The recent killings at Ramban in Jammu and Kashmir remind the authors of a graveyard and its caretaker, who bear witness to the cycle of violence in the valley.

Habibullah Khan is the 80-year-old caretaker of the Martyr’s Graveyard, over two decades old, located next to the Idgah in the heart of Srinagar. Carved in marble, at the entrance gate, are the lines, “Lest you forget, we have given our “today” for “tomorrow” of yours.” The recent killing of five civilians by the Border Security Force makes me recall this man and the conversation we had among the tombstones.

The graveyard, which holds almost 1500 graves, saw its first burial in the early 1990s, when militancy was at its peak.

Grave-digging was not Habibullah’s hereditary profession. This tall, lanky, bearded man was once an ordinary shopkeeper who took on the responsibility of looking after the graveyard when he, like hundreds of others in the Kashmir valley, was affected by the violence.

He recalls frequent encounters between Indian security forces and militants, leading to numerous deaths and alleged human rights violations. For Habibullah, becoming the caretaker of the graveyard was a way of giving back to society; his contribution to the struggle of his fellow ‘freedom fighters’.

During our conversation, Habibullah reminisced that the graveyard was a reflection of the ups and downs of the Kashmir struggle. The youngest to be buried is, horrifyingly, a two-year-old who was allegedly killed, along with his mother, by security forces. The 1990s saw the maximum number of burials; at times as many as 15 bodies were brought to the graveyard in a day.

It as during this period that Habibullah conducted the burials of both Hamid Shiekh and Ashfaq Majid, two of the four young men who had formed the HAJY group, that launched an armed movement against the Indian State. These were some of the first to have crossed over to Pakistan for arms training during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The other two — the Y and the J — are Yasin Malik and Javed Mir respectively, leaders of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front.

I asked Habiullah how he identifies a martyr. His answer was very matter-of-fact. A martyr, he said, is one who has a tiny bullet mark in the front of the body and a big blot of blood on the back!

The burial of Mirwaiz Moulvi Farooq, a moderate leader and Chairman of the Awami Action Committee and the father of Mirwaiz Umar Farooq of the Hurriyat Conference, is still etched in his memory. There were an unprecedented number of mourners at the funeral. He also recalls that death and funeral procession for its brutality. The Mirwaiz was allegedly shot by ISI-backed radical separatists on May 21, 1990. When the funeral procession was taken out, 60 civilians were killed by the Indian security forces.

In the following years, the rise and spread of protests to other parts of State was accompanied by civilian casualties from every corner of the valley. Since the Martyr’s Graveyard was not big enough to accommodate so many dead, several similar graveyards had been created in other districts and towns of the valley, said Habibullah.

The Martyr’s Graveyard is the resting place of many separatist leaders: Mirwaiz Moulvi Farooq and Abdul Ghani Lone, among others. Ironically, many were killed not by the Indian security forces but by other factions of separatists.

Finally, Habibullah, weeping, breaks into a soulful song of lament about the lives lost, of the young and the old who died for a common cause. Ramban is a grim reminder that the tragic saga of martyrdom and burial has not come to an end.