Inside mental health crisis of families of disappeared persons

“The doctor told me that just like broken things cannot be fixed, their illness can also not be healed completely,” said Khazir. “This tragedy feels bigger than our son’s disappearance now.”

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She doesn’t want to relive past memories but 50-year-old Hafeeza can’t help it. 

In the summer of 1997, gasping for breath, their 14-year-old daughter, Rukhsana Akhtar, passed away in Hafeeza’s husband, Ghulam Nabi Mattoo’s lap on the way to the hospital on a horse cart. When the body was brought home, Hafeeza’s younger daughter, Shafeeqa Akhtar, attempted to electrocute herself.

Hafeeza, then 27-years-old, was already in trauma from a past incident. Four years before Rukhsana’s death, Hafeeza’s son, Javaid Mattoo, had become the victim of enforced disappearance at the hands of the government forces, picked up from their partially constructed home in Moghama village. He was also 14-years-old at that time.

On the afternoon of 3 November 1993, troops of the Indian Army had descended upon Monghama, the Mattoo family’s village in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, when Hafeeza was serving food for her son Javaid Ahmad Mattoo in the lawn. Meanwhile, dozens of Army personnel surrounded the house.

The troops had caught hold of Javaid, who asked Rukhsana, then 11, for water but the troops threw the glass away before they had pushed him into their vehicle. Her husband, Ghulam Nabi Mattoo, pleaded with the troops to release their son while Hafeeza and their two daughters, Rukhsana Akhtar and Shafeeka Akhtar, blocked the vehicle’s path, in vain. Javaid was never returned.

It was evident but then a doctor confirmed it to the Mattoo family, Hafeeza was suffering from anxiety disorder — from the day her son was forcibly disappeared and the pain of losing her two eldest children. “I keep thinking of the day he knocks at the door and comes in,” a frail Hafeeza said of her son, who was just a teenager with barely any facial hair even, “all grown up but still familiar to me.”

The trigger

Hafeeza has spent countless sleepless nights, huddled in the corner of her room and looking at the sky through the gaps in the wooden planks and polythene that make the roof of their house, which was never fully constructed. After Rukhsana’s death, Hafeeza confined herself to her single-storeyed house with a small lawn in her village. “My daughter used to force me to go out,” she said. “Now that she is not around, I don’t go out at all.”

Rukhsana had kept Hafeeza from breaking down, said Ghulam Nabi, 55. But with her support system gone with Rukhsana, Hafeeza has been on medication to help her sleep. “When I sleep, [Javaid] is always in my dreams,” she said, but over time the medicines have also become less effective. “I need to see the doctor again. I cannot sleep even after taking medicines now. My head starts aching and I become weak.”

Hafeeza’s heart had sunk the moment the troops threw away the glass of water — Hafeeza keeps reliving the moment when her son was taken away by the troops. The small lawn in their home — where she last sat down to have lunch with Javaid — reminds her of that day, leading to an “uncontrollable rush” of memories and anger. “When I get angry, it becomes extremely tough to control,” said Hafeeza. “I cry till I calm down.”

The Army troopers, said Ghulam Nabi, claimed that Javaid had escaped long ago, during a shootout between the Army and militants in a nearby village. He has been fighting a case in the court since 1997; each time he returned from the court proceedings, Hafeeza’s hopes and questions renewed. “I used to have no answer to her questions,” he said. “Initially she would only cry all the time but with time we could witness a change in her behaviour too.”

As per the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), there are reportedly over 8,000 cases of enforced disappearances in Kashmir which began in the 1990s “even before the enactment and implementation of The Jammu & Kashmir Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in September 1990, which provides impunity for India’s armed forces.” 

On 3 September 2020, the United Nations called upon New Delhi to probe cases of enforced disappearances and mass graves in Jammu and Kashmir, also asking it to reconsider the closure of the State Human Rights Commission in J-K. UN experts, in a letter to the federal government, stated: “If India will not take any genuine and immediate steps to resolve the situation, meet their obligations to investigate historic and recent cases of human rights violations and prevent future violations, then the international community should step up.”

Unity in grief

Separated by distance, the Ashraf family in the Saida Kadal area of Srinagar’s Rainawari is united with the Mattoo family — in the grief of enforced disappearance and its aftermath. Much like Hafeeza, 45-year-old Khazir still longs for her son Mohammad Hussain Ashraf, who was forcibly disappeared in 2003. The court proceedings have led the Ashraf family nowhere. 

At home, however, Khazir isn’t only dealing with the trauma of losing a son but also with how it shook her other children — Saima Ashraf, 31, and Zulfiqar Ashraf, 28. 

Saima was learning to become a carpet weaver and Zulfiqar would help with household chores but since Mohammad Hussain’s disappearance, the two have been suffering from anxiety disorders and lost all motivation. “We took them to the mental hospital in Rainawari and to other doctors as well but nothing helped,” said their father Mohammad Yusuf.  “Both of them used to have extreme mood swings.”

The two siblings were under psychological treatment till 2014, after which they were forced to discontinue their treatment because they could no longer afford it. “They sometimes get so angry that they even hit us,” Khazir said as she showed bite marks on her arms. 

Khazir believes her son is dead and is worried for her surviving children, who suffer through anxiety attacks by the mere mention of Hussain. “I wake up in the middle of the night. I am always very troubled. Only medicines calm me down,” said Khazir. “Children of their age should have been married till now but we cannot cheat people now.”

Recently, Saima also attempted to end her life when she suffered an anxiety attack. “The doctor told me that just like broken things cannot be fixed, their illness can also not be healed completely,” said Khazir. “This tragedy feels bigger than our son’s disappearance now.”

Yousuf and Khazer hide their pain from each other, trying to be strong for their children. “I feel like there is fire everywhere around me. If our son would have been here, we would have been happy,” said Khezzer. “My children would have been in a better state.”

When death has grace

Nizamudin Dar, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the medical college in Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in Bemina, said that the loss of a family member to enforced disappearance comes with uncertainty — resulting in an unending grief among victims. “There can be multiple outcomes such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Depressive Disorder etcetera,” said Dar. 

The patients, said Dar, witness many symptoms including sleep disturbances, excessive dreaming and even a disturbance in routine work. “Some of the patients adopt coping strategies like meditation or exercises but in other cases the anxiety or stress is uncontrollable,” he said. “This affects their personal and social life.”

As per Dar, there are cases where patients start hallucinating vividly due to severe trauma. “I have had cases where they sit alone, see and talk to their loved ones who have disappeared,” said Dar. “Many patients don’t even come out with their stories. There are insecurities.”

Farah Qayoom, Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology at the Kashmir University, said that the aftermath of enforced disappearances is a complex subject. The uncertainty of the missing person’s whereabouts gives hope to the families that the missing will return, only to have it repeatedly shattered with the denial of justice.

“Their trauma is unresolved,” she said.

In a society where enforced disappearances are common, said Qayoom, parents become anxious which in turn has repercussions on their relationships with their surviving children — who often develop “faulty socialisation” and anxiety disorders having seen their parents in constant trauma. “The overall atmosphere of society remains unstable and there is a lot of suspicion everywhere,” she said. “Suspicion affects a society politically, socio-economically and psychologically.”

“Grief otherwise resolved if the person is known to have died,” said Qayoom, who has worked with families of victims of enforced disappearance. In every such family that Qayoom surveyed, “we found two or three patients with anxiety disorders”. Such families relive the trauma and are forced to think about the possibilities and a hope. “Sometimes all these questions remain a burden in their hearts.”

“There is grace in death,” said Qayoom. “Death would help the families by resolving their trauma and giving them the closure that they need.”


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