “we want freedom”. When they reached Lal Chowk, the shouts turned to violence and I saw protesters damaging the clock tower. Again Farooq addressed the people calling for anti-India protests. I ran to the office nearby to file the pictures.
As I finished filing I received a call from Sheikh Mushtaq, Reuters Kashmir correspondent, he told me protesters had set fire to police and government buildings. I rushed out to take more pictures. By the time I finished transmitting them I had worked 14 hours straight and, having fasted all day, was extremely hungry.
The following morning the police imposed a curfew throughout the valley. I prepared to go out with my media pass which exempts me from the curfew, but the curfew was so strict I was not allowed to move outside my home. After a series of frantic calls to officials, I finally got permission to leave my home at 5 p.m. I reached the office and decided to stay there for the night. I was not able to shoot any pictures.
From that day on, the office become home for Mushtaq and me. The next day, I woke up early, washed my face, prepared tea for Mushtaq and myself, and quickly washed up the kitchen utensils. I left the office to hunt for pictures: sometimes alone, sometimes with a group of journalists, by bike, by car and often just on foot. The curfew was so tight that in some areas the security forces did not honour our passes. I suppose they had their jobs to do, but we had our jobs to do too.
On some occasions I could only shoot deserted streets but at other times I would come across groups of protesters who had defied the curfew to pelt Indian soldiers with stones. I wanted to do my best work to bring the story to the world while at the same time protecting myself from injury as stones and tear gas were exchanged by the protesters and security forces. Sometimes I walked miles, not only on deserted roads but through muddy paddy fields. My shoes were full of water, my clothes were covered in mud, but I neither cared nor noticed: I had a story to tell through my pictures.
Day after day soldiers chased protesters who were hurling stones at them. With every clash I was aware of the need to protect myself and my equipment, but also to take pictures too. Then, I would have to decide when I should leave the scene, risking missing a key moment or picture.
Besides doing my professional work during the day I also had to run my private life, too, albeit from my new home, the office. We soon settled into a routine. In the evening I cooked food for Mushtaq and myself and prepared tea in the morning. I did not allow Mushtaq to cook or clean the office as I respect him and he is senior to me. He did offer many times, but I refused; I cleaned the office, laid bedding and did all the kitchen work. Sometimes we both were so tired that I was unable to cook the meals and we went to sleep without dinner. One day, while cooking, I burnt my hand on a hot utensil. Thankfully we had a medical kit in the office so I could bandage it.
Some days we were unable to bathe or eat, leaving early in the morning after getting information on demonstrations from colleagues or sources. Once, when returning after another long day of covering violent protests, I saw a tea stall was open. I went over, washed my face with a jug of water and drank a much-needed cup of tea. We had tea back in the office, of course, but there was little food available because the curfew had closed the markets and stores down. Sometimes we couldn’t even get hold of a crust of bread.
Finally, thank God, after so many hectic days I returned home and resumed my normal family life. Continually living in the office for more than ten days and nights, without having a shower, eating little food and only having a single shirt and one pair of trousers was – strangely – one of the best things to ever happen to me. I learned to value much I had taken for granted.