Kashmir

‘IT’S NOT EVEN OUR WAR’

A Kashmiri patriarch wishes India and Pakistan would leave his region in peace

ADNAN R. KHAN August 12 2002
Kashmir

‘IT’S NOT EVEN OUR WAR’

A Kashmiri patriarch wishes India and Pakistan would leave his region in peace

ADNAN R. KHAN August 12 2002

‘IT’S NOT EVEN OUR WAR’

Kashmir

A Kashmiri patriarch wishes India and Pakistan would leave his region in peace

ADNAN R. KHAN

When the British government partitioned the Indian subcontinent in 1947, it was left with the question of what to do with Kashmir. Should the mountainous region join India or Pakistan? Even though Kashmir is mostly Muslim, as is Pakistan, Kashmiri royalty opted to join India. The British did not interfere, but said Kashmir should hold a referendum to confirm the decision. The vote never

took place—war immediately broke out, with both India and Pakistan claiming Kashmir. The violence ended in 1949, when the United Nations drew a demarcation line that, in effect, carved Kashmir in two. But neither side dropped its claim to the entire territory, and fighting flared again in 1965 and 1971. Now the two countries, both equipped with nuclear weapons, are again battling over

the region. The latest hostilities were triggered after India claimed Muslim militants from Pakistan were launching cross-border raids. The subsequent artillery duels between Indian and Pakistani troops have killed hundreds and forced thousands from their homes. Toronto photo journalist Adnan R. Khan visited Kashmir last month and found residents angry at both sides. His report: IN KASHMIR, nothing is as it seems. The rolling green hills hide soldiers locked in on an enemy staring back from the next ridge. Below them in the lush valleys, farmers ply their fields in the midst of what has essentially been a war zone for more than 50 years. Contradiction is the constant in this enigmatic and enchanting region where bliss can be suddenly pierced by bombs and death. “A mortar could drop on our heads at any moment,” says Pakistani Brig. Iftikhar Ali Khan, dressed in a camouflage uniform as he stands near the Line of Control, the de facto border between India and Pakistan. “See the brown huts on that ridge? That’s India’s forward-most post. They’re watching us as we speak.”

Bombs often rain down on the locals, and the body count continues to mount while India and Pakistan battle over ownership of a chunk of land neither of them really has a right to. Most of the 12 million living in the disputed territory will tell you this is Kashmiri land; neither Pakistan nor India can lay claim to it.

Forgotten in the political tug-of-war are the people themselves, the quiet and unassuming Kashmiris who continue to build terraced homesteads on mountainsides and irrigation canals along precarious cliff faces. In the village of Chakothi, nestled among the emerald mountains of the Jhelum Valley, the Mohammed family continues to do what it has done for gen-

erations: farm a small plot of land on which they grow wheat and plums. They’ve lived in Kashmir for as long as most of them can remember or recount in family stories. Mohammed Abass, the slender, white-bearded patriarch now in his 70s, recalls days when there was no fighting. But what is foremost in his mind now is war and destruction, and the chaotic series of events that seem to follow him wherever he goes.

“When I moved my family here in 1947,” says Mohammed, leaning back against the mud wall of his flat-roofed home that houses 24 members of his extended family, “I was trying to escape the conflict. I had no idea then this place would be so near to the fighting. At the time, it just looked like a nice place to settle.”

The family’s tiny farm happens to straddle the Line of Control. The perimeter of the property is literally a stone’s throw from the Indian army post Brig. Khan pointed to earlier. Mohammed has had about all he can take. “I just wish they’d go to war once and for all and settle all this nonsense,” he says, raising his arms and shaking his hands wildly, as if the motion alone would shoo the soldiers away.

All Kashmiris can do is cope. “It’s not even our war,” Mohammed says, rising out of his seat in frustration. “We just want to choose our own future. That’s what we were promised in 1947 and we’re still waiting for it.” With the 1949 UN resolution calling for a plebiscite to decide Kashmir’s fate a distant memory, many Kashmiris have resigned themselves to a military solution.

That’s cold comfort considering that both India and Pakistan are armed with nuclear weapons. But Mohammed doesn’t appear overly concerned about the potential for Armageddon. “There, you can see the Indian soldiers watching us right now,” he says, waving his hand dismissively at a small brown smudge on the hillside 50 metres past a small creek. “They’re always watching us. Makes me nervous when I go to pee.”

Despite the danger, the Kashmiris can be oddly lighthearted, humorous in a way that is simultaneously dark and innocent. And Mohammed, surrounded by a gaggle of grandchildren, cavernous wrinkles deepening on his face with every explosion of laughter, seems strangely relaxed in the face of the growing danger. “We’re not the type to start a war,” he says, taking a sip from his cup of hot green tea. “In 1947, everyone was talking about democracy and freedom, but we haven’t seen any of it. But all this bombing back and forth, these nuclear threats, this is not our way. We are a peaceful people.”

Many residents have fled Chakothi, and those who remain live in a curious state of calm, undaunted by the threat of heavy fire and unwilling to abandon their picturesque houses. The local mosque and school were bombed into rubble during an exchange of mortar fire in May, narrowly missing the 400 schoolchildren playing in the yard. “This is our home,” says Mohammed with a shrug, “and I’m a

farmer so what am I supposed to do? We’ve become accustomed to the fighting—when the bombs come, we hide.”

Most of the farms in the area have bomb shelters and Mohammed’s 12-yearold grandson, Mohammed Sayeed, happily points to the one beside his grandfather’s house. “The whole family hides together in there,” he says in the piping tone of adolescence, “sometimes for hours.” A walnut-sized beetle crawls through the light spilling into the darkness from the shelter’s open doorway, and Sayeed giggles as he heads down the steps into the pitch blackness.

On May 18, when Chakothi saw the worst day of bombing in over a decade, the Mohammed family, all 24 of them minus one, stayed huddled in the shelter for eight hours. The one, Tazim Bibi, Mohammed’s daughter-in-law, didn’t make it there in time. She was hit by shrapnel from a bomb designed to cause maximum damage to humans. “It never hits the ground,” says Sayeed, mimicking the flight of the device with his hand and spreading his fingers over his head. “It explodes in the air above you and the shrapnel is what kills.” It’s eerie hearing such an explicit description of a bomb from a 12-year-old boy. “Do you want to see where it happened?” he adds, turning and walking off down one of the narrow paths between the fields of wheat.

Bibi, like most women in Kashmir, was in her family’s field working when the bombing started. But for some reason, she didn’t run straight home. Instead, based on where her body was found, she had likely started toward the town, not realizing her three children had scrambled safely to the family’s shelter. “She was probably heading for the school,” says her husband, Mohammed Sabir, standing forlorn in the remnants of his store on the main strip of Chakothi that was hit by a bomb the same day as his wife died. “She thought her children were there, so that’s where she wanted to be.”

Ali Hussain, Bibi’s uncle, describes how he carried her body, a chunk of shrapnel imbedded in her left temple, back to the house where her children were waiting. Her sister-in-law talks about her devotion to her husband and children. It is a tragic story, but Bibi’s legacy outside her family circle will be relegated to an anonymous statistic in the army ledger: May 18, 2002—one dead in Chakothi Sector.

Back at the Mohammed family house, the children now laugh and chase each other around the plum trees. But Mohammed Abass’s mind is still on the war. Who would he prefer to be with, India or Pakistan? “It’s not so simple for me,” he answers. “I want to shake hands with my Muslim brothers and sisters on the other side. We’ve been split for 50 years. But I want to do it not as a Pakistani or Indian, but as a Kashmiri, living in a free Kashmir.” flfl