In a single storey mud-brick house, she lives with her two daughters and a son. Fifty-one year old Jana Begum is one of those women whose family was caught in world’s most militarized zone, Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir. She lost her four sons and her husband in the last seventeen years. Another son has been disappeared since he left home to visit his in-laws place.
In 2012 summer, I went to meet Begum at her village, Devar Lolab- 120 kilometres north of Srinagar, the region’s summer capital. The village has a population of 5000 inhabitants and has been largely affected by the on-going conflict. There are thirty-seven cases of fake encounter victims from the village and several are involuntarily disappeared.
Kashmir or Indian-controlled-Kashmir has been witnessing an era of violence since its youth crossed over to the other side of the Line of Control (LoC) – a de facto border dividing the region from Pakistan side, after the political resistance to end the Indian rule was muzzled. More than half-a-million Indian troops are currently stationed in the region and more than 70000 people have died since the armed movement started in late 8os.
Sixteen years ago, Begum’s second son, Muhammad Lateef War, 20, was killed at home. At 9 pm, he was sitting on the windowsill in the kitchen and was repairing his wrist watch that had stopped functioning, when someone from outside the house fired two bullets through the window. The bullets hit him and he fell in the pool of his blood.
“We don’t know who fired at him, whether they were troopers or militants. God knows better who killed him. He couldn’t make it and in just a few minutes he fell down, cold,” his mother tells me, in a room with green distempered walls.
Lateef was a student in a seminary at Srinagar. After his death the police had arrived but it was never found who fired at him. Begum has vivid memory of that day but pauses to think while narrating. “I remember all the incidents which followed after that. Two years after Lateef’s killing, government gave us one lakh rupees as compensation but that too was taken away,” she says.
The compensation money was put safely in the cupboard, Begum says, and a few days later the Special Task Force (STF) and the Border Security Force (BSF) men cordoned the house for search. STF is a counter insurgent force in Kashmir, formed to fight the militants. “They took away the compensation money from the cupboard. The men were led by two officers; Jasrotiya of BSF and Gulbadan from STF. They arrested all of us. We were interrogated and released after a few days,” she says; pointing towards the plywood cupboard.
After the death of her son and theft of the compensation the family returned back to their normal life. But the normality didn’t breathe for long. In 1998, her two other sons, Mohammad Sharif War and Bakhtiyar War, had left for Srinagar to shop for the wedding. Shareef was getting married after a few weeks. They had gone away for two days and didn’t return.
After waiting for two days, Begum went to Lalpora village (in Kupwara district) in search of them. She went to several other neighboring villages but couldn’t find her sons anywhere. Then she went to the area police station and lodged a missing report. In the police station, she met Ghulam Mustafa, their neighbor. Mustafa told her that he had seen some clothes and a photograph, in which one of them was her son.
“I went to meet Ghulam Hassan, the Station House Officer of the police station where he showed me the clothes and the photograph.The clothes were the ones which my sons were wearing on the day they left.Police told me that they buried them in a graveyard in Handwara [a neighboring district],” she says. After a brief pause, she adds that it was after eight days since her sons had left that she found them buried. She went to the graveyard and saw the graves of her sons, buried as Pakistani militants.
Begum couldn’t stop herself from seeing their faces and started digging the graves to take out the bodies. “I tried to get them out but police didn’t allow. On seeing I digging the graves police stopped me. Police didn’t let me take the remains of my sons,” she says, sobbing.
The family believes that two of them were killed by Special Task Force (STF) and Border Security Force (BSF) men who would rule the village. In the official records at the police station, they were branded as “foreign militants”.
Tragedies in this family didn’t stop there only. Her husband,Abul Karim War, 60, was picked up by BSF and STF personnel from Kupwara bus stand and was tortured continuously by them, she says. “After the torture,he was not able to walk or eat by himself.The torture led to several ailments and he remained bedridden. On hearing that his other two sons are also dead his condition deteriorated.”
After eleven days, when Begum found graves of her sons, her husband died on bed. He died due to torture and shock, she says.
Now, Begum had two more sons and four daughters to live with. Shareef-ud-Dinwas her married son. In 2000, Shareef left home to visit his in-laws house because a relative had died there but he never made it. “I thought he was at his in-laws place and they thought he was at home. However, he neither reached home nor to his in-laws. Since then he is disappeared,” she says. “He has one son who now lives at his maternal home and his wife remarried.”
“None of my sons had any connection with the militancy. During that time our village was full of militancy, if they asked for anything we would give them. I could never know why Lateef was killed. He didn’t even have enmity with anyone,” she says. “My sons were innocent. They never harmed anyone but still they were brutally killed.”
[pull_quote_center]If I had no children, I would have killed myself a long ago. Whenever I think of doing so, it comes to my mind that what will happen to my son and daughters when they would need clothes and food. Who would take care of them?[/pull_quote_center]Two of her daughters are married. “Our situation is very bad. We have to struggle to get meals and my children had to bear all the sufferings. Twenty days before Eid I travel to Srinagar and beg for money and then we celebrate the festival,” Begum says, surrounded by her daughter, Tahira, and youngest son, Bilal.
Bilal studies at a government school in class 5. Begum says that nobody has ever come with help. “Bilal is paid a relief of 100 rupees per annum by local Jammat Islami committee while he needs notebooks, books, uniform and annual fee for his studies. How can we manage all this? No leader came to our rescue. Only Parvez Sahib [Imroz] and his people come here to help us.”
Parvez Imroz is a prominent human rights lawyer who has documented torture, enforced disappearances and killings for several years. It was Imroz’s group, International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir (IPTK) that unearthed nearly 6000 unmarked mass graves in which people were buried after killing them in fake encounters. In 2012, the group also released an extensive report, Alleged Perpetrators: Stories of Impunity in Jammu and Kashmir, naming higher officials of police and Indian forces for human rights violations. The report highlighted 214 cases of human rights violations involving Indian army and paramilitary forces and police under the impunity provided by the draconian law Armed Forces Special Powers act (AFSPA).
Begum and her children still feel threatened and live in trauma. “A few days back a team of television news channel came. They visited many places and came to my house too. Two days after that a search party [of army and police] came to search our house and we were beaten up,” she says.“Armymen asked questions regarding the videos which the cameramen recorded. STF men claimed that there were militants in our house that is why media came here to take pictures and videos.”
Going through such phases of life, Begum sometimes thinks of killing herself. “If I had no children, I would have killed myself a long ago. Whenever I think of doing so, it comes to my mind that what will happen to my son and daughters when they would need clothes and food. Who would take care of them?”
Photograph by Muhabit ul Haq