by Afsaana Rashid
- Indian-administered Kashmir -
As the world observed the International Day of the Disappeared last month on August 30th, Asima Mohi-ud-Din attended a silent protest rally organized by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). For the last three months, protests over the transfer of 800 kanals of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) have prevented the APDP from holding their monthly protests. Desperate to share her story with the world, this eighteen-year-old resident of the Baramulla district in Indian-administered Kashmir penned her grievances in an open letter.
"The sorrow that cannot be overcome has to be tolerated,” she begins. "This is a true story of a family that lived happily until an evil spirit caught it.”
Asima was only three years old, but the incidences of that evening are burned into her memory forever. On June 22, 1993 at 11:30 p.m., her household was awakened by a sudden knock at the door. As her grandmother approached the door with a flashlight, a band of unidentified armed men broke in.
Since that day, her father and uncle have been missing. Her mother, Haleema Begum, tried desperately to locate them using whatever clues she could gather from neighbors and administrative offices. As the years passed, Asima watched her mother become increasingly dejected. Traumatized by the loss and overwhelmed by the burden of caring for four young daughters, Haleema developed a fatal heart ailment. Unable to afford the necessary medical treatment, she passed away in 2006.
"She was our lone support, but that too was taken away by the Almighty. Had she lived more years, things would have been different for us," says Asima.Now the girls face the challenges of surviving in a conservative rural environment that discourages their education and employment. Initially determined to continue their schooling, the sisters were ultimately forced to abandon their studies because they could not afford the school fees.
Today, Asima and her sisters are calling for justice. "No one can imagine the way we live," says Asima.
Miles away in the district of Srinagar, a mother who has lost all four of her sons to the country’s conflict lives in abject poverty, in a tiny room. Barely in her early fifties, Sayeeda Begum ekes out a living spinning yarn, working day and night.
Sayeeda lost her husband, Ghulam Mohammad Dar, many years ago. After his death, the family plunged into poverty and a downward spiral of despair. Then, Sayeeda's eldest son, Nazir lost his life at the age of 25 in a bomb blast in 1990. He was killed by the explosion while selling goods on a handcart. A couple of years later, her son Tariq, a carpet weaver by profession, died in the cross-fire between Indian forces and militants in Safa Kadal. A few afer that, Sayeeda’s youngest son Mushtaq, a professional driver, was also killed by cross-fire. Witnessing the fate of his brothers, her fourth son seemed to lose his mind. Nissar, a tailor who occasionally worked as a laborer, suddenly went missing one morning.
Sayeeda says that she went to various places to find her missing son, but without success. "The machine he worked on still lies at home. Seeing it sends shivers down my spine."
Kashmir's Power Struggle
The status of Kashmir is a major stumbling block in relations between India and Pakistan, to date involving two declared and two undeclared wars. When the conflict started in 1989, many people began disappearing on both sides.
Some victims were arrested by the Indian troops and police for alleged involvement in militant activities. The families of those arrested believe that the victims are often killed after being tortured in custody, but many still hold onto the hope that they will see their dear ones again. Many have waited for over ten years without any word of the victim’s status.
There is no report that can prove that any missing persons taken by the government have ever returned. Exhumations have taken place in the few cases where families have tried to find out on their own where their missing relatives are buried. Tipped off mostly by locals or activists in the field, these families travel from place to place, seeking clues, especially in the rural areas. They mostly ask gravediggers if they have buried anyone that looks like their loved one. Some have exhumed bodies and some have not, but most have considered a grave as proof of their relative's death.
Some people have been subjected to disappearance by the militants on the pretext that the victims were working as informants for the Indian forces, but it is believed that these cases are rare.
Families are generally reluctant to identify the kidnappers, preferring to say that their loved ones were disappeared by “unidentified gunmen.” They do not disclose who was responsible, whether the Indian forces (the Central Reserve Police Force and the Border Security Force) or the militant groups, for fear of retaliation against them or their families.
The JKCCS & The APDP
Many like Asima and Sayeeda have turned to Kashmir’s APDP, an organization of the families of victims who have suffered enforced or involuntary disappearances. Campaigning for justice since its formation in 1994, APDP is now calling for an independent investigative commission and asserts that 8,000 to 10,000 people in the war-torn Kashmir valley have been forcibly disappeared since 1989. The government’s official position is that the numbers are much lower, claiming that no more than 3,931 have been disappeared since the conflict began.Originally a constituent of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), the organization was divided by a schism in 2007, when Parveena Ahangar succeeded in forming a breakaway faction, leading some to question its ability to truly bring about change. By splitting the victims into two groups, there is a risk of losing political momentum. Others charge that the reason for the division was financial.
"It is the monetary benefits and lack of accountability that resulted in the split of APDP. Those who are really in need of help receive nothing more than slogans," says a social and human rights activist, who does not want to be identified.
However, both branches of the organization vow to continue their fight. Many families of the disappeared have lost patience with the court system, complaining that cases often are left pending for many years without resolution. When a court does issues a ruling in a family’s favor, the other branches of government are not obligated to honor the decision due to the State Human Rights Commission’s status as a recommendatory body.
“Courts have failed us but we will continue our struggle until our last breath,” declares Parveena Ahangar, whose own son has been missing for years. She says the families of the victims don't care about monetary compensation. "We simply want to know the whereabouts of our children; release them if they are in jails or show us their dead bodies if they are dead.”
Pervez Imroz, president of JKCCS and legal advisor of APDP says, "This situation is being confronted by three hundred thousand family members. The government has been too insensitive to this issue. More shocking is the indifferent attitude of civil society groups who [are not speaking up]. We are planning for international pressure because we feel only that works. We want to expose this indifference to the whole world.”
With their land divided by multi-decade conflict, their family members missing without news, the APDP split in two, and the government avoiding responsibility for this crisis, what hope is there for Asima and Sayeeda? For Asima, it is the hope that women around the world will read her open letter, and be called to act. Indeed, living in a constant state of crisis, for her and her sisters it may be their only hope for a better life.
About the Author
Afsaana Rashid is a journalist living in Indian-administered Kashmir and the author of Waiting for Justice: Widows and Half Widows, a book that addresses the plight of many women whose husbands have been subjected to enforced disappearance or custodial killings over the past two decades of Kashmir's conflict. Currently the chief correspondent for Kashmir's English daily, Khidmat, she was also a senior correspondent with Daily Etalaat, and has written for The Kashmir Times and Kashmir Images. She received her Masters in Mass Communication and Journalism from the University of Kashmir.
In 2005, Afsaana was awarded a fellowship for her work on the impact of conflict on the subsistence livelihoods of marginalized communities in Kashmir by Action Aid India. The following year, she was awarded a Sanjoy Ghose Media fellowship for her work in conflict areas. She also received a UN Population Fund-Laadli Media Award for best reporting in adverse conditions on gender issues in April 2008.
Devoted to covering human rights violations, Afsaana hopes to give a voice to the voiceless.