I was walking down the narrow lane that led from our house to the lake. It was a cool afternoon and the weather was cloudy with a chill in the air. I was carrying food for Abbu, as was my daily ritual, to our shikara.
“I hope it doesn’t rain.” I thought to myself and quickened my pace.
I was excited, as it was my tenth birthday tomorrow. Ammi had promised to buy me a red phiran for the occasion. “Zubeida, my Zubi, you are a grown-up girl now. No more playing with dolls. You should help your Ammi in the kitchen now,” she had said to me today morning.
Soon, I was at the Dal lake. Abbu saw me and rowed his boat towards me. Even though the government claimed that they were doing their best, tourism was slow in Srinagar. I sighed, as I thought of the stories I had heard about the golden days of our Kashmir, once known as the Paradise on Earth; before the hawk of terrorism began to circle above our lives and took away all traces of peace and joy.
As I started walking back after giving Abbu his food, I looked up at the majestic chinar trees, swaying with the strong gusts of wind. It started to rain. I began to run down the narrow lane that led to my house.
And then I heard it.
It was gunfire. Terrified, I stopped. Not knowing what to do, I took refuge behind a tall deodar tree.
Suddenly, a hand gripped me from behind. It dragged me backwards. I started to scream, but my screams died in my throat. Then I felt the cold metal of a gunpoint on my head. I was pushed out on the lane again. “Let me go, or I will shoot her,” boomed the voice of my captor.
I could see the Indian Army jawans lined up in front, guns pointed towards us. However, they could not risk the life of a child, it seemed; or could they?
I was dragged into the forest. Tears were streaming down my face, as a dirty rag was pushed in my mouth and my hands tied behind my back.
“Do not move, or I will kill you!” I did not doubt his intentions even for a moment.
We were hiding in a makeshift cabin in the forest. Soon, darkness fell. My throat was parched. As if on cue he took out the cloth from my mouth and pushed a tin of water in front of me. Untying my hands, he let me drink it.
“Where do you live?” he growled.
“Down the lane, next to the grocer’s. I am Saleem Ahmed’s daughter.” I tried not to choke on my words.
As soon as I said it, the colour drained from his face. “Saleem Ahmed!” he repeated. He was quiet for a moment.
“Ya Khuda! Have I not sacrificed my entire life for you!” he agonized. "Why do you test my soul so?”
“You are Zubeida, aren’t you?” he finally said, looking at me with tears glistening in his eyes. “You are my little sister, Zubi.”
I was too stunned to react. And then the image of a black and white picture of a fifteen year old boy, which Ammi kept hidden in her trunk, surfaced in front of me.
I recalled her looking at the photograph and crying, but nobody would ever tell me who he was.
“Basheer, my name is Basheer Ahmed. I am your elder brother. I ran away from home, a year after you were born.”
My head was spinning. This could not be. And yet I knew, he was telling the truth.
“I went across the border; to fight for the Ultimate Cause, for my people. I came back on a mission after all these years.” His anguish was palpable and it ripped my heart. He gave me a tight hug and asked me not to say a word of this to anyone.
“Bhaijaan, come home!” I cried.
“I can’t. It’s too late now. I cannot put your lives in danger.” He showed me an old photograph of my one year old self, which he always carried with himself.
When I woke up, I was alone. I was lying near the road where I had been captured. I looked around and then ran home as fast as I could.
“Zubi!” Abbu screamed as he saw me. I hugged him and cried. He took me inside our house, where Ammi lay, as if lifeless, on the bed. Her eyes were swollen and red with grief. “Zubi, my jaan! You are back! Oh! Allah! Shukran!” she cried, tears rolling down her cheeks.
They knew I had been captured by a militant and had given up hope of seeing me again.
The next day, there was an encounter in the forest. A terrorist in his mid-twenties was killed by the army. He had infiltrated the border two days ago, the army claimed.
There were no documents found on him, barring a faded photograph of a little girl.