As the chairlift arrives, I notice that it is hanging by a thin cable, the wind rocking it left and right over the flowing Jhelum. My excitement of sitting in it fizzles out. I am scared to step inside, a fear only made worse when a fourth man, a policeman from the area, also joins us. He also needs to get across. Haroon enters first and I am about to follow him when Sharjeel asks us to switch sides. He explains that the wind is very strong and it is better if I sit on the right side, which is covered. The left side has no protection. He thinks Haroon will be safer there than I would. I listen to him and move over, trying not to let my apprehension show as we dangle about 20 feet above the Jhelum. I know Haroon is concerned too, for he is much more scared of heights than I am, and I begin to deliberate whether the small chairlift can carry the weight of all four of us. And as I fret, I wonder whether little children who must use the same chairlift to get out of the camp would be safe in it if four of us adults were at risk. Fortunately, the ride only lasts less than a minute and before I can worry any more, we are already on the other side of the river, at the foot of the mountains that host hundreds of refugees.
Sharjeel pays Rs 10 to two young boys taking care of the chairlift. ‘This is the camp,’ he says, pointing towards a maze of makeshift shelters, and I try to take it all in. These are mostly small shacks, some made of mud, some with corrugated iron and others with brick. Clothes are drying on thin wires or on tree branches outside. Graffiti marks the concrete, with names like Mughal House and Arshad’s Home. Young boys stand outside, playing with sticks and stones, and pause when they see us, staring for a while before going back to their game. I have only ever seen photographs of refugee camps set up at the time of Partition in cities like Lahore, or the refugee camps set up by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). From those snapshots, I had always imagined refugees to reside in big tents but the camp we stand at seems to resemble more of the cramped settlements Pandita writes about. There are alleys and turnings full of them, spreading over miles of mountainous land. Perhaps that is what happens when one is a refugee not for a couple of months or a handful of years but for decades to come.
A young man, clad in a light brown shalwar kameez, a blue sweater and black slippers, receives us. Sharjeel and he exchange greetings and he nods towards Haroon and me. He has been informed of our visit beforehand and begins to guide us to one of the homes where we are to conduct interviews. We walk through twisting narrow lanes, full of stones and uneven passageways, open sewage surrounding us from both sides. I can’t help but think of how lost I would be if I had to make my way out of here alone. But the young boys I see playing outside seem to know the alleys inside out. They run from one place to another, giggling and chasing each other. The neighbourhood has come to constitute the only home most of them know. The majority of them would have been born in this camp, or another one like this situated in some corner of ‘Azad’ Kashmir.
A man stops us midway and asks Sharjeel what we are doing here. Sharjeel seems to know him and tells us to go ahead while he speaks to him. I can tell that the man seems suspicious of us. Perhaps he is worried that I am an investigative reporter, trying to probe the camp’s hidden and open secrets. After all, the refugee camps allegedly host militants from Indian-administered Kashmir, those who came for training during the 1990s and never returned.
The young man in the light-brown shalwar kameez guides us to a small blue shelter. It is made of concrete and consists of two rooms with a tiny verandah separating the two. A red carpet is spread out inside one of the rooms, with a white printed sheet covering it. Plain white pillows and cushions rest across the three walls of the room. We take our shoes off and enter. It is dark inside, the only light coming in from the lone window carved out of one of the yellow-coloured walls inside. We seat ourselves against the pillows and the boy rushes out, saying, ‘Let me call my mother.’
I rub my hands together to make them warm; it’s chilly inside, the floor we’re sitting on ice-cold. Haroon starts sniffling next to me, and soon, a dozen sneezes follow. Within a few minutes, a woman walks in, draped in a beige chaddar. We exchange greetings and rest ourselves back against the pillows. I am waiting for Sharjeel to come in and make the introductions but he is nowhere to be seen. On my own, I’m even afraid to ask her name. On a recent visit to Kashmir, while interviewing local women, Haroon had asked one of them her name. She responded by telling us that at her age, it wasn’t culturally appropriate to share her name. It would be immodest. I thus decide not to ask, in case I may make her uncomfortable, especially in male company. An awkward silence envelops the room.
I clear my throat and decide to begin the interview, for I don’t know how much longer Sharjeel will take. I start by asking her how long she has been living in Muzaffarabad. ‘I came here in the 1990s from makbooza Kashmir,’ she begins, half in Koshur and half in Urdu. ‘I was twenty-five years old. Our entire village came.’ I have just leaned forward to ask her what made them come to this side when another lady, older in age, walks in. The elderly woman asks why we are here and our host tells her, ‘She wants to know about our reasons for leaving the occupied land.’ The elderly woman looks back at me, her face marked with wrinkles, and says, ‘Why do you think we came? Do you think any of us would have left our homes if our lives had not been in danger? We came here because of all the atrocities committed by the Indians on us.’ Her voice is raised and I can sense frustration in her. My questions must seem naive to her and I must symbolize the ignorance many Pakistanis and Indians embody when it comes to Kashmir. I nod and wait for her to continue, to say something else about the situation prevailing then, but we are interrupted yet again, before the conversation really even begins. A middle-aged man has walked in. Sharjeel walks in behind him and greets the ladies in the room. He then introduces the man to us, ‘Please meet Anwar Awan (the name has been changed to protect his identity). You can ask him what you want. I’m going to sit outside in the verandah and do some work.’ With that he leaves us in the company of the two women and this man. A couple of young boys come in with a tray full of tea, biscuits and plain cake. Two of the boys sit in the opposite corner and begin to listen quietly.
Anwar Awan, clad in a grey overcoat and a beige cap, seats himself close to me. I tell him about my research briefly. Before I can begin asking him questions, he has already started to talk. ‘I am forty-five-years-old now. I was only twenty when I came here from my house in Kupwara. Our entire mohalla, consisting of about eighty homes, left and came here.’ His Urdu is crisp, unlike the women’s, and he seems quite open to talk. I am disappointed for a moment because I can sense that the conversation is about to be hijacked by him. The women seem to have receded to the background, patiently waiting for their turn to come again. This is often what happens in a mixed gathering. The men start to lead the dialogue, interrupting women whenever they begin to talk, paraphrasing for them, sidelining them. I look towards the two women to try and bring them back into the conversation but Anwar has already started to share his story in more detail. Distracted, I look back at him and hope the women will be engaged along the way, that something he says may resonate with them and they may also share or that, at least, they’ll still be around and willing to talk once he completes his story. Consoling myself that there was still hope, I turn my attention back to him.
‘My father was the numberdar of our mohalla (representative of the village). We had land and money. My father had done well for himself.
When he died, I became the head of the family because I was the eldest son. One day the Indians led a crackdown in my village. This was around 1990. They said, how can you have so much money? You must be a Pakistani, you’re getting funding from Pakistan. I kept telling them I had no link with Pakistan but they arrested me and some other boys from the village and kept us for a week. They interrogated us, tormented us…
‘When we came back, everyone in the village said if this could happen to you, it can happen to any one of us. They would hit the elders, break legs of young boys. We had no option but to migrate, and so we crossed the LoC and came here.’
I can tell that Anwar has a lot to share. However, I’m afraid that he may only give me the rushed, summary version of the events. Upon crossing over, he must have been asked about his story over and over again, from locals and security officials. I have heard that the Pakistani state drills the refugees to ensure they are not Indian spies. Over the years, Anwar has probably narrated the story so many times that he may have become accustomed to sharing only the abridged version of some of the most critical years of his life. I decide to jump in and ask a few questions, hoping to slow down his pace.
‘Can you tell me more about the crackdown in your village and the interrogation that followed? How did it all start?’ This is one of my rare physical interactions with Kashmiris from the other side of the LoC, and I want to know more about their experiences, I want to hear their first-hand accounts.
‘The whole issue started in 1989, after the 1987 elections were rigged. By 1990, the Indian Army had started to crack down on the locals. They would come to your home, drag you out, arrest you, interrogate you. I was arrested more than once…’ One of the women interrupts him and says, ‘Tell them what they did to you. Tell them why we left.’ The anger in her voice is palpable. He goes quiet for a moment and looks towards the floor, as if contemplating how much to share. We are all silent for a while, waiting to see what he will say next. Then he lets out a long sigh and shakes his head. When he begins to speak again, he looks as if he is in physical discomfort. ‘They would make me stand in cold water and then force me to raise my hands. If I got tired after hours and hours of standing like that and tried to lower my arms, they would beat me up. They would hit me on my knee. Should I show you?’ I hesitantly nod and he rolls up his shalwar to reveal a deep gash. ‘They cut me here and put salt inside. Then they would electrocute me in sensitive areas. What do I tell you, sister? How do I tell a woman what I have been through? The current was so strong that a person would jump all the way up and come crashing down, that was how strong it was. What all do I tell you, sister?’ he lets out another long sigh and then falls quiet, his head hanging low. The women in the room shake their heads, their distress visible.
Several writers, including Basharat Peer, have written about the crackdowns that followed the 1989 insurgency. I have read about innocent people being dragged out of their homes, arbitrarily arrested and beaten on alleged charges of militancy. While reviewing Peer’s book, author William Dalyrmple writes about ‘two medieval torture chambers, Papa 1 and Papa 2’ (the latter also features in Peer’s book), set up by the Indian state in response to the insurgency and ‘into which large numbers of local people, as well as the occasional captured foreign jihadi, would “disappear”. Their bodies would later be found, if at all, floating down rivers, bruised, covered in cigarette burns, missing fingers or even limbs.’ Yet the Indian state maintains that the crackdowns and the use of force are crucial in curbing militancy. In 2016, when the use of pellet guns on protesters was widely condemned across the world, the government issued a statement to justify its position: ‘We disapprove of it… But we will have to persist with this necessary evil till we find a non-lethal alternative.’
It takes Anwar a couple of moments to come back to the conversation. ‘They said, You must have gone to Pakistan for training, you’re a Pakistani. I swore that I had no links with Pakistan, that no one in our village was even a mujahid or had any links. After three to four days they left us but a month later, they were back for another chhappa (search) of our mohalla and arrested me again. When they came to arrest me for the third time, I decided to run away. How long could one continue like that? The officers were walking us through the jungle when I, and a few other boys, ran away. We hid in the jungle for over three months, without any proper food or belongings. No one would feed us because they were scared that the army would come after them, too. I finally decided that we had to leave the area. There was no way for me to go back to live in my house without being arrested again. One night, I sneaked back into my village and woke these people up,’ he says, his hand gesturing towards the women in the room. ‘I woke these women up. I said, Isn’t there zulm here? They all said, Yes. So I said, Then let’s go to Azad Kashmir.’
As he says this I realize that in the 1990s, to many Kashmiris like Anwar, Pakistan-administered Kashmir must have represented freedom. By this time there was a perception that Pakistan was supporting Kashmiris fighting against the Indian forces, the same Indian forces that Anwar and his neighbours were trying to escape. What better place to seek refuge in than ‘Azad’ Kashmir? The grass indeed seemed greener on the other side.
‘I didn’t know anyone else who had come here at that time but I thought crossing over to Azad Kashmir was the safest option. The villagers asked me, But what about our homes? Our livelihood? I told them, Look at our condition. Look at me. I am from a good home, you know that. Look at my long hair, my face. I have been without food for so long. This will happen to you and your children too, let’s leave.’
He explains, ‘At that time the fervour was such that many of us believed we would be able to get azadi from the Indian state. Militancy had reached a new high and ordinary Kashmiris were fighting the Indian state.’ In this charged atmosphere, Anwar was convinced that after one to two months they would return to their homes, this time in their own Azad Kashmir. Temporarily crossing the LoC felt like the best decision in the meantime.
I ask him how they made the journey, once they decided to cross over, and he tells me, ‘We were all afraid. There were about 200-250 of us. Everyone knew what would happen to us if we were caught. Whenever the sun would rise, I would tell everyone to lie down so that the Indian forces wouldn’t see us. Then, at night, we would make our way forward. When we came near the LoC, we saw the Pakistani forces. They asked us who we were and we told them we were Kashmiri Muslims who had been persecuted by the Indian forces. We told them about everything we had been through. They immediately took us in and served us tea. When they saw that many of the women were without shoes, the soldiers took off their shoes and gave them to us. Then they took us to their camp and gave us food. They kept us there for two to three days before they asked the locals to open their homes for us. We stayed with local families for a while. We had nothing of our own, even our clothes were torn. The locals would give us blankets, food, clothes. Eventually, the Pakistan Army put us in buses and brought us to Athmuqam, which is just on the LoC. They put up a camp there for us, by the Neelum river,’ he explains.
Soon after the move, Neelum Valley was going to be shaken up by continuous mortar shelling. The Indian forces would fire towards Pakistan-administered Kashmir and the Pakistani forces would fire into Indian-administered Kashmir. Both sides would claim that they were forced to respond in the face of unprovoked firing and meddling from the other side. Ordinary Kashmiris on both sides of the LoC would find themselves squeezed in the middle of the battlefield. Anwar would bear witness to this but not for a while longer.
‘Then all of us eighty or so families got our refugee cards made,’ he continues. ‘We were given Rs 300 to buy basic necessities like cooking utensils, etc. We stayed in that camp for two to three months. But when the winter came, we had to move to a place called Kundal Shahi, another village on the banks of the Neelum river. Many of us lived there for more than a year, while others moved into the homes of the locals. Later, I helped set up another camp called the Karka camp (about 16 kilometres from Muzaffarabad city), but that was damaged in the 1992 floods. After that too, we had to move twice more until we finally came to this present camp. There are many refugees here, from our village but also from places like Srinagar, Uri, Baramulla, Jammu. Let’s see how long we stay here for. Who knows when we have to move again?’
‘Did your entire family come with you?’
‘No, only my brothers came with me. I had to leave my mother and sisters behind.’ When I ask him why he had to do that, he explains, ‘We were living in two different villages. My mother and sisters lived in our ancestral village, which was at a certain height, while my brothers and I lived in a village below them because it was easier to travel and work from there. When we decided to leave, my mother’s village was surrounded by the army from all sides. It just wasn’t possible to go there. If we had, we would have all been caught. I had to leave them behind. I had no choice. They are still there, even today.’
‘How many sisters do you have?’ I ask, ‘and was there any way to keep
in touch with them?’
‘I have three younger sisters… they were all left behind. There was no phone or connection at that time but I would hear about how they were persecuted after we left. We would get news about them from people who came from that side. They (the army) would even lock up my sisters,’ he shakes his head in sorrow and sighs. We are quiet for a moment before I ask him when he was first able to get in touch with them. When he speaks again, his voice is lower than it has been the whole afternoon. He seems to be in a far, distant place, as if caught up in memories of the family he continues to be separated from. ‘The first time I spoke to my mother directly was in 2005, over ten years after I left. When she told me that my sisters had been married off, my brothers and I began to cry. We asked, Who would have carried their doli? That was our job as brothers and yet we couldn’t be there. We’ve lived through awful times. Main apko bata bhi nahi sakta ke woh kya manzar tha (I cannot even begin to describe those times).’ Later, Anwar would tell me how, in the years after the 2003 ceasefire, when tensions between India and Pakistan de-escalated and the LoC became relatively calm, divided families would converge by the Neelum river to catch a glimpse of each other. He too saw his mother across the water, and felt desperate to plunge in and swim to her. Such riverside visits continued for some time, slowly replaced by other modes of communication with the advent of social media and Skype.
‘Did you ever think of picking up arms? Was that ever an option for you?’ I ask Anwar. I had heard that many young boys turned towards militancy as a response to the interrogations Anwar described.
‘At that time, I had nothing on me to fight back with. While I was in the jungle, I’d hit them with knives and stones but what real damage could that do? But today, if someone asks me to join the movement, I would.’ He looks at me to see my reaction and then, as more of an afterthought, adds, ‘Of course, we will always want dialogue to be the way forward but if that doesn’t work we will have to take up some other way and I’d fully support that. If anyone starts the movement again from this side, I’d become a mujahid in a heartbeat.’
Excerpted with permission from Between The Great Divide: A journey into Pakistan-administered Kashmir, by Anam Zakaria, Harper Collins India.