Legacy of terror haunts Kashmir's war survivors
20 May 2007
Panzu: Six months have passed since masked gunmen knocked on the door one night and shot Sarwa's husband, a Muslim faith healer, six times in the chest at point-blank range. The Kashmiri villager still can't shake off the despair. She complained of sleeplessness, mysterious pains, flashbacks, and nightmares. Her children sat near her in a courtyard of her house. They were quiet, unsmiling, with suspicious eyes. They are the survivors of Kashmir's 18-year-old separatist war against Indian rule - and have the mental scars to show it. 'I'd commit suicide but I'm just living for my children,' said the middle- aged woman, her dark eyes often staring into space. 'I feel very sad all the time, thinking of my husband,' Officials say more than 42,000 people have been killed since the revolt. Rights groups put the toll at about 60,000 dead. But behind those headlines, stories from survivors like Sarwa are repeated across Kashmir where doctors say thousands of people - witnesses to killings, rape and torture by both sides in the dispute - suffer traumas. Violence has subsided since a tentative peace process started in 2004, with only three deaths a day on average last year compared with ten a day a few years ago. But there is little evidence the impact of war has diminished. 'Wherever you look in Kashmir, you'll find the mental scars of war,' said Arjimand Hussain Talib, project manager for Actionaid, which runs a counselling service for people suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental problems. A survey in rural Kashmir published last year by medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres showed one in six respondents had been detained by security forces. Of these, more than three-quarters said they were tortured. The survey, based on interviews with 510 people, showed one in ten respondents had lost one or more members of their nuclear family. A third said they had lost one or more of their extended family members. LIFE UNDER CONSTANT THREAT Chats with Kashmiris quickly throw up stories of the war - accounts of relatives killed or tortured, of near misses in bomb attacks and of life under constant threat from anonymous phone calls. Trauma does not spare the troops either, and many of the 500,000 soldiers stationed in Kashmir face psychological problems. 'Lots of security officers come here, there are lots of suicide attempts,' said Abinah Syed, a doctor at Srinagar's run-down psychiatry hospital said. 'They miss their families, they fear attacks. Many have seen a colleague dying.' Sarwa, who did not want to give her full name, said she did not know who killed her husband. But she talked about how he was 'martyred' - a way of saying in Kashmir that troops had killed him. 'My eldest son is much quieter since his father died,' Sarwa added. 'And my neighbour also suffers from the same symptoms as me, sleeplessness, headaches.' In the nearby town of Pulwama, Actionaid has some 1,200 cases on its counselling files. Most are women. 'The violence may go down, but it is shocking to see there is no fall in the people coming for help,' said Saudia Qutab, who works on the counselling project. Qutab recently faced a mother suffering from uncontrolled weeping, sleeplessness and outbursts of aggression. Her 16-year-old son went to school seven years ago. He never returned, one of an estimated 10,000 'disappearances' in Kashmir. 'It is the disappeared cases that are often worse, because families have no closure,' Qutab said. LIVING WITH TRAUMA In the psychiatric hospital in Srinagar, doctors had registered 63,000 patients last year, compared with 1,500 patients in 1989. Despite the stigma in Kashmir of entering a 'mental hospital', many villagers had travelled miles. Most recount nothing. They just ask for medicine. 'The fear of authority is so great, traumas often don't even come out in the chamber of the doctor,' said Dr. Arshad Hussain, a consultant at the hospital. 'There is no trust for anybody. There is a community paranoia,' he said, the door to his office constantly opened by patients pleading for his signature. Some leaders worry how the trauma will affect the next generation. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Kashmir's chief cleric and head of the moderate separatist alliance All Parties Hurriyat Conference, said he saw at his Friday prayer meetings that more younger people were drawn to radical Islam. 'The psychological trauma has made people a lot angrier,' said Farooq, whose father was killed by unknown gunmen. 'With politics, we are seeing more radical approaches, linked to the trauma of 18 years of violence. We preach to an audience that has a lot of anger. That makes our job more difficult'.