Half-widow waiting for return of husband missing in Kashmir
Today is 27th October Black Day Kashmir which observes the date in 1947 when Indian troops entered Kashmir.
In gross violation of the law and ‘Partition Plan of the Indian Subcontinent’, India forcibly landed its troops in princely state of Jammu and Kashmir on 27th October 1947.
Every year, the day is marked as Kashmir Black Day by total strike. Different functions, protest demonstrations and anti-India rallies are taken out in the occupied territory, Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and also in the world capitals. This year too, the Kashmiris are observing October 27th as the Black Day to demonstrate to the world that they will never yield to Indian repression.
Whilst living under occupation the people of Kashmir have witnessed countless atrocities and been subjected to repeated human rights violations as I learned for myself in 1991.
In the late summer of 1991 I set off with a friend Christy, an Indian tour guide and a party of Italian mountaineers to trek in Ladakh to the base camp of Kun, the Indian side of the Himalaya where the experienced climbers would attempt the summit. I had flown from the UK to Delhi and then on to Srinagar to join the group.
I knew something of the history of Kashmir and had recently read a Guardian article detailing a massacre earlier that year. The advice was not to travel there but as I would be mainly in transit decided to go ahead with my plans.
Arriving at Srinagar, I realized how tight security was, the Indian army were everywhere. Most of the hotels appeared to be taken over by the military and the streets were full of sandbags and sentry posts. The day after arrival, a local Tibetan restaurant quietly opened up just for my friend and I to eat. I was only staying in Srinagar a couple of days before heading up to Leh in a bus and was sleeping on a houseboat on Dal Lake, amidst breathtaking scenery, preparing for the trip.
Dal Lake, the “paradise” of Kashmir
It was very sad to see businesses in decline as Kashmir has relied heavily on the tourist trade for many years, now there was barely a foreigner to be seen and at 6pm each night there was a curfew and firing could be heard around the lake.
We loaded up the bus with equipment and food including live chickens and set off on our journey. The atmosphere was one of excitement yet tense as every few miles we were stopped at checkpoints, told to leave the bus which was searched for guns and bombs and our passports were checked. The delays grew longer as Indian soldiers insisted on being photographed with the female passengers before allowing us on our way.
The trek which left from Lamayuru monastery, Leh turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life, physically challenging and spiritually enlightening surrounded by the magnificance of the Himalaya. The journey however was not without its difficulties. One of the Italian females fell to her death coming down from Kun. She had not felt able to continue the climb, decided to descend but none of her companions in their ruthless determination to reach the top had thought to accompany her back to camp.
I was in my tent when the radio call came through from the guys that had spotted her body and heard the terrible cries of her husband who suffering from altitude sickness had stayed at base camp. We clubbed together to pay the Indian army to fly her body back to Srinagar. I helped take care of the other climbers one of whom returned with severe frostbite and lost several toes. An Indian army doctor with some of his fellow soldiers also on the mountain helped out with medical care when we approached them.
Returning to Srinagar in sombre mood I decided to stay on alone in the houseboat, my friend had to leave to accompany another trip in the south of India. I wanted to take some time to reflect on the trip and had some major decisions to work out for my future. Christy had organized a local man Hilal to ferry me around the lake and sort out any practicalities. Not wanting to be confined to the houseboat I asked him to take me to several tourist sites, which I had virtually to myself.
During this time I was learning more and more about the harsh realities of day to day life in this “paradise”. Hilal spoke good English and we talked for hours. I mentioned that it would be nice to meet more local people and he asked me if I would like to meet his family at some point, I happily accepted the invitation.
The day before I was due to visit his home, he accompanied me to the local bank to change money. It was a surreal experience. Firstly my entrance drew much attention and chatter. I was told the transaction would take some time and taken to a small room to wait. After a while several people arrived and said they had something to show me. Curious (and expecting it would be related to the money transaction) I stared in amazement as they proceeded to place in front of me dozens of photographs of missing, tortured and dead bodies. They were desperate to inform me of the suffering in Kashmir and for me to “tell the world” as foreign reporters were being blocked from entering Kashmir.
I was shocked and very upset to hear of their suffering and promised to contact human rights organizations on my return to the UK. In view of this experience, I should not have been surprised perhaps by events of the next day.
Indian soldiers patrol the streets
Hilal came for me and after crossing the lake we headed for the centre of Srinagar. Although wearing salwar kameez and Hilal trying to convince me I looked rather like a Kashmiri woman in appearance, clearly the Indian soldiers did not think so as they stared at me with great hostility. We proceeded through a run down and bombed out area of the city and entered a house. I left my shoes at the doorway and climbed the stairs.
I followed Hilal into a room to be met by two men armed and faces covered. For a sickening moment I questioned my stupidity at going to a place on my own where nobody would know where I was and it would be days, maybe weeks before I would be missed by anyone. There was the possibility I might be about to be held hostage but the sight of food laid out on the floor was somewhat reassuring… they had at least prepared for a visitor with hospitality.
From nowhere I found myself joking to Hilal, “tell your family I am pleased to accept their hospitality but in England it is considered rude to point a gun at a person whilst they are eating.” The men, who turned out to be not much more than boys laughed heartily and immediately put their guns down and removed the cloths from their faces.
Two women appeared before me introduced as their mother and sister and I sat down to enjoy the food just in case it was my last meal. After food was served the men began to tell me about their lives. They were militants recently back from training in Afghanistan with Mujahideen. Training was funded by Pakistan and Saudi sponsers. The mother proceeded to open a cupboard and behind her sewing machine was a collection of hand grenades and a large square shape covered in cloth. The material was lifted to reveal the portrait of a martyr against the Pakistani flag. I was informed that had died assisting the cause and was asked to photograph the painting.
The family were under the mistaken impression I was a journalist (at that time I was actually a nurse) as in their mind, why would a woman be travelling on her own in Kashmir. Again they wanted the outside world to know what was happening to people in the region, there were more photos and terrible stories of rape, torture and killings. They shared stories of the Kunan-Poshpora attacks that had occurred in February of that year (1991) and other massacres) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVZ-18HXZ68
Kunan-Poshpora victims tell their stories
As I had read up in advance of my trip I was able to discuss something of the politics of occupation, this both pleased and surprised my hosts. Before leaving I was presented with a list of demands of the militant group to be sent to western media. Again I promised I would do what I could to highlight their plight and had a nervous time going through checks at the airport in case the document would somehow lead to my arrest. I carried out my promise contacting media and human rights groups shortly after my return to the UK.
Since that time I have continued to campaign on human rights in Kashmir and also became involved in a campaign to free western hostages in the mid-90s, working with the wife of Keith Mangan. Her husband was kidnapped by militants along with other backpackers, one hostage, Hans Ostro was found beheaded with the words Al Faran carved on his body http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxTyD3qIJ3U
Western hostages kidnapped by militants
Sadly the other hostages were not released and their bodies never recovered. I was offered assistance from contacts in Kashmir to try to locate their bodies and planned to return but my husband became very ill, so it wasn’t to be.
I often think of my time in Kashmir and have nothing but respect for those living under occupation. I pray one day they will be free.
For information on human rights in Kashmir check out the following link http://kashmirprocess.org/
Carol Anne Grayson is an independent writer/researcher on global health/human rights and is Executive Producer of the Oscar nominated, Incident in New Baghdad. She is a Registered Mental Nurse with a Masters in Gender Culture and Development. Carol was awarded the ESRC, Michael Young Prize for Research 2009, and the COTT ‘Action = Life’ Human Rights Award’ for “upholding truth and justice”.