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A midnight rumour – that came true at dawn on 5 August 2019 – knocked on the doors of the Baitul Banat Hostel in Srinagar, a girl’s orphanage under the Jammu and Kashmir Yateem Trust (JKYT), striking a collective gasp of shock. One girl among the wide-eyed faces of the orphans stood up and pleaded, “Please take us back home. If we are all going to die – we want to die with our family, at least.”

Zahoor Ahmad Tak, 71, the Chairperson and Patron of the Trust, had to make a quick call. When he heard of the-news-of-the-revocation – wherein the central government had annulled the special status of Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) under the article 370 of the Constitution, and bifurcated the state into the separate union territories of J-K and Ladakh – he knew that it would be “a long, long time” before things would be back to normal in the Valley.

His first thought, then, was “the safety of the children”; in twelve orphanages spread across Kashmir Valley, 512 boys and girls – from 5-year-old kindergarteners to 18-year-old high-school pass-outs – are presently under the care of the Trust.

The next day, on 6 August, as the lockdown and communication blockade were firmly hammered in, with no way of contacting the paranoid family members of the orphans, the first thing that the Trust did was to reach out to their suppliers.

“They [the suppliers] told us that they would only be able to supply essentials to our orphanages for another ten days before they ran short of items. Not beyond that,” said Mr. Tak. “How could we keep our children here if we couldn’t even provide them with a full glass of milk or proper meals in the day?”

So, the Trust decided to “somehow, send the frightened children back home.” Within the next two days, Mr. Tak managed to acquire curfew passes from the authorities; and for emergency purposes, a single landline connection at their head office in Baran Pathar area of Srinagar. The Trust then arranged school buses and their own vehicles to drop the children.

For the next couple of days, on 7 and 8 August, the Trust’s vehicles plied on the deserted roads – stopping at checkpoints with curfew passes in hands – driving hundreds of orphaned children to their respective homes across the Valley.

According to Ghulam Mustafa, 69, an administrative officer at the Trust’s head office, the challenge was that most of the girls and boys came from far-off villages in the Valley.

“Neither a soul nor a vehicle could be seen on the roads,” recalled Mr. Mustafa. “We took a risk, but we had to.”

A room of Gulshan-e-Banat hostel after the girls had to leave due to the on-going situation in the Valley. Photograph by Zahir Wani for The Kashmir Walla

However, the Trust’s problems were not over yet. The responsibility remained; in the coming weeks, as silence swapped the voices of chattering children at the orphanages, a telephone rang at the Trust’s head office; a message – from miles away – reached Srinagar.

A Chance to Escape

Hafeeza Khan, a 19-year-old girl, whose name has been changed, was one of the fifteen girls from the Trust whose admission was confirmed in mid-August at Swami Vivekananda Institute of Technology, Chandigarh, for Bachelor in Technology in Computer Science. The stated deadline to enrol the students was within two weeks.

Ms. Khan was brought to the Trust at the age of sevenand has been here since – raised by the Trust. A girl with big dreams and ambitions, even as a child, she was “always anxious about her future in the Valley”; so, she studied hard to secure it. “For someone like me, studying in Chandigarh – or anywhere outside of conflict – is a huge opportunity,” she said.

The Trust, amidst the communication blackout and lockdown in place, had to bring the girls back from their homes and send them on their new college venture outside the Valley.

“We took a second risk by venturing out,” Mr. Mustafa said. “But the future of the girls was at stake. We had to send them to Chandigarh – at any cost.”

Two of the Trust’s vans, as per Mr. Mustafa, while on their way to pick up the girls from their residences in south Kashmir were hit by stones and returned with their window panes broken. “Luckily, none of the girls were inside the vans at the time.”

Unaware of her selection, Ms. Khan was sitting idle at her home in Bijbehara town of Anantnag district (south Kashmir). After she lost her father, at the age of one, to cancer, her family – mother and two elder brothers – was unable to fill the void of bread earning.

Today, although her brothers, in their early twenties, earn daily wages for themselves, they cannot support Ms. Khan’s education – it is funded by the Trust.

One day in the third week of August, a Trust’s van drove to her home and she was asked to pack up her belongings.

“You have to fly to Chandigarh.”

Ms. Khan, who has always wanted to “change her future that-would-have-been in the Valley”, was overjoyed. “It was my chance to escape the lockdown that is now engulfing the region” – and she took it.

On 5 September 2019, fifteen underprivileged girls from the Valley boarded a Trust sponsored flight – the first in their lives – to Chandigarh; full of hopes and aspirations – of a future away from the conflict.

“It all shattered on the very first day of college,” said Ms. Khan, on a landline telephone call with The Kashmir Walla from Chandigarh. The moment she walked into her class, and introduced herself as a Kashmiri, “a round of scoffs and stares” welcomed her.

The next moment, one of the boys in her batch stood up and taunted, “So, what happened to your special status now, huh?”

Expecting this, she replied aloud, boldly, to the entire class, “I’m here for a purpose, and that is to study – not to discuss politics.”

Though, she hasn’t been able to concentrate on her studies – her “mind and heart is back home.” For Kashmiri students like her, she said, they have had no choice but to go outside the Valley to study.

“We are constantly called a backward society, but isn’t education the only weapon to make a place prosper? In the Valley, we are never given a chance to rise up. The government never thinks of Kashmiri students when they make their big decisions,” she said.

Even after a month now, when Kashmir Valley sulks in communication blockade, the taunts – “from batchmates, hostel mates, shopkeepers, and rickshaw-walas” – haven’t stopped: “Are you a terrorist?” “Why do you love Pakistan?” “Go back to Kashmir!”

In their campus hostel, Ms. Khan confessed, the girls from the Valley feel “unsafe and threatened”, and have complained to the warden several times; it all fell on deaf ears. Initially, the girls would cry to each other every night – now, they have simply learnt to walk past the rudeness and hostility.

The prevailing situation back in the Valley hasn’t helped either. Every week, when her widowed mother calls Ms. Khan from a police station near their home in south Kashmir, white lies and false assurances of “everything is alright here” are exchanged from either ends of the line.

But she knows her Valley all too well to believe that things are fine. Besides, now that she has access to social media, she keeps checking for news from the Valley “every minute of every day.”

Though, still, Ms. Khan longs for home. She said, in a sudden sing-song tone, over the call, “I wish I were a bird, so I can fly back to and from the Valley.” After a pause, she whispered, “You won’t believe, I miss Kashmir more than my mother. Because since childhood, I have always considered the Valley to be my mother and father.”

“We Will Bring You Back – Promise!

The Trust, which was founded in the Valley in 1972, has never faced such a situation. Mr. Tak, the Patron, told that the Trust has seen it all in Kashmir: the peak of militancy in ’90s, the uprisings of 2008 and 2010, 2014 floods, and 2016 uprising.

Gulshan-e-Banat hostel. Photograph by Asif Hamid for The Kashmir Walla

“We sent home some of the children back then [2016 uprising] as well,” he said. “But the difference was that, then, we could predict that the situation would not last for long. Now, as uncertainty glooms over, Mr. Tak claimed that the Trust hasn’t received “a single penny since 5 August” – “not a single penny.”

The Trust has so far been surviving on back-up funds and donations received in during the time of Ramzan as zakat. “In this shutdown, people can’t help themselves,” added Mr. Mustafa, sighing. “How will they help the needy like these orphans?”

According to the Trust’s annual report 2017-18, sixty-two per cent of the families of the 512 orphans fall under the category of Below Poverty Line (BPL), and thirty-three per cent fall under Antyodaya Anna Yojna (AAY), a government scheme that provides subsidised food to the poorest families across the country. Each of the families has lost the bread earner – eighty-one per cent due to natural deaths, fourteen per cent due to the conflict and five per cent due to divorces.

Mr. Mustafa is well aware of the fact that the orphans and their families would be struggling at their homes, under the shutdown. “But we, too, were pushed to the wall and were forced to send the children home.”

Since September though, many families have contacted the Trust to take the children back. They reasoned that the children are disturbed at home, with nothing to do. The Trust then decided, seeing that exams are approaching, to bring back the students studying in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades, in the Trust’s Gulshan-e-Banat Girl’s School in Gopalpora area of Budgam (central Kashmir).

Letters were sent to the girls living nearby through foot messengers, while vehicles plied, once again, to bring the ones living far-off back to school. Although the Trust wasn’t able to reach half-a-dozen girls from the batch, thirty girls have been staying in the hostel premises and studying under private tutors arranged by the Trust, for a month now.

Firdousa Ali, 27, the warden in the Gopalpora hostel, has been taking of girls since the past month. “Luckily for us, there are enough essentials such as sanitary pads stored up here,” she said, standing in an empty school hallway. “There is no way to contact our cooks. So, I cook for them, with whatever is available,” she added, smiling at one of the girls walking by.

The other care-taker of the girls is 60-year-old Ghulam Mohamad Khan, their math tutor, temporarily arranged during the lockdown, who walks many miles from Srinagar to the hostel every day to teach them. “At this time, the girls are very disturbed mentally. I do whatever I can to ease their stress of exams at this time,” he shrugged with a smile.

Shakeela Khan, 17, is a 11th grade student who came to the hostel a month ago from her residence in Rainawari, Srinagar, where she lived with her uncle and a brother. “I was not able to study at home,” she said. “Here, it is much better because you can clear your doubts and revise concepts.”

Her day starts early in the morning with namaz, followed by classes till 1 pm. She then does gardening, her hobby, around the quiet hostel premises. In the evenings, the girls have their “mandatory chats on what will become of Kashmir” and on their future plans.

Ms. Shakeela wants to be a doctor. And just like Ms. Khan, her fellow-student at the Trust, she too wants to move out of the Valley – far away from conflict.

Meanwhile, at the Baitul Banat Hostel in Srinagar, the dorm rooms are still as they were left on 6 August – beds unmade, neatly hand-written timetables pasted on walls, sneakers on the floor, their laces untied. The children had then hurriedly packed up their little trunks with just a few essential belongings – books and clothes; they knew they would be back soon.

“Once the situation returns to normal, we will not even take a minute to bring you back,” Mr. Tak had promised them. “Not even a minute.” It has been two months now.

This story originally appeared in the 14 – 20 October 2019 print edition of The Kashmir Walla.

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