Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The brave tender souls

These fate-bitten children of Kashmir have a story to narrate


The weather has suddenly turned colder in valley. The sun is hidden behind the clouds and the jagged peaks of the mountains which overlook the city are thick with snow. The street children are sheltering from the chill - huddling in doorways. One boy I often see in the morning charging around near the guest house in Shalimar where I was stayed covers his head with his ragged and blackened jacket to give himself some relief from the cold. There are numerous children who wait outside the guest house hoping for some work with me on the laptop, According to them working on laptop means earning good money. Most of them are contract labourers, shoe shiners, handicraft, fruit, vegetable vendor boys and I have got to know a number of them.
There is Ibrahim whose serious face contrasts with his pink Mickey Mouse baseball cap, and Irfaan who is painfully thin, and constantly asks the same question: "Mister, how are you?" And then there is Wajid, with his brown curly mop of hair and cheeky smile. My favourite is Aabid, a shy boy, who talks slowly in Kashmiri language. His sombre expression belies his young age just 13. They all have similar tales, a father dead due to the Kashmir conflict, numerous brothers and sisters, and a family dependent on their meagre earnings for their daily bread. One day I asked Aabid if he would show me his home and introduce me to his family so I could understand his life and the life of the other street children here. And so, awkwardly, he led me to his poor neighbourhood Chak Dhara – Fakir gojri village. His home, like all the others in the area, is made of mud. Aabid introduced me to his elder brother who has not been able to work since he was injured in the Kashmir conflict few weeks ago. I also met his mother who showed me the family's one small bedroom in which six people sleep packed together. There was no furniture, no cupboards, no spare clothes left hanging, not even any glass in the windows - just cardboard. And no fire to keep them warm at night. Aabid earns about Rs.100 a day selling Kashmiri handicraft items. With that he buys the basics for his family, mostly just bread and sugar. Rice, he told me, is a treat - and the last occasion he ate meat was a year ago. I asked him how he felt about his situation. "I am happy and not happy," he told me. "Happy because I work, but not happy because I cannot earn enough to bring my family everything they need." Aabid is not exceptional in this town - tens of thousands of children work on the streets of Kashmir cleaning shoes and selling handicraft items, fruit and vegetables toiling away in markets and workshops as their family's main bread winners.
Life for children in Kashmir is a battle for survival in which many do not make it. The statistics are a tragic illustration of the effects of Kashmir conflict. Two out of 10 children die before the age of five, and half all those who survive that long are severely malnourished. In some parts of the valley specially Varmul, Kupwara, Gurez, Uri, Tanghdhar, and also in some parts of Jammu province Ramban, Banihal, Doda, Poonch, Rajouri none of the children have been inoculated against disease and the even highest rate is a mere 30% in Jammu and Kashmir. The situation appears to be unremittingly depressing, yet it is the children who are also the greatest carriers of hope. Aabid and his friends attend a primary school specially established for poor kids, meals, uniforms are also provided on complimentary basis. Every one of the boys is ambitious they want to be translators, carpenters or drivers. Asking them if they feel hopeful for the future they all reply unhesitatingly - why not? It is very humbling for a Westerner used to the frivolities and luxuries of everyday life to be confronted by such difficulty yet such positive determination. One day Aabid and his friend Wajid got hold of a rare treat they had borrowed a football, so I challenged them to a quick game. They marked a couple of goalposts on the street with the worn wooden boxes containing their brushes and polish. For half an hour or so we had a raucous kick around, in which I was resoundingly beaten. For that short time they were just children out playing, having a good time, freed of their weighty responsibilities. For me, it was one of the most enjoyable games I have played, and the most poignant. I am about to depart from Srinagar, and I do so with a sense of concern for the fate of Aabid and his all friends. The life here is fragile and the dangers are everywhere - from the cold to the Conflict. I have begun to say my goodbyes to them and they have thanked me for my custom. But I feel I owe them a far greater debt of gratitude for showing me that such strength of character can be borne by those so young. And that hopefully bodes well for this town as it attempts to build a new future.

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