Finally, after five years of existence, the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) was able to visit the families of the disappeared in Kashmir. The AFAD, whose core group members include the Association of Parents and Family Members of the Disappeared (APDP) in Kashmir, visited Kashmir on October 17-21, 2003. Being isolated within the Asian region, the Kashmiri people knew about AFAD only from the secondary information relayed to them by their representatives to AFAD activities. Conversely, AFAD members knew about them only from written reports.
I dared to travel to this notoriously militarized area with the motive of bridging the existing gap between AFAD and the families of the disappeared in Kashmir and strengthening solidarity with these suffering people. I would have traveled together with Munir, AFAD's Chairperson, but he was physically unfit to travel. I left Manila not without difficulty in overcoming fear of traveling towards a road less trodden.
Despite having read several reports written about Kashmir, the real situation when I reached the area was beyond my imagination. Even the 21 dark years of Martial law in the Philippines pale in comparison to the situation of this area - the most militarized place I have ever seen.
How could my fear be erased when the day of my arrival was filled with tension? My arrival in Srinagar coincided with the right wing militants' attack against the house of the Chief Minister Mufti Muhammed Syed. Upon arrival, I was immediately asked about the purpose of my stay and place where I would stay. Trying to hide my fear, I bit my lips knowing that my face had already turned pale and my hands sweated profusely because the person who was to pick me up did not arrive on time. I did not know what else to say except that I was a tourist making a research on Kashmiri marriages. I also realized that the suitcase that I checked in at the airport of New Delhi was already open. Not until APDP representative Khurram Parvez came to pick me up did I realize the seriousness of what was happening. Nevertheless, we went to my hotel and visited the APDP office where I was informed of the program of my five-day visit.
Witnessing Amidst Repression and Resistance
The fighting between Indian soldiers and right wing militants went on until the following day, killing two militants and wounding 12 others. Mr. Kazushi Hirose of Asia Press, the Japanese journalist who covered the AFAD Congress, was present during the incident and was himself hit by a grenade, which fortunately, did not immediately explode. He ran for his life and escaped death.
The sight of military men in full battle gear lurks in every nook and cranny of the city. They are part of the six hundred thousand Indian Security Forces - the world's highest number of troops during peacetime. In the hotel where I stayed, I felt like living in a war zone when I saw more than twenty military trucks full of military men, not realizing that it was a daily routine. In the very beautiful Dal Lake where I tried to relax, it was still impossible to escape from the tension in the heart of the city. Firing can be heard from afar and military men found making rounds around the lake, hunting for militants.
On the second day of my visit, I was scheduled to meet the families of the disappeared. In that small office of APDP, some 68 family members of the disappeared, mostly from Srinagar, arrived. They are a physically good-looking people, but etched on their faces is a pain both profound and unfathomable.
Each was eager to tell his or her story. From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. without break, I listened to everyone who came forward. Many were women who had lost husbands. Some were nursing small children who will never get to see their fathers because they were still in their mothers' wombs during the time of the disappearance. A number were elderly parents of the disappeared. Some have disappeared brothers.
The disappeared are all men alleged to be enemies of the state and suspected as right-wing militants. They were mostly taken from their homes in the middle of the night and now never can be found. They left behind their families whose poverty has been exacerbated by their disappearance.
Each of the family members had a story to tell, which left me emotionally drained after seven long hours of listening. Each story is as uniquely moving as the other. Yet some cases strikingly continue to linger in my memory.
One woman in her late sixties lost eight children, seven were killed and one disappeared. She is left with nothing. Her odd job of washing other people's clothes is her only source of survival. The only important thing that gives meaning to her bare existence is her solidarity with other APDP members.
A 16-year old girl lost her father and shared about the re-traumatization her other sister experienced when a military man offered to release her father only if she would sleep with him. Shocked, her sister's language capability has been irreparably impaired, depriving her from pursuing her high school education.
An old man in his seventies, whom I later personally visited in his house, wept when he recalled how they woke up in the middle of the night only to find out that the Indian soldiers had taken his son away. He and his wife are left to take care of their grandchildren, who are benefiting from the scholarship program of AFAD through the kind support of EED (Evangelischer Entwicklungsdienst e.V. in Germany.) It is significant to note that the scholarship fund is good for one child per family, but he and many other families that I spoke to mentioned that the amount of Five Hundred Rupeehs (11 US dollars) per child per month for twelve months is being used by three to five children.
APDP Chairperson Parveena Ahangar, the woman whose extra-ordinary fortitude has been the main strength that organizes the families of the disappeared in Kashmir, lost her son. The military offered her One Million Rupeehs for her to stop her struggle to seek justice for her missing son. Courageously, she in turn asked the military if she would take their son, would they be willing to accept her offer of Two Million Rupeehs? Parveena's personal experience has brought her crusade for justice to a higher level - the collective struggle of her co-families of the disappeared to attain justice no matter the cost.
One very significant part of my stay was visiting the houses of these families, which I did on my third and fourth day in the area. Very heart-rending is the fact that they were expecting me to give them clues on the whereabouts of their loved ones. I had nothing to give but friendship and solidarity, which are important to them considering their isolation. It is amazing how they cope with life's hardships - being still able to offer food despite their poverty. Helplessness is the apt description of these families who know nothing about their loved ones' whereabouts, aggravated by poverty and worse, by government's neglect. They have no one to turn to except their organization, which happens to be in solidarity with the families of the disappeared in different parts of Asia and on other continents.
Having witnessed their situation, I came to realize that women and children, as in many other contexts, bear the brunt of the effects of enforced or involuntary disappearances. Women have a very low status in society especially in the South Asian context. They only do odd jobs to sustain their survival. Many are adopted by their parents-in-law, who also cannot afford to meet the economic needs of their disappeared sons' families. They have no choice but to return their daughters-in-law to their biological families who are equally mired in poverty.
They all asked when will they ever see their loved ones again? The families of the victims appealed for solidarity from their sisters and brothers in other Asian countries and in other continents. Concretely, they want their situation to be known around the world and in so doing, receive moral, material and political support for their apparently lonely struggle to end this dark night of the disappeared.
It was bitterly cold in Kashmir, since it was the beginning of the winter season. Darkness gathered quickly especially because several times daily, the people experience blackouts. My level of energy dropped. After listening to their said stories, I had bouts of depression and anger.
When will this woundedness ever be healed?
A God-forsaken paradise?
The beautiful slopes and lakes of Jammu and Kashmir nestle in the northwest of the Himalayan mountain range, along the top of the great triangle of the Indian subcontinent. The pain of the valley of Kashmir is brought about by the unresolved imbroglio between India and Pakistan as to who should control the region.
The phenomenon of enforced or involuntary disappearances began in Kashmir in 1989, soon after the armed insurgency by right wing militants. The Indian security forces, in their effort to crush the armed uprising, resorted to different forms of human rights violations ranging from extra-judicial executions, custodial torture, rape, forced labor and involuntary disappearances. The Indian government enforced a draconian instrument to stifle dissent through the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958, whose section 4A allows even non-commissioned officers of the military and quasi military forces to order a shoot-to-kill command even on suspicion of hostile intentions.
Before leaving the area, I visited the Muslim land, which is supposedly the sight of the monument for the disappeared. Now a barren piece of lot, it only reminds families of the victims how the Indian soldiers cruelly deprived them of a place to collectively grieve and honor their disappeared when on July 18, 2001, the foundation stone they laid in place was taken away by Indian soldiers a couple of hours after the ground breaking ceremony. A stone's throw away from this place is a graveyard of nameless heroes and martyrs killed in the name of national security.
The contradiction of Kashmir makes one stand in awe. Amidst its physical beauty lies the pain and anger of its people - a people whose wounds refuse to heal despite the much-avowed Healing Touch program of the Indian government. They, who once experienced less troubled times now only know uncertainty and dread.
I have visited some 30 countries of the world. I can conclude that the human rights situation of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir is the worst. For the many who do not know this reality, it is difficult to imagine how could this possibly happen in India, whose so-called democracy is widely projected?
Where is the Liberating God in this seemingly God-forsaken paradise? When will He ever deliver the people from the shackles of poverty, worsened by militarization and consequent human rights violations? How many more victims will be sacrificed before the altar of freedom?
Amidst the Kashmiris' woundedness, healing touch in its real sense, through sincere acts of solidarity, will be AFAD's concrete contribution towards the fulfillment of their much-cherished dream for justice for the disappeared and their eventual independence and self-determination.
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