Adrienne Frieden | The Remnants of the Disappeared of Kashmir | EXPOSURE-VII workshop in Kashmir

Program News | Posted Sep 15, 2007
Program: Exposure

EXPOSURE-VII workshop in Kashmir | Photo Gallery

Adrienne Frieden

Amir Khan, 13, sits on the floor huddled in the corner, staring at his feet. He is almost lost in the crowd of neighbors and family members flooding in and out of the home. Certainty in his voice cuts through the commotion as he answers the pressing question about his father’s fate. “I have been waiting for years,” he said. “If he has not come after all these years, how can he come now?”

Amir’s younger brother, Faisal, sits at the opposite wall with his legs entwined beneath him. He shoots his brother a quick glance before replying, “Why wouldn’t he come back? He is my father.”

Their father, Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, was taken away in 1997 and has been missing ever since. Thousands like him have disappeared. When insurgency erupted in 1989, Indian security forces began seizing fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands, taking them from their homes to unknown destinations. Families remain in perpetual uncertainty, not knowing whether to mourn or to wait.

“Every time I hear a knock at the door I rush to it in hopes that it will be him,” Parveena Ahanger said, as she spread out bags of newspaper and magazine articles. Her floor was covered by mounds of vanished faces.

Ahanger’s sad eyes and worn face speak of tragedy. As she talks, she looks towards a small shelf in the corner which holds a vase of flowers, an oversized digital clock and a framed photograph of her son. Uncertainty consumes her, creating strife at home.

“I’ve lost my family, my husband, my life,” she said, speaking of the changes that her son’s disappearance has inflicted on her, her husband and their family life. “How can I be a mother without a son?” As she spoke, her husband wandered in and out of the room occasionally sitting down a few paces behind his wife to listen but never speaking.

Ahanger founded the Association for Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), which aims to create a joint community force to pressure the government to disclose the locations of the missing people. Since 1989, she estimates, 10,000 people between the ages of eight and 65 have disappeared after arrest by Indian troops.

Human Rights Watch and Kashmiri human rights defenders put the total above 8,000. Government figures range from 3,184 to 3,991. Officials maintain that many of these men have crossed over the Line of Control into Pakistani controlled Kashmir.

Although many claim that the insurgency effectively ended four years ago, human rights activists say men continue to disappear. According to one judicial official, who spoke frankly when assured of anonymity, men continue to be taken by security forces from their homes or work, forced into the backs of vehicles, and never seen again.

Such disappearances first became common in 1990. Khurshid Adil, was one of the first to disappear, in September of 1990. Adil was taken from his shop around 10:30 in the morning by the 50th battalion. They cordoned off the area, while Adil stood outside. They initiated the encounter with a demand: “We have a snag in our television, you have to rectify it.” Adil replied repeatedly that he had no solution. The officers persisted, changing their stories until they dropped all pretence, seized him by his collar, and publicly forced him into their vehicle.

Others recount midnight visits by Indian forces. Family members are often interrogated, and victims are beaten before being taken. When the police came to pick up Mehraj Din Dar on April 20, 1997, they questioned his brother, Aijaz Ah Dar. Aijaz said they took Mehraj in the other room to torture him before finally arresting him in front of his family. Before they left, he said, they took money, food, gold, and other valuables.

“When they are picked up, they are sent to camps where they are tortured,” the judicial official said. “If they survive, then they are shipped out to prisons across India.” He added that officers are given rewards and promotions for arresting suspect insurgents, which provides an incentive to pick up innocent people without cause.

Ahanger formed the APDP while on the search for her own son, Javid Ahmad Ahnagar, who was abducted from his uncle’s house. His disappearance sent Ahanger, like many other families, on a desperate search across Kashmir to prisons, jails, and military camps. Often the families travel as far south as New Delhi in hopes of information.

Daba Bhats, whose 16-year-old son disappeared in 1991, recalled neighbors would come back and describe a boy they had seen in a prison. “And we would think, ‘maybe he is ours,’ so we would go and check,” Bhats said. In many cases, families hear of possible sightings in prisons across the state, and they rush off in hopes that it might be their loved one. Then they return, crushed.
Abdul Gafarso lost his job because of constant searching for his son, Beshir Aheme. When the 21-year-old teacher was taken in September 1990, his father journeyed for days searching for him. The family of four is now without a wage earner.

Beyond the grief, these disappearances carry a heavy cost. The search process is expensive for families, and savings are quickly exhausted. Mughli Begum, a single mother whose son Nazir Ahmad went missing in 1990, was forced to sell all of her household items to pay the up to 2000 rupees ($50) a day in taxi fares.

Mughli Begum now lives in a one-room home with a sparse living area and kitchen barely large enough for her petit frame and the three pots she owns. As she sits on the floor in traditional Kashmiri style, she touches the meager covering on the clay floor and says, “I have had to sell everything, even the mats on my floor.”

Missing men were often their family’s sole provider, leaving women to scrape by. Rafiqa Begum’s in-laws threw her out of their home after her son vanished. Never having worked before, she was suddenly forced to support her four children. Money she earns growing vegetables on her small plot and from housework she does for neighbors is barely enough to survive. Her parents must care for her youngest child and pay for the others’ education.

For the family of Mohammed Sultan, who disappeared in 1993, the most difficult consequence has been the loss of education for their younger son as a result of economic hardship. At 14, he had to drop out of school and work as a laborer to support his family.

While the cost is high, uncertainty torments families the most. Dr. Arshid Hussein, a psychiatrist, reports high levels of depression, anxiety, headaches, pain, and even benign tumors that he links to the disappearances.

Endless searching has wrecked Mughli Begum’s health. She pokes at her glasses and pulls out a plastic bag of pills. Loneliness troubles her deeply. “I have lost my eyesight from weeping for him,” she said. “I want to talk but there are only four walls. Sometimes I must talk to these walls. I don’t know why to look anymore. I know he is somewhere in the heavens, but I cannot rule out that he will come back out of the blue.”

The difficulties intensify as hope slowly fades. Some keep their faith while others’ resolve weakens with time.

Ali Mohammad, the father of Bilal Ahmad Shiah who disappeared in March 1997, does not waiver. “I am sure that he will return to his home,” he said. “I have faith in Allah.” Others are less confident. Most are confused. How do you mourn without a grave or a body?”

For many, pain is stirred up daily by the framed photographs of sons or husbands around their homes. Khurshid Adil’s father, Wali Muhammad Adil said, “Whenever we look at a photo, the house is overcome with sorrow.”

Ali Mohammad has to hide photographs of his son from his wife. The sight is too excruciating. “She often goes unconscious at the sight of it, or she weeps silently for days,” he said. As he showed the photo to a visitor, his wife stared at the image of her son standing in a bright green garden. Her eyes fill with tears. She slowly raised the image to her lips, left a lingering kiss, and then hugged it to her chest.

For Mughli Begum, it is not just the image of her son but the memories of their daily rituals. She recalls his return from work at 3 o’clock every afternoon. First he would stop at the gate to the yard and yell out “Mughli,” her given name. He continued to the front door of the house and called, “Maji”, Urdu for mother. Finally, on reaching their door, would say “Mommy, make tea for me.”

In many cases, Indian military officers deny arrests despite multiple accounts from witnesses. Families say this is among the most trying aspects. Mehraj Din Dar’s mother, surrounded by her family in the same room where her son was taken ten years ago, was furious. “The government claims that he is not in their custody,” she said, “but how can I believe them when he was taken right in front of my eyes?”

Sometimes evidence emerges showing that authorities know far more than they admit. One family produced a confidential letter from the Jammu and Kashmir Police to the High Court that someone had given them. It declared: “Khurshid Adil was picked up on the 25th of September at around 11 a.m. by the 50th Battalion of the CRPF. They have taken him to an unidentified location and kept him in illegal captivity. . . They beat him severely while in custody. . . Witnesses attest that they ate dinner with him, after which the three officers beat him severely, breaking his legs and knocking him unconscious. . . It has been proved that he has been severely tortured, but his location remains unknown . . . We have no doubts that he has been killed by the 50th battalion.” Officially, the case remains a mystery.

“The one thing we demand from the government is the truth,” Ali Mohammed said. “We do not need compensation or jobs, just to be able to live a peaceful life and to know what has happened.”

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