Prisoner without blame

By the time children start going to school in Kashmir, they already know terms such as crackdown, curfew and cross-fire
Prisoner without blame

A Kashmiri protester prepares to throw stones at Indian government forces during clashes after Friday prayers outside the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar on Aug. 18. Clashes in the state have become more frequent following widespread unrest last year. (Photo by Tauseef Mustafa/AFP)

Published Nov. 24, 2017 

I grew up hearing that Indian-ruled Kashmir, the place where I was born and live, is a paradise.

But the truth as it has unfolded during the nearly three decades of my life is that this is no garden of earthly delights.

Kashmir’s majestic mountains reverberate with the sounds of bullets and bombs.

And in lakes, long known for their mesmerizing beauty, float the corpses of victims of a secessionist rebellion and counter-insurgency operations that have been tearing the region apart since 1989.

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Hundreds of young people travelled to Pakistan-administered areas of Kashmir or to Pakistan itself to be trained in guerilla warfare techniques in order to fight the Indian army and thereby end Indian rule. 

The conflict dates back to 1947 when India and Pakistan become separate states after British rule ended.

The border dispute resulted in both countries administering parts of Kashmir, the Muslim dominated region sandwiched between the South Asian archrivals.

The Kashmir insurgency has already claimed at least 100,000 lives, including those of civilians, militants and members of the security forces.

And tension between India and Pakistan continue to threaten peace in the region. Pakistan and India have already fought three major wars over the disputed region.

By the time I started school at the age of five, children such as myself already understood terms such as crackdown, curfew, encounter and cross-fire.

No one taught them to us, as such. We just picked up their meaning from daily conversation. 

I was told about the ‘do’s and don’ts’ during military house-to-house searches, including to smile at army personnel smashing into our homes with guns and grenades.

They were apprehensive we could have hidden militants.

As children are not supposed to lie, the soldiers would bundle us into a corner and ask; “Where are your uncles?”

By ‘uncles’ they were referring to suspected militants. 

But we had been told to smile at them and feign ignorance.

They would then leave us in peace.

My father used to tell me that a smile had the power to soften hearts.

By the time, I was in 1st grade at my school, I knew how to run for cover whenever militants and government forces traded fire in the market place.

I also knew, like all children of my age, to differentiate between the thuds of an AK- 47 and those of a self-loading rifle.

As time passed, for us abnormality became normality.

Peace became alien and death became the permanent subject of headlines in the newspapers of Kashmir.

Violence led to curfews and the closure of schools and workplaces — what we came to see as holidays.

I remember my younger sister getting annoyed whenever she would find, in the morning, that there was no violent incident or curfew reported anywhere so she would have to go to school that day.

Violence and bloodshed hypnotized us all. 

Human blood never used to scare us, even if we saw it flowing down the road or oozing out from the body of a solider or militant.

Our favorite toys used to be fake guns and our favorite dress was army-style fatigues.

When I graduated from school to university, I chose to study Journalism because I was tired of choosing sides.

Those living in Kashmir should either be with the state or against the state, we grew up hearing.

Journalism looked like a way of not taking sides while speaking the truth.

No miracle had happened by the time I passed out of university and began working.

The same newspapers had the same or similar headlines; with reoccurring themes and situations.

Even after working for seven years, I keep interviewing bomb blast victims, who had been or injured or maimed.

I still have gruesome tales of violence, including the ordeals of children whose parents were killed and the sagas of parents who shouldered the coffins of their children.

Three years ago, I went to a doctor, complaining of sudden heartburn and headaches.  I shared my thought that living in Kashmir had begun making me erratic and unwell all the time.

His response was shocking.

The doctor told me that out of 50 patients he consulted, 45 had similar symptoms.

It was the result of living in a conflict zone, he told me.

No matter how hard one would try to remain normal, the subconscious mind reacted to abnormality. 

A 2016 report compiled by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) stated that 45 percent of Kashmir's adult population suffer from some form of mental distress. 

A huge majority of 93 percent had experienced conflict-related trauma.

An average adult was found to have witnessed around eight traumatic events during his or her lifetime.

According to the report, 50 percent of women and 37 percent of men are likely to suffer from depression; 36 percent of women and 21 percent of men have a probable anxiety disorder; and 22 percent of women and 18 percent of men suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This year I went to Europe for 15 days. With no soldiers on the streets and no fear of any violence, I begun to forget Kashmir and even started loathing it! 

I began sensing that I had become like a prisoner of Kashmir through no fault of my own.

One day while walking in the Grand Place area of the Brussels, Belgium, I heard a loud blast from a corner and wrapped my arms around my head in panic.

It turned out to be only the sound of a blown tire.

I realized that is what conflict has done to people of my age — we become abnormal in normal situations.

But I also missed Kashmir because home is home, even if life is lived on a razor’s edge!

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