Walking through the narrow congested lanes of Muslim Peer, you reach the house of Ghulam Nabi Dar. A large black gate demarcates the house from the neighborhood.

After several knocks, an ageing woman, who introduces herself as Fareeza Dar, opens the door. Dressed in a grey worn-out pheran and salwar, her purple headscarf partially hides her undone grey hair. Her feeble movements and bent back tell she is far from well.

Without making enquiries, Fareeza guides this writer to the house a few feet from the main gate, as if knowing the reason for people visiting her. A step taken into the house gives a feeling of the short lives that eighteen-year-old Akhtara and sixteen-year-old Arifa lived.

The word "house" suddenly sounds too big for the accommodation of the Dar family. A single dark mud room serves simultaneously as kitchen, bedroom and guest room.

The green-painted walls are flaking at many places. A pile of tattered untidy bedding occupies one corner of the room while Ghulam Nabi Dar, who works as a manual labourer at a ration depot, rests in the other corner.

A thin decrepit piece of blanket serves as flooring for the room. A single small window near the kitchen hardly allows any light or fresh air.

The only thing that seems to attract attention in the room is the unframed picture of the sisters, Akhtara and Arifa, placed on a messy wooden shelf. The girls wear a smile on their beautiful faces posing before a green background.

With Akhtara standing on the left, the girls are dressed in a simple yet colorful salwar-kameez with neatly braided hair. However, a feeling of misery, helplessness and oppressiveness dominates the room.

"This is where my girls lived," says Fareeza, the mother of Arifa and Akhtara who were killed by unidentified gunmen on 31 January in the apple town of Sopore, fifty kilometers north of Srinagar. "Their life was limited to this single room but now they are gone forever."

Bereft of education, the girls mostly would be involved in doing household chores and serving the family which included their parents and younger brother Ghulam Jeelani.

"Their day would begin with making breakfast, washing utensils and clothes and cleaning the room. Once over with work, they would sit inside this room all the time with me," Fareeza says. The girls had no means of entertainment and no friends. Poverty had isolated them from friends and deterred them from socializing.

"The girls," Fareeza says, "always lived with an inferiority complex of being very poor which prevented them from making friends or going out."

"When they saw other girls dressed in nice clothes and having all the good things," says Fareeza's sister-in-law, who does not wish to be named, "it gave them a feeling of lowliness. They preferred to stay away from mixing with people. They would hardly come to our place either."

Though Arifa and Akhtara would often wish to have fancy clothes and jewellery, they kept their desires to themselves. Their only dream of life was to see their family come out of extreme poverty and to educate their fifteen-year-old brother, Jeelani.

"There would hardly be a time when my daughters would make a demand for anything," says Fareeza. "They only wanted their father to overcome this poverty and to see Jeelani educated and successful in life."

To augment the family income, Akhtara would clean fish for four rupees per kilogramme. They would ask Jeelani to study hard and assured him to support his education.

"Since they never went to school," says Jeelani, a class-10 student, "they wanted me to be something in life and they would say that they would do anything to help me with my education."

However, 31 January crushed all their dreams. "It was 7.45 pm," recalls Jeelani. "I was sitting with mother while father had gone to the mosque. Suddenly three masked gunmen clad in pherans entered the room," recalls Jeelani.

Arifa was cooking rice in the kitchen part of the same room and Akhtara was busy cleaning fish at her uncle's place upstairs.

"One of them asked Arifa to come out," says Fareeza. "I understood there was something wrong but did not know what."

"I fell on their feet for not taking my girls but they said they wanted to talk to them."

Fareeza was locked inside the room by the gunmen while they went upstairs to take Akhtara. With fifteen minutes of the girls being taken away, a few gunshots were heard. Their bodies were recovered a few metres away from their locality of Muslim Peer.

According to the family, the girls bore many marks of injuries. One was pierced with six holes, the other with four, including one through the head.

Immediately after the murders, police gave out the names of two local Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) militants, Muzaffar Naikoo (alias Muz Maulvi) and Waseem Ganai.

The United Jehad Council denied the police claim. A Hurriyat Conference (G)-sponsored strike call was observed across the Valley. Shortly afterwards, posters appeared all across Sopore town with the LeT claiming responsibility for the killings.

"The girls killed four days ago were killed by the Lashkar-e-Toiba because not only was their behaviour not proper, they were also involved in the heinous crime of being (police) informers," read the posters in Urdu, written on Lashkar letterheads. "The girls didn't behave despite warnings from the Lashkar-e-Toiba time and again."

But the residents of the town say new posters appeared with the LeT denying issuing the previous posters and disowning responsibly for killing the girls. During a two-day-long encounter in Sopore on 12 March, police claimed to have killed Waseem Ganai.

The family of the victims say they know nothing about who killed their daughters and why. The death of Arifa and Akhtara has devastated the family.

Ghulam Nabi has lost his strength and courage for life. Jeelani spends most of his time outside his home, unable to bear the emptiness of the house which would once be charmed with the presence of his sisters.

Fareeza has lost everything.

"I am ruined," she cries. "My heart bleeds every second. I have lost every happiness of life. They would treat me like a queen, not letting me do any work. Now I have been robbed off all support."

Wiping her wet eyes with her headscarf, she says, "They were brides. I had to marry them. It was my dream to see them married and not in a grave. Was this the age for them to die?"