Updated: October 27, 2015 06:19 PM GMT
Women wail as they watch their houses being destroyed during a March 2014 clash in Kashmir. (Photo by Umer Asif)
Taja Begum stumbles as she walks barefoot over the rubble of what was once her two-story home.
The look of sadness on the face of the 80-year-old widow reflects the feelings of many hundreds of other residents who have lost their homes as a result of clashes between separatists and government forces in Kashmir over the last two decades.
Begum, who lives in North Kashmir's Rajwar district, lost her home in December 2013, when three separatists barged into the house she shared with her two sons.
Soon, a fierce gun battle raged between the intruders and the army, in which all three militants were killed.
There was also another casualty, Begum says — her house, which was destroyed after the army rained down shells and heavy gunfire on the rebels.
Encounters such as this have become routine in Jammu and Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state, where various insurgent groups have fought the Indian army since 1988. While some groups want the state to become part of neighboring Pakistan, others want full independence from India.
"All my possessions were in the house," Begum told ucanews.com. "My husband, who died three years earlier, worked from dawn to dusk building this house for us. Everything got destroyed. All that's left is debris, which is the only sign that a house once here."
Flushing out rebels
There are no official records detailing how many homes have been destroyed, but local people say the number runs into the hundreds, since each encounter in populated areas will invariably affect several houses.
That's because the army shows little regard for people's property and will often use heavy weaponry to flush out rebels, they say.
Civilians whose houses were destroyed or damaged say government compensation is meager, while the process of claiming it is complicated and slow.
Imtiyaz Ahmed, from northern Kashmir, saw his home destroyed in a 70-hour clash between separatists and the army in 2010. Ahmed said the rebels were hiding in one of the houses in his neighborhood when the army attacked.
"Mortar shells were fired at the rebels, destroying almost everything," says Ahmed said. Some two dozen houses were left uninhabitable and four soldiers were killed, he said.
Ahmed said his family, and others caught in the crossfire, managed to flee to safety. However, no government assistance was offered for the reconstruction of the damaged homes.
"Since that day, we have struggled to put our lives back on track but it seems difficult. Very difficult," he added.
Ahmed, a farmer who now lives with a relative, said he would need to save for 10 years to rebuild his destroyed house.
An Indian paramilitary trooper stands alert during a one-day strike in Srinagar on Oct. 27. Kashmiri separatists observe Oct. 27 as a 'black day,' marking the arrival of the Indian Army in Jammu and Kashmir. (Photo by Tauseef Mustafa/AFP)
Muhammad Shaban Dar has been living in a cow shed with his wife and three children since November 2014, when his home in South Kashmir's Kulgam district was destroyed in a clash.
"During the battle, shells rained down near the house. The blasts were so powerful they ripped off the rooftop and started fires inside," he said.
"There is a only a cow shed left for shelter. We don't know how long it will take me to earn enough money to rebuild our house again," Dar told ucanews.com.
Dar says that after several months, he was given compensation totaling 100,000 rupees or about US$1,500.
"The compensation is so little that I would not be able to reconstruct a single room," Dar said.
According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, the government introduced a scheme in 2010 to compensate people whose property was damaged by the army, with an upper ceiling of 1 million rupees following an assessment by a district level committee.
But victims say the government payouts are nowhere near this amount and are slow in coming.
A government official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said checks had to be made before any compensation can be issued.
He said the government does not want to pay compensation to people who shelter rebels.
"It takes time to ascertain if the so-called victim is a rebel sympathizer or not," he said.
Locals also accuse the government of exposing civilians to deadly danger during clashes with rebels.
Junaid Ahmad Dar, an 11-year-old boy, was killed on Sept. 6 when a live shell exploded in his home in Ladoora, in Baramulla district.
According to his family, Junaid found the shell in the debris of a house and took it home, where it exploded.
Kashmiri author M Ashraf, who has written extensively on the Kashmir conflict, says the security forces seem to look on Kashmir as "enemy territory" and their heavy-handed approach is an attempt to frighten the civilian population into submission so that rebels are denied shelter or food.
"On the one hand, some commanders have a policy of befriending the civilian population through various programs, while others are alienating the population more and more," he said.
Caritas India, the Catholic Church's social services arm, says it is looking to boost assistance to civilians affected by separatist violence now that it has opened an office in the restive state.
"Our work is not based on religion. We look forward to helping people's development and we will surely try to help all those we can, irrespective of their faith," Caritas spokesman Amrit Sangma says.
Some religious groups are already working to help people. Mirwaiz Qazi Yasir, head of charity organization Ummat I Islami, has started a program to rebuild houses destroyed during clashes in Kashmir.
He said his organization has laid the foundations for several houses.
"Our first duty as humans is to help the victims, the suffering, the survivors," he said. "We as a society set high moral conduct yet when it comes to helping other members of society we are hesitant. It's our foremost duty to remember those who have suffered."
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