In an ideal Kashmir, surrounded by beautiful mountains, who can’t romanticize the idea of living in heaven. But, in contrast to this popular idea, with the time darkness swifts to dawn, 32-year-old Shameema Akhtar, sitting in the right corner of the semi-dark room of her one-storey house in the Srinagar, only remembers 18 years of sufferings.
She is sitting on a spot, as she remembers, from where her husband—Shabir Ahmad, then 22-years-old—was picked by the government forces on the night of 22 January 2000; roughly 19 years ago.
That night, which she curses, she not only lost her love, companion, father of her two children—Waseem and 3-days-old Bisma—but also her better half; the other half. Now, Ms. Akhtar was about to live a life of dilemma, or as referred in the texts—a half-widow.
“I lost my love, my husband, and the father of my two children. I lost myself after him,” Ms. Shabir said.
On 22 January 2000, Mr. Ahmad returned home after closing his cart draped in tight polythene, attached with a rope, and lifted his 3-days-old daughter, Bisma in joy. That was the time when Kashmir was going through the phase of first armed struggle, and government forces were on a hunting spree.
The brief joyous moments, with Ms. Akhtar looking with love at her husband, playing with their daughter, were soon punctuated by heavy knocks on the door. It was abnormal. Mr. Ahmad handed over their daughter to his wife and rushed towards the door.
Alongside the army, a lot of abuses, slaps, and kicks waved in via the door. Ms. Akhtar remembers seeing bold letters, written on the intruders’ camouflaged unifroms—RR-6 (Rashtriya Rifles). She remained a mute spectator to ensure the safety of their daughter and son.
2-year-old Waseem, and 3-days-old Bisma, alongside their terrified mother, and a father begging to gun barrels, saw their father being dragged only to be forced into a vehicle. “We were helpless before them,” recalls Ms. Akhtar. “They had a Mukhbir (informer) with them, who was an ex-militant. He was telling them that Shabir has links with the militant outfit and had dumped ammunition somewhere.”
The guns in Kashmir are disproportionately killing young men while their holders have disappeared many of them. Their missing has left behind a generation, with children like Waseem and Bisma, who will never have any memories of their fathers.
But, Ms. Akhtar is not alone, there are more or less 2500 women like her; in search of their lost husbands. While the guns and posers make to roadside discussions, these families are being left to struggle with economics in a conflict-torn field. According to the numbers available with The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), an estimate of 8 thousand people have disappeared from the Valley by now.
“We used every possible effort to trace him. But there was no confirmation of Shabir,” Ms. Akhtar said. “I went to many army camps with my little daughter in arms seeking his whereabouts.”
The conflict has come to a place—not after 30 years—but gradually, that every time there were reports of an unidentified dead person from any corner of the Valley, Ms. Akhtar would rush, hoping “it might be my husband.”
During the early years, she would go to police stations, army garrisons, jails, and every other place where she could find her husband. Apparently, in between these years, many unknown persons approached her, asking for money in exchange for her husband’s information, but never turned back to her.
“How can you explain to a 4-year-old boy that his father is missing?” Ms. Akhtar said as she looks at the photograph of her husband in her hand. For a long time, she ran away from it. “I would tell them that their father is at Jammu, and would come soon,” she said. “He will buy you new clothes and toys when he will come.”
For Ms. Akhtar, it is very difficult to forget Mr. Ahmad’s appearance. “I miss him at every step of my life,” she said. “After marriage, a husband is everything for a woman. We cannot share with anyone what we share with our partner,” and now, the meaning of life is fading for her.
“But, I need to stay strong for my children.”
Ms. Akhtar was 17, when Mr. Ahmad, a maternal cousin, wished to marry her. “I found him handsome and accepted the proposal,” and both of them found the love of their life in marriage.
“After he went missing, my eyes were stuck on the ceiling,” she explains. “I used to stay awake throughout the nights. I kept praying for the dawn. I cannot explain you the restlessness after not finding him next to me,” and after 19 years of his missing, the feeling hasn’t changed.
After their husband goes missing, the half-widows tends to depend on their in-laws to sustain economically. Many of them are being demanded to re-marry the husband’s next brother. While some of them did, a few other resisted.
After looking at the condition in such scenarios, the Fatwa (decree) was given in 2014 by Islamic scholars, a half-widow can marry if her disappeared husband doesn’t return for seven years. According to the Associate of Parents and Disappeared People (APDP) spokesperson, the decision was taken very late; if same would have been decided earlier, many half-widows would have lived a better life.
The horrific floods of 2014, which swept the Valley, washed away everything that Ms. Akhtar had stored in all those years.
With time, the pain of longingness has only grown stronger for Ms. Akhtar. The journey of half-widows does not have an existing road in Kashmiri society. “People talk negatively behind you. They raise fingers on our modesty and conduct,” Ms. Akhtar said. “If someone will wear any good looking dress, they start doubting on their character.”
As per Ms. Akhtar, life would have been easier if she had any idea about what did the government forces did to her husband. Until then, her eyes will be stuck to the entrance of his home, gazing in hope for his return.
While she also believes in the possibility that her husband, Shabir Ahmad, might be buried in one of the couple of thousand unmarked graves in the Valley. According to a JKCCS report, there are more than 2,000 unmarked graves alone in the north Kashmir.
A portrait photograph of Mr. Ahmad, that is hanging on the dull wall inside Ms. Akhtar’s room, makes her feel that he is around. “This journey was in my fate, and no one can change that,” she said. “I have tolerated all these years and got to do the same till my death.”
Waseem and Bisma have grown-up. Now, they know that their father will never return. For them, he is dead. But, Ms. Shabir still wishes to see him—whether dead or alive. She wants to end the wait.