For years, people whispered about the thousands of disappeared young men in Kashmir. But only now are the bones finally speaking.
By Basharat Peer from ForeignPolicy.com
SRINAGAR, Kashmir — On a pleasant September morning, Mohammad Sidiq, a sand-digger in his early 30s, pushes his long wooden boat out onto the River Jhelum, which cuts through the heart of Srinagar, the biggest city in the disputed, Indian-controlled province of Kashmir. As the sun rises over the blue-gray pines and bleached snows of the Himalayas circling the city, Sidiq paddles out with his partner, using long-handled shovels and corkscrews to draw sand from the riverbed. It’s slow, hard work, but a day’s labor nets a boat full of sand, which sells for $50. While describing the modest economy of his work, Sidiq speaks of his relationship to the Jhelum, a wide green river that flows quietly through the Kashmir Valley, across the disputed, mountainous border, known as the Line of Control, and into Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. “No man can bear what this river has witnessed,” he says, staring across water.
Sidiq has been working on the river for 12 years now. Every week or two, as he hoists a shovel full of sand from the riverbed, he finds himself staring at a skull, a broken skeleton, or a shattered femur. “Most of the dead were young men. You could see their shiny teeth; you could tell from the skull, he was very, very young. One day I found a young man…. He had been badly tortured. Both his hands and feet had been chopped off,” says Sidiq as he sits beneath the majestic maple trees lining the riverbank.
A fellow sand-digger in his early 40s, Naseer Ahmed, found a skull in March. “It was a small skull. It would have been a 16- or 17-year-old boy. The other day, it was a thigh with flesh still on it,” Ahmed said. “It is a haunted river.”
The grim story starts more than two decades ago, in 1989, when a separatist insurgency blossomed in Kashmir. India had gradually eroded any sense of Muslim-majority Kashmir’s autonomy, rigging elections and arresting and torturing opposition political activists. Gun battles between the separatist guerrillas and the Indian troops were routine; land mines and hand grenades exploded every other day in crowded markets, on empty roads. Fear dominated the streets and nobody stepped out after dusk. By 1996, according to conservative official estimates, around 15,000 had been killed — a number that has since risen to 70,000. India’s military, paramilitary, and police forces deployed in massive numbers to pacify the rebellious province, and tens of thousands of Kashmiri civilians were taken into custody. Thousands never returned. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and several Indian rights groups have repeatedly urged the Indian government to investigate the disappearances in Kashmir, but the government and the Army consistently argued that the missing weren’t dead: They had crossed over to Pakistan to train as militants.
Stories of arrests, torture, killings, and secret burials were rife in Kashmir throughout the 1990s. Akhter Mohiuddin, a much-respected Kashmiri short-story writer, dedicated a collection of stories to “young men who were murdered at unknown places,” and celebrated Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, who taught at New York University and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, wrote in his 1997 collection, The Country Without a Post Office, “And the night’s sun there in Srinagar? Guns shoot stars into the sky, the storm of constellations night after night, the infinite that rages on…. Srinagar was under curfew. The identity pass may or may not have helped in the crackdown. Son after son — never to return from the night of torture — was taken away.”
The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, a Srinagar-based advocacy group, is led by 55-year-old former homemaker Parveena Ahanger, whose 17-year-old, speech-impaired son, Javed Ahanger, disappeared in January 1990 after a raid by the Indian Army. The NGO puts the number of enforced disappearances in Kashmir’s long, brutal war at around 8,000 men and boys. They are largely believed to have been killed, their bodies weighted and dumped into the river or buried in unknown, unmarked mass graves. “My son was taken from my home by the military. The government is responsible for him. I don’t know where they kept him, whether he is still alive. I want to know where he is,” Ahanger told me.
In December 2009, the common knowledge that thousands were killed and buried in unknown places turned out to be true. The International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-Administered Kashmir (IPTK), a group of human rights activists led by a local rights group, published a report called “Buried Evidence” that established and conclusively documented the presence of 2,700 unmarked graves of unidentified people in three northern districts of the Kashmir Valley, close to the Line of Control. By 2009, the insurgency was almost over, and access to the heavily militarized border districts became relatively easier. Activists from the group had spent a few weeks in the border areas helping victims of the late-2005 Kashmir earthquake. “It was then that villagers began telling us about the unmarked and mass graves,” says Khurram Parvez, an activist with Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, the main group within IPTK.
Parvez and his colleagues sought more information, eventually visiting 55 villages in northwestern Kashmir’s Baramulla, Kupwara, and Handwara districts, documenting the unmarked graves. “In the 2,700 graves we investigated, the body count was 2,943+. Within the 2,700 graves, 154 graves contained two bodies each and 23 graves contained more than two cadavers. Within these 23 graves, the number of bodies ranged from 3 to 17,” their report read. Most of the bodies had been delivered to local police by the military. The police would register their deaths as foreign terrorists, take pictures of the bodies — and then, late at night, go to the villagers demanding that they be buried, quickly and quietly. Most bodies were bullet-riddled; many bore the marks of torture.
In late 2009, I traveled from Srinagar to Chehal Bimyar village near the Line of Control, one of the biggest sites of the unmarked graves. In a tiny mud-and-brick house, I met Atta Mohammad, a 68-year-old farmer who had buried 203 bodies that the police brought to his village, mostly at night. “I did it out of religious obligation. The dead have to be treated respectfully,” said Mohammed, a shriveled, small man. Despite being haunted by the defaced bodies and the graves in his dreams, Mohammad continued with the burials. A personal tragedy moved him to the task. His nephew, an orphan whom he had raised, had disappeared in the mid-1990s without a trace. A few hundred yards from his house, the graveyard spread out on the slope of a hill beside a school — rows and row of mounds of dark gray soil.
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Arundhati Roy- The dead begin to speak up in India
My Heart Shook In New Zealand
One would imagine that a person would be dead-tired and ready to crash in his bed after a grueling, 36-hour journey from Christchurch, New Zealand to Washington, DC. And I will admit, that was the way I felt. Yet somehow, all my somnolence vanished as soon as my head rested on my pillow and I closed my eyes to rest. A wave of recollections fell over me: memories of the survivors, the emotions they expressed, and their feelings of an uncertain future as they planned their lives after the loss of their family members. These feelings instantly took away all the desire to get rest and sleep. I sit upright now and begin writing this reflection of a once in a lifetime experience- a voyage of grief and hope to Aotearoa- land of the white cloud as the indigenous people call New Zealand.
With lost baggage, long flights and too many connections, at times it seemed unlikely that my eldest son Moaz and I would make it to Jumm’ah and Janazah prayers in Christchurch, New Zealand. But Allah accepted our prayers so that we could fulfill the guidelines set by our beloved, the Prophet Muhammad . We were able to fulfill one of the rights of a Muslim over the others; that when he is sick visit him, and when she dies, offer her funeral and be part of her burial.
Hagley Cricket Ground was supposed to have a cricket test match between Bangladesh and New Zealand that Friday. Commentators reckon that it would have been the final day of that test match. But the 22nd of March 2019, brought a much bigger crowd to this world-famous cricket ground than what anyone would have seen on the final day of that test match.
Officials and security directed us towards the VIP area as they wanted to pay respect to the guests who traveled all the way from the USA, Canada, and Australia. The environment of love, solidarity, and respect, coupled with the hijab-clad women standing in solidarity with Muslims in that enormous crowd, created an impact which cannot be articulated by mere words. Every single uniformed female officer was carrying their firearm while donning a hijab; creating a welcoming gesture in a rather somber and gloomy atmosphere.
I do not have the words to thank the leadership of Charity Australia and the Islamic Forum of Australian Muslims (IFAM) for providing us with logistics, facilitating meeting the families of the “shuhudaa” (martyrs) and arranging to visit those injured in the tragedy. ICNA, Helping Hand, and Charity Australia banners highlighting the slogans of “American Muslims stand in solidarity with Victims of Christchurch New Zealand” were the center of attention for thousands of local New Zealanders gathered in solidarity that day. Their hugs, sincere prayers and tearful eyes were the greatest gift that I want to share with everyone reading these reflections.
Right after Jumm’ah, the majority of the crowd attended the collective Janazah prayer of 27 of the martyrs. In those emotional moments, I met with the most courageous woman on earth, the wife of 51-year-old Shaheed Naeem and the mother of 21-year-old Talha Naeem, the two spirited souls who gave their lives to save others in the mosque that day. She is one of the strongest women I have ever met. She mentioned that her husband, Naeem, was a person who lived the life of a man of service, always ready to help others. She described Talha as an angel who was too pious and too noble to be away from Jannah too long. We heard similar feelings from Naeem’s mother (grandmother of Talha) the next day when we visited their home.
The visit to the home of New Zealand’s national soccer team player, Atta Elayyan (33), was not only emotional but also deeply inspiring. Atta lost his life and his father (the founder of Al-Noor Masjid) was severely injured during this brutal and hateful attack. There were several scholars from the United States, including Sheikh Omer Suleiman, in the visit to Atta’s home. We could offer nothing to console the brave mother of this shaheed, who greeted us with words of courage and wisdom. We had no words to accompany the tears in our eyes, except prayers for the most noble young man who helped so many in coming close to Allah .
Our visits to Al-Noor Masjid and the Linwood Islamic Center were also filled with memories of love, harmony, and reverence. There was a continuous influx of hundreds of visitors, not only from New Zealand, but also from different countries including, but not limited to, Australia, Fiji, and Canada. Thousands and thousands of flower bouquets and other items of love were left by these visitors. I was really thrilled to see that local Muslims left many Qur’ans and flyers with basic concepts of Islam and addressing the common misconceptions about Islam for those visiting. I witnessed many people visiting these mosques were taking those Qur’ans and other books with them in order to learn more about Islam.
We also met Mr. Aziz, the unsung hero who repeatedly attacked the killer with different objects including an empty gun —which the killer had discarded. The terrorist fired on Aziz multiple times, but Allah not only saved him, but he also forced the killer to flee from the Linwood Islamic Center. Mr. Aziz was one of the reasons why the number of casualties in this mosque was only seven, compared to the 43 martyrs in Masjid Al-Noor. We also met certain individuals whom Allah saved miraculously. A young man showed his trousers fenestrated with holes of bullets but had no signs of injury. The husband and wife who entered the premises of the mosque and only to be showered with a burst of 26 bullets while in their car, leaving it completely destroyed. Yet Allah saved both of them while they took shelter in their vehicle.
The visit to the hospital’s ICU was simply heartbreaking but at the same time increased our resolve and commitment to help these families as much as possible. We encountered a Turkish brother who was in a coma for nine days and met his elderly parents, who spoke to us in the very little English they knew. The only thing which we could understand from their hushed voices was the request for du’a and tears of helplessness in their eyes. The 71-year-old father of a local Pakistani from Hafizabad, who had arrived two weeks ago to visit his son, was now on a ventilator fighting for his life. As a physician who has worked in ICU settings for a long time, I simply did not have enough medical reasoning which could have provided him any words of hope!! Similarly, I was not able to provide any glimmer of hope to a brother from Bangladesh whose wife will never be able to walk again and will be paralyzed for the rest of her life.
While I saw hope and felt resilience from every victim in that hospital, this hospital visit was brutally heartbreaking.
Lastly, I cannot imagine the pain, agony, and helplessness that the father of Mucad Ibrahim must feel after losing his 3-year-old son in his own arms. I gave him the longest hug possible, as he taught the whole world the meaning of Beautiful Sabr (Patience).
After seeing the devastation caused by the terrorist attack, and the work that must still be done to heal the community, Helping Hand USA, ICNA Relief Canada, and Charity Australia have formed an organization called the “Christchurch Family Support Network”. The operations have already begun, and our team is on the ground. The first group of mental health professionals with a background in Islamic Integrated counseling are set to leave to provide victims and their families immediate psychological assistance.
We ask Allah to accept our work, bring healing to the community, protect our brothers and sisters, and accept the shuhadaa’ in the highest level of Paradise.
Because Muslims Matter | Honoring The Martyrs Of #Christchurch
As the days go by, it is easy to forget the names and faces of the people who passed away. The horror of the act eclipses their memories. We do not want that to happen to our brothers and sisters in New Zealand.
اللهُـمِّ اغْفِـرْ لِحَيِّـنا وَمَيِّتِـنا وَشـاهِدِنا ، وَغائِبِـنا ، وَصَغيـرِنا وَكَبيـرِنا ، وَذَكَـرِنا وَأُنْثـانا. اللهُـمِّ مَنْ أَحْيَيْـتَهُ مِنّا فَأَحْيِـهِ عَلى الإِسْلام ،وَمَنْ تَوَفَّـيْتَهُ مِنّا فَتَوَفَّـهُ عَلى الإِيـمان ، اللهُـمِّ لا تَحْـرِمْنـا أَجْـرَه ، وَلا تُضِـلَّنا بَعْـدَه
Allaahum-maghfir lihayyinaa, wa mayyitinaa, wa shaahidinaa, wa ghaa’ibinaa, wa sagheerinaa wa kabeerinaa, wa thakarinaa wa ‘unthaanaa..
O Allah forgive our living and our dead, those who are with us and those who are absent, our young and our old, our menfolk and our womenfolk…