Living A Half-Life While Waiting For Those Lost
13 July 2007
The Washington Post
Srinagar: Jana Begum squatted on the floor of her small kitchen with a friend, confiding to her how her life felt like a kind of purgatory, year after year spent waiting for a husband who had vanished shortly after his arrest by Indian security agents five years ago. To this day, Begum said, she doesn't know the charges against her husband, a respected pharmacist and father of five. At 35, Begum is one of thousands of women who, in turbulent Indian-controlled Kashmir, are called half-widows: women who wait years and sometimes decades for husbands to come home, unsure if they are even alive.The half-widows are joined in their distress by another group in Kashmir, the mothers of disappeared sons. As many as 10,000 people are missing in the bloody 18-year conflict between Indian army troops and militant separatists - some homegrown, some allegedly backed by Pakistan. The sun-bleached photos of the missing hang from small shrines in the houses of mothers and wives, whose livelihoods and social status are inextricably linked to sons and husbands. 'My heart speaks to me that he is still alive,' said Begum, whose name is the same as an honorific sometimes conferred on women here. 'If he is dead, my heart can't accept it. I've been waiting and lonely for so long.' In many ways, the plight of the half-widows and the mothers of missing sons is a metaphor for Kashmir, a region trapped between war and peace as talks between India and Pakistan inch along. Like Begum, everybody here seems unsure about what to do next. Other than wait. This scenic valley has long been the battleground between Hindu- majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, with each country claiming Kashmir soon after India's partition in 1947. The countries have waged two wars over Kashmir, whose population is mostly Muslim; fighting has left tens of thousands dead and raised fears that the stubborn conflict could escalate into a full-scale nuclear war. Both countries tested nuclear devices in 1998. There has been a decrease in violence recently, but for the people living in Indian-controlled Kashmir, the peace talks between Islamabad and New Delhi have yielded few concrete results. For people such as Parveena Ahangar, the political machinations can be boiled down to one thought that loops endlessly in her mind: Where is my son? 'A mother raises a child with all hopes that the child will study and get educated. When the mother is old, she hopes her son can hold her hand,' Ahangar said, through tears. 'But my case is different. I have no one to hold my hand. I will know there is really a peace process when I see my son.' Her child, Javeid Ahmed Ahangar, was 16 when he was taken by national security officers while visiting his cousin on Aug. 18, 1990, and accused of being a militant. Once a housewife, Ahangar has become an international leader for mothers of missing children throughout Asia. She started a group called the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, which holds monthly rallies in the Kashmir Valley. 'I thought once we united we would be powerful,' Ahangar said over Kashmiri tea in her home, where mothers from remote villages had traveled to turn in their paperwork on their sons, documenting the disappeared. 'I have roamed the lanes of Kashmir day after day, talked to human rights groups, the police, the courts. But nothing has seemed to help us get an answer.' The problem persists because, under law, the Indian army is given carte blanche to quell any suspected militancy and hunt down possible insurgents, Ahangar and Kashmiri leaders said.They also say that India's silence on the whereabouts of the missing is just one issue in a long list of grievances. India has refused to allow Kashmiri opposition leaders to participate in peace talks. And there has been no reduction in the 500,000-strong Indian security force posted in bunkers in Kashmir's apple orchards, saffron farms and hospitals. Kashmiris say they are subject to daily indignities that include identification checks, car searches and arrests without reason, all by soldiers lugging assault weapons and wearing flak jackets. With the attention of the United States and other world powers focused on Iraq, many people here don't expect a change anytime soon.'India doesn't feel any pressure to reduce the number of troops or answer questions about the missing. The U.S. has other problems now,' said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who leads the All Parties Hurriyet (Freedom) Conference, an umbrella group of Kashmir's separatist leaders. 'So meanwhile, the common man doesn't feel the fruits of peace talks at all.' The Indian army takes credit for providing a modicum of stability in Kashmir. Violence persists, and police frequently report skirmishes with suspected militants in remote villages, a low- intensity conflict that is just enough, Indian officials contend, to justify the military presence. India's home security minister, Madhukar Gupta, said India has set up three committees: one to look into troop redeployment, another to consider scrapping the law that gives the military full authority in the region, and a third to study the findings of the first two. 'There is no question that things are improving,' he said. 'But there are also still challenges that are not going away.' He declined to comment on the missing sons or husbands, some of whom, Indian officials say, were involved in militant groups or might have been of military age and found themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. Col. S.K. Sakhuja, an Indian army spokesman, said that relations have improved in Kashmir because of the army's recent hearts-and-minds campaign, which included providing search-and-recovery teams during the 2005 earthquake and, more recently, building schools, constructing roads and delivering health care to more remote corners of the countryside. He also said officials are concerned about allegations of missing persons and are 'working in a democratic setup with a judicial system in place to investigate all charges.' 'Kashmiris are supporting us, and they want to restore the normalcy to these regions,' Sakhuja said. 'All sides have suffered a lot. We just want to keep our borders safe from militants with bombs.' But local leaders say Kashmiris have developed a deep enmity toward India, largely because of the issue of missing people. As far as they're concerned, their lives cannot go on.Under some interpretations of Islamic law, a wife can remarry only after six years if consistent efforts have been made to find her husband. Many women say they aren't ready to remarry but still want to know the fate of their husbands. They and others are demanding the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission, similar to those established in South Africa and Rwanda.'Kashmiris deserve to know if their sons or husbands are dead,' said Mehbooba Mufti, president of the People's Democratic Party in Kashmir, considered a pro-India party. 'The face of India, even if they are making peace efforts and building roads, is still seen in Kashmir as the aggressor.' Jana Begum was married at 14 and said that without her husband, she is suffering from depression. She replays the night of Jan. 16, 2002, over and over in her mind. The family was sleeping that night when Indian soldiers arrested her husband, Manzoor Ahmad Dar. They wanted to know where the guns were. Begum said there were no guns. But they took her husband anyway. The couple's eldest daughter, Bilqees Manzoor, a pretty student with thick eyebrows and flawless skin, called police, visited jails and hired a lawyer to help find her father. Dar's fellow shopkeepers went on strike for four days, holding a protest in the streets. But as the days flowed into months and months stretched into years, Begum's family started to feel abandoned in their cause. With their father gone, Begum's sons grew harder to discipline. Money was tight. Some friends tired of hearing about it all the time. The family to this day won't celebrate holidays such as the end of Ramadan, although neighbors host boisterous parties. 'When misfortune befalls you, no one sticks at your side,' said Manzoor, who started to weep as she explained that she recently became engaged. 'I watched other girls who had their fathers at their ring ceremonies. My heart was injured without my father there.'