World News

Shujaat Bukhari Was a Fearless Journalist in Kashmir. He Was Also My Friend.

Posted June 15, 2018 4:15 p.m. EDT

KREERI, Kashmir — This morning, I buried my friend and fellow journalist, Shujaat Bukhari, the editor of Rising Kashmir, a local daily that has never given up on its quest for peace in this war-torn place we call home. Amid family and friends, we lowered his body into the ground and bade him farewell forever, surrounded by vast apple orchards and lush green mountains in his ancestral village of Kreeri, in northern Kashmir.

I was one of the last to see Bukhari alive, as I headed home Thursday evening from work in Srinagar, the capital of the Indian-administered part of Kashmir. As I walked down a busy road, he drove past me, waving and smiling.

Less than half an hour later, unidentified assailants on a motorcycle shot Bukhari, 50, multiple times in the abdomen and head, killing him and wounding his two bodyguards.

For us younger journalists, he was a mentor and a friend who never failed us. Our community of journalists has suffered decades of threats and intimidation from militants and Indian forces alike. But Bukhari’s unfailing optimism was always something we aspired to, and it kept us going. If he could remain hopeful after decades covering one of the world’s most grueling conflicts, we all could.

He covered every cease-fire between India and Pakistan with optimism, even though they all inevitably failed. He wrote about the tens of thousands of civilians who have been killed in Kashmir’s violence, the many mass graves that fill our countryside, the protests and the rare glimmers of hope.

No one was spared in Bukhari’s journalism, which meticulously documented Kashmir’s plight. He took on everyone: the violent militants who promote separatism and the Indian and Pakistani armies that shell each other from the swaths of the province they both occupy.

Bukhari was no stranger to threats. The bodyguards he drove with Thursday evening were assigned to him a decade and a half ago, after militant attempts on his life.

Working as a journalist in Kashmir is like walking on a razor’s edge. It is like being born again, every day, surprised to be alive before you go out into the field to risk reporting once more.

Although the situation in Kashmir is better than it was decades ago — when India and Pakistan fought three wars over the region and a violent militancy gained strength in the early 1990s — I still check my car before opening the driver’s side door. I avoid driving on empty, dark streets. And after every story I publish, I hold my breath, fearing some unknown assailant may take issue with my journalism and cock a gun in my direction.

As my career progressed, Bukhari kept tabs on me, so proud when I began working with The New York Times in 2014. When I had an article published in The Times in 2016, he hand-carried a copy of the newspaper from New York, where he was visiting at the time, and brought it to me in Srinagar.

In 2008, Bukhari decided to establish Rising Kashmir, hoping to create an independent voice for Kashmiris. He had worked for 15 years as the Srinagar bureau chief for one of India’s largest and most respected newspapers, The Hindu, where he reported on Kashmir’s burgeoning insurgency in the early ‘90s.

Soon after, he became involved in peace talks, looking for a peaceful solution to the decades-old crisis. Bukhari believed that everyone had to be involved if efforts to solve the crisis were to succeed. He engaged Indian and Pakistani army officers and even Hindu nationalists who call for denying Indian minorities — including Kashmiri Muslims — their basic civil rights.

“These same people were baying for my blood,” Bukhari told me. “But engagement with Indian society is the only way out.”

With his signature rectangular glasses, easy smile, husky voice and towering height, Bukhari was the type of man who would hunch down to make his colleagues more comfortable.

When the insurgency was reinvigorated in 2016, after the death of its leader, Burhan Wani, I spent months reporting on dozens of funerals of militants, police officers and civilians. The stories haunted me, as did the lack of hope for my homeland, and I was eventually treated for chronic depression and anxiety. This is what life is like for a reporter in the Kashmir Valley.

No one knows which side of the conflict your journalism may offend, or which sentence may mean a bullet in the head, like Bukhari received. Before Bukhari, the last journalist in the region to be killed was Parvaz Mohammed Sultan, shot in broad daylight in 2003 for reporting on a militant group’s internal feud. A seasoned reporter, Yusuf Jameel, survived a parcel bomb explosion in his Srinagar office in 1995, after his colleague Mushtaq Ali opened the packet and died.

Another friend, Zafar Iqbal, was lucky to survive being shot at point-blank range, although his face still bears the scars from the assault.

“We are soft targets,” Iqbal once told me.

In Kashmir, journalists have faced threats, detention and harassment for decades. But this, as Bukhari would say, is part of our job.

On Thursday evening, a group of journalists gathered outside the offices of Rising Kashmir. The road was littered with shards of glass from his car windows. One journalist, Masood Hussain, broke down. Now the editor of Kashmir Life magazine, he had mentored Bukhari in the 1980s.

“Shujaat, I never thought that I will write your obituary,” Hussain cried aloud.

He then walked away, disappearing along a dark road, the glass from Bukhari’s car windows crunching under his feet.