Friday, December 17, 2010

Kashmir: Land of widows


Kashmir: Land of widows

Kashmir has become a land of displaced people who have been force to migrated due to the ravaging conflict

Salman Nizami

Jabeena, Fatima, and Salima come from the village Kralpura of District Kupwara. They have known each other for a long time. Jabeena, who is Fatima’s mother-in-law, is in her early 50s, while the two younger women are barely in 30s. All three look considerably older. Fatima’s face is deeply wrinkled; Salima is very thin and listless.

All the women are widows, their husbands killed during the Kashmir conflict. Together with nine children under the age of 15, they share two rooms in the village Langate. The smell of faeces and rubbish is overpowering. Jabeena and Fatima share one room with Fatima’s two young daughters. On one wall, high up in the style of Kashmirs Dal lake, Gulmarg, Pahalgam pictures, hangs a single photograph of a young, scholarly-looking man, in spectacles and in traditional Kashmiri dress. Though there is very little light, the picture stands out, for there is nothing else in the room, beyond a neat pile of mats and quilts in one corner, and two burqas hanging on a peg. “That is my son,” says Jabeena. “He was called Mushtaq Ahmed, killed by security forces in action. There was a bullet in his chest and another in his kidney. Jabeena, Fatima and Salima are internally-displaced people, made homeless by the years of conflict. Now, as widows with no living male to help them, they are among the most destitute people in Kashmir. They are also too poor to travel, where (as women alone with small children) they do not feel able to reclaim the lands occupied by paramilitary forces, that were once their. In any case, their houses have been occupied during militancy. Salima’s husband, Mustafa, who died in 1998, when the security forces attacked their house, the family, was preparing to flee to safety with other villagers when a stray bullet hit him as he was carrying a first load of belongings out of their house. “There was no hospital to take him to,” says Salima. “I simply held him in my arms and he died. We just sat there staring at him, because we couldn’t believe it: one moment he was alive, and then he was dead.” The other neighbours left to the neighbouring town Langate after the attack; Salima and her four children stayed behind to bury Mustafa, and thus were forced to make the journey to safety alone. The house was deserted. It took us a week to build a new home at Langate, land owned by my some known person to my father and to shift from that village Kralpura to Langate. I had to carry my youngest child on my back. We left behind us a good and happy life. We were all farmers, and we grew vegetables including beans, wheat, cucumbers, and tomatoes. We had apple and apricot trees. We managed well. The children were at school.” When Salima and her children arrived in Langate, she found work doing washing for the more prosperous families, officers, and began spinning and sewing quilts, skills she had used for the family at home. She found a room in the same building as Jabeena and Fatima. “Land on the river side at Langate was empty, We simply moved in, cleaned it up and built a small home of mud and thatches and started living here. But when the landlord returned, he told us that we have to pay Rs 300 per month for each room; now I wonder every month how to pay the rent.” Salima’s rent buys her a single room, some five metres square, which she shares with her five children. It has a mud floor, a wooden ceiling and a window with out glasses. This looks out over a now derelict courtyard, which must once have been airy and pleasant but is now little more than rubble. Here they have the use of an open latrine and a small extra area used as a kitchen. Salima’s eldest son, who is 14, sells Kashmiri handicrafts in the market, but in recent months continues curfews and strikes has reduced his profit to nothing. Apart from the little Salima makes from her sewing, the family has no income. I asked her what they eat. “For breakfast and lunch, we have bread, and sometimes a little tea. For dinner, I cook potatoes and sometimes the cheapest rice. Sometimes I have to buy the food already cooked because it is very hard to find fuel. The children search for pieces of cow dung to use as fuel”. At night, a very small kerosene lamp gives them a few hours of light. The children are healthy; say the three women and some of them at least are now going to school. The women themselves do not look well. Jabeena has constant toothache in her few remaining teeth, and Fatima suffers from recurrent bouts of untreated malaria. They think constantly about returning to their village Kralpura, where they were once prosperous and safe, but fear that they would never now manage to make enough to stay alive. “Our houses are no longer standing,” they stay. “Even the rafters have gone, stolen for firewood during militancy times. Without men, we cannot reclaim our fields. At least in Langate we make a little money sewing.” Jabeena and Fatima cry when they talk about Hussein, saying that he would have looked after them, and that they had pinned all their hopes on him. “If he had lived”, they say, “We would have gone home. We would have been all right.” Few months back Fatima travelled back to the village Kralpura, to see if she could find Hussein’s grave. But she found that the village is still under curfew and protest demonstrations and had to begin the return journey to Kralpura without seeing where he was buried. Kashmir has become a land of displaced people who have been migrated due to Kashmir conflict, during the conflict they have been shifted abroad including some parts of India, drifting from one end of the land to the other in search of safety, work, better education of children and food. It is estimated that many people no longer lives in the place they once saw as home. As I was leaving the house of the three widows, I asked the Kashmiri woman who had taken me there whether she felt that they faced greater hardships during the years of conflict. “Without doubt,” she replied. ”There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of women just like me, Fatima and Salima, in all over the Kashmir province. They have lost everything – husbands, lands, homes. They are entitled to nothing and they have nothing. What little money they manage to earn all goes into food for the children. It is hard to see how they will survive.” Author is a freelance journalist and can be mailed at salmannizami@gmail.com

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