A battlefield far from the front

By Mike McPhate (class of 2003) and Jessi Hempel (class of 2003), for Salon

Photo by Mimi Chakarova.

KASHMIR, India, April 9, 2003—In the chill of Kashmir’s lingering winter, gunmen in military uniforms crept into a backwoods village where a dozen Hindu families had bundled up for bed. The masked men banged on doors with rifle butts, corralling as many villagers as they could into the town square — men on one side, women on the other. They removed jewelry, slicing one woman’s ear to recover a gold earring. An hour and a half later, the intruders unloaded a flood of bullets that left more than half this village’s Hindu residents dead.

As morning draped sunlight on Kashmir’s worst massacre in three years, survivors swayed and wailed over 24 corpses lined up in the dirt — 11 men, 11 women and two boys, aged 2 and 3. An old Hindu man slumped under a tree just a few yards from the bodies of his two daughters and two of his three grandkids and broke into a feeble sob. His Muslim neighbor stroked his arm and whispered, “Be patient now.”

But soon after, when Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, the Kashmiri head of state, arrived by helicopter to survey the scene, the grandfather rose to his feet. He gestured sharply at his dead family and bellowed as he paced back and forth, echoing the question everyone in Nadimarg was asking: How could this happen?

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Militants and Moderates Spar Over the Future of Kashmir

By Mike McPhate (class of 2003)

Soldiers patrol the streets of Srinagar. Approximately 400,000 Indian troops are based in Jammu and Kashmir. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

SOPORE, Kashmir, April 2003 – For the first time since the two nuclear neighbors snapped virtually all diplomatic links and squared off a year ago over Kashmir, there is the possibility of rapprochement between India and Pakistan. In an emotional address to his Parliament at the end of April, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee offered to open negotiations and said: “At least in my life, this is the last time I will be making an attempt to resolve the Indo-Pak dispute.”

That dispute is over Kashmir where a stepped up turf war between militants and moderates resumed with a bloody vengeance this spring. “The situation has assumed monstrous dimensions,” said Kashmiri leader Abdul Ghani Bhat, who belongs to the Hurriyat Conference, a mixed bag of 23 political parties, mostly moderate and all united in their demand for self-determination. “The two countries may have to go the Hiroshima way.”

It is just this possibility that alarmed diplomats and helped trigger the 79-year-old Vajpayee’s dramatic proposal that promises to bolster the position of the moderates in Kashmir — one that is much in need of reinforcing.

Moderates, mostly local Kashmiris, are eager to join a dialogue between India and Pakistan while the hardliners, supported by Pakistan, reject anything short of an outright merger with that country. Since 1947, when Pakistan broke away from mostly Hindu India and declared itself a homeland for Muslims, the two nations have wrestled bitterly over the ownership of Kashmir, and some 55,000 have died in the ongoing struggle.

India blames Pakistan for sponsoring the violence while Pakistan says it gives only “moral and diplomatic” support to what it calls a “freedom struggle.”

Yet Pakistan-based militants today comprise more than half of a total of 3,000 fighters in Kashmir, and while Bhat’s warning may seem to be a rhetorical flourish, the two nuclear powers came perilously close to nuclear war last summer.

Following a series of attacks in India, including one on Delhi’s Parliament building, which India blamed on Pakistan-sponsored terrorists, the rivals amassed a million troops along their border. The apocalyptic escalation was averted only after U.S. officials leaned on President General Pervez Musharraf to cut off the flow of fighters into India.

Washington’s pressure seemed to be working. For the first time, Musharraf declared that Pakistan would not “allow terrorism from its soil in the name of Kashmir.” But as U.S. attention has turned to hot spots in Afghanistan and now Iraq, the turf battle between militants and moderates in Kashmir heated up.

First on the militants’ list this spring was Abdul Majid Dar, one of India’s fiercest rebels who emerged unarmed from his forest lair three summers ago and said he wanted to talk with his enemies. “We will halt attacks against the (Indian) security forces. We want to show the world that we are not hardliners.”

But others within his ranks wanted to demonstrate otherwise. In late March, eyewitnesses said, intruders barged through the front door of Dar’s family home in Sopore, just north of the capital Srinagar, where he had stopped for a short visit, and fired “wherever they felt movement.” The bullets pierced his mother and sister and killed Dar as he sat waiting for lunch in his living room.

The children of Kashmir have been silent witnesses to the 14-year-old conflict and are psychologically affected the most. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

Most assume that the killers were from within Dar’s own ranks, the Hizbul Mujahideen, the militant wing of Pakistan’s radical Islamist party the Jamaat-e-Islami. His message of reconciliation, they calculated, had become too popular.

Only days after Dar’s murder, suspected militants followed up with the worst slaughter of civilians in Kashmir in three years. Pulled from their beds in the late evening, 24 Hindus in the farming village of Nadimarg — including two boys, aged 2 and 3 — were rounded up and gunned down in the town square.

Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Kashmir’s scariest militant group, Lashkar-e-Toiba, apparently justified the killing to journalists in Pakistan. “The solution is not to bow before India and beg for dialogue,” Saeed was quoted as saying in the Friday Times. “[The Indians] only understand the language of jihad. We have no choice but to respond by killing Hindus.”

Soon after, India began making a case for war.

“I genuinely believe that if possession of weapons of mass destruction, absence of democracy and export of terrorism are the criteria,” Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha said recently, drawing a comparison to the U.S. explanation for attacking Iraq, “then no country deserves more than Pakistan to be tackled.” Pakistan said it would give a “befitting response.”

Washington took note, with Colin Powell promptly denying any “similarity” between the situations in Iraq and Pakistan.

In his first move to change the climate, Vajpayee flew to Kashmir in early April, the first Indian prime minister to do so in more than a decade. He offered a “hand of friendship to Pakistan” and to all groups who “abjure the gun.”

The prime minister’s effort got a boost this month when the U.S. State Department added Hizbul Mujahideen, the group suspected of being responsible for the March murder of Dar, for the first time to its list of terrorist organizations.

Sumit Ganguly, author of “The Crisis in Kashmir” and a professor at the University of Texas-Austin, says today’s militants or jihadis are nothing more than crusaders and mercenaries that care little for the wishes of Kashmiris. “Anyone who tells you otherwise is a fool or a naive or both,” he said. “They are engaged in murder, mayhem, rape, and lots of other atrocities.”

Yasin Malik, chairman of the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front, speaks of the struggles in Kashmir and the uncertainty of the region's future. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

The Pakistani fighters are driven by a severe version of Islam. Their ideological training in the radical Deobandi and Wahabbi Islam is at odds with the softer, more tolerant Sufi faith of Kashmiris who have historically lived in peace with their Hindu and Sikh neighbors. “They (the jihadis) belong to a different Islamic heart,” admits Kashmir’s religious head and former Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umer Farooq.

The most serious threat to the hardliners arrived last fall in state elections that delivered a new, moderate government to Kashmir. Independent observers said they were the first “free and fair” elections in over 15 years.

Kashmiris put their hope in the moderate People’s Democratic Party and its promises to bring a “healing touch” to the valley and to restrain the valley’s 125,000 Indian security forces, seen by most Kashmiris as a menace. Moreover, the party promised to make friends between separatists and Delhi.

Now, it remains to be seen whether these forces, with new help from Delhi and Washington, will prevail. At the end of his address to the Indian Parliament last week, Vajpayee, who is up for re-election next year, appeared determined to make the resolution of Kashmir his legacy. “I am confident I will succeed,” he said.

Coming of Age in an Era of Violence

By Jessi Hempel (class of 2003)

Pinkey watches as her mother spins cashmere. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

SRINAGAR, Kashmir, April 2003 – Pinkey Ahmed Dar has had just 14 birthdays so far and she has seen her father die, three brothers killed and a fourth go missing. She sits in her drafty two-room shack at the top of a steep staircase in a poor Srinagar neighborhood, and pulls her knees up under her pink woolen cloak. “I am scared,” she says. “Things scratch at the walls in the night.”

The fear that haunts her every night dates back five years to when Kashmiri police shot her third brother, Mushtaq, and brought his body to her house. “We didn’t know what had happened. The women were sitting around gossiping. Then they brought his body in,” she said, a white headscarf framing her large dark eyes. “I could see he’d been shot in the left eye — there was no eye.”

A few months earlier, her brother Mushtaq had joined a militant group fighting to cede Indian Kashmir to Pakistan. The police killed him a couple of hundred yards away in a neighbor’s backyard, according to several of Pinkey’s family members.

Pinkey was born in 1989, the year militants took up arms to fight over Kashmir, a state sandwiched between India and Pakistan and whose ownership both lay claim to. Until then, blood hadn’t stained the yellow fields of mustard and blossoming apple orchards that fill the Kashmir Valley. Pinkey’s mother Syeda remembers her own adolescence. “In the summers, we played outdoors at night,” she says.

But Pinkey has passed through childhood in an era of violence and is coming of age at a time when it’s only getting worse. And there are countless civilians like her. Among the nine million people who live in Indian Kashmir, nearly everyone can name a close friend or relative who has been killed. They die after joining the militancy. They die after being taken into custody by the police. They die in crossfire.

A 33-year-old journalist from a village in the Valley mentions how he looks at his nursery school class picture and has, with a pen, marked out those who have been killed — almost 70 percent of the class.

“We have no men to protect us,” said Pinkey. And she’s right. While it’s the men who do most of the fighting and dying — 55,000 at last count — it’s girls such as Pinkey and mothers such as Syeda who are left to grapple with the grief and despair.

Pinkey sits next to her mother while she spins cashmere. She hasn't been able to work for a few weeks due to a lung infection. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

“Women have been the worst victims,” said Mehbooba Mufti, president of the People’s Democratic Party which was elected last year to head the state government promising to bring a “healing touch” to the scarred Valley. “It’s the women who go to the hospitals and to the police searching for their husbands and brothers. And then it’s the women who must carry the family responsibility.”

Mufti’s concern is as personal as it is political. In 1989 — two years after a rigged election left little room for legitimate political opposition in the state — her sister, who was then a medical student, was kidnapped. As ransom, the abductors demanded the release of some militants. Within days, the panic-stricken government in New Delhi gave in, released the militants and Mufti’s sister was let off unharmed. That kidnapping is widely seen as marking the start of the militant movement in Kashmir.

Since then, the cycle of violence has been non-stop. Although heavy winter snows bring some calm, freezing the mountain passes and making it more difficult for armed militants to sneak in from across the border in Pakistan, as soon as the trees show buds, the killing resumes.

Less than a week after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March, armed gunmen slaughtered more than half the residents of a Hindu village in the predominantly Muslim countryside. This came a day after the assassination of Majid Dar (not related to Pinkey Dar), a militant who was killed by members of his own group for advocating talks with Delhi. And later the same week, pro-Pakistan militants cut off the noses of six villagers suspected of spying for the Indian government.

Pinkey has trouble speaking of her brothers' deaths. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

Such violence leads to generations of women who live in a perpetual state of grieving. A visit to Pinkey’s home offers a glimpse into what that means.

Her mother, Syeda, is a frail woman with lung disease. She has callused fingers from her work spinning fabric into the Pashmina yarn used for shawls that retail in the United States for $200 apiece. She works 15 days to weave a skein of yarn the size of her index finger, which she sells for the equivalent of $3.

Her husband, a vegetable seller, died of natural causes shortly after Pinkey was born, leaving Syeda with seven children — four sons and three daughters. “I still had hope because of my sons,” she said. Her sons promised to build her a larger house, but then came 1989 and, for many young Kashmiri men, building the movement became the priority.

Syeda pulls a strip of three photographs from the window ledge, in which three young boys smile. Her first son, Nazir Ahmed Dar, is center strip, his eyes piercing and dark. At 25, he was recently engaged and selling vegetables in front of their house when militants lobbed a grenade at Indian security forces. Nazir was killed in the grenade attack.

The second son, Tariq Ahmed Dar, 18, was killed in crossfire. This time, it was the police who were firing on militants along the banks of a nearby river. A bullet knocked Tariq into the river’s current where he was swept away. His body washed up two days later.

Their 20-year-old brother Mushtaq, Syeda explained in the calculus of war, “became a militant because what else could he do?” Syeda isn’t clear how long he was on the run but one thing she knows: He outlived the average militant’s lifespan, six months, before he was killed.

Her fourth son, Nizar Ahmed Dar, was given a government job as part of the Indian government’s compensation for the family’s loss, but he was felled by mental illness. Syeda said she tried to take him to the psychiatric hospital but they couldn’t treat him. He would wander off into the night and turn up in odd places. More than two years ago, she said, he wandered off and never came back.

“I don’t care what happens in Kashmir. Whoever will come to our rescue can’t save us from this hell,” Syeda said as she looked down at the crumpled photographs of her first three sons. “All of them have perished, and there is no difference now.”

Across the city at the Valley’s only psychiatric hospital, Dr. Mushtaq Margoob works in an office atop the remains of the former inpatient facility. Mounds of dirt are littered with empty pill packages. The shell of the hospital sits in the shadow of the tomb of a Mughal emperor. Militants razed the hospital, like many, in the early 1990s to prevent Indian security forces from establishing a base there. Now Margoob dispenses treatment and medicine to a growing number of patients from a newer, makeshift building behind the rubble.

A young woman grieves over the death of her family which was massacred by unidentified gunmen in the village of Nadimarg. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

His patients complain of depression, insomnia, heart palpitations, and other signs of a fast growing problem for Kashmiris: post traumatic stress disorder. As the conflict continues, Margoob said that communities’ resources to support those who grieve have become depleted. “A Kashmiri woman in the past year has seen difficult things. A decade ago, deaths in communities were a collective shared trauma. People would visit their neighbors and offer support. But when this continued, everyone exhausted their emotional resources. Too many people have died.”

On a blustery Saturday afternoon, Pinkey visited her neighborhood faith-healer. “Nowadays most people who come ask me to pray for their protection against violence,” he said. “I give them an amulet with a black thread — a talisman.” He stopped to rearrange the coals in a small bucket by his feet. “What do you have to tell a person who has lost a husband,” a young woman asked him.

“You’re young, get remarried,” he said, with barely a pause.

“What do you have to tell a person who has lost her children?”

“You’re young,” he said. “Have more children.”