The bus was moving so slow, negotiating each and every curve, towards a destination that I had never seen before. Evening sun was giving way to shades of darkness, hiding the steep valleys and the gigantic mountain range from my sight.
We were approaching the Pir Panjal mountain range which separates Jammu and rest of India from the picturesque valley of Kashmir.
In a couple of hours the bus would pass through Jawahar tunnel (Banihal road tunnel) located at a height of 2194 metre to enter a new territory - a landscape of heavenly beauty and endless bloodsheds.
Often praised as ‘heaven on earth’ for its natural beauty, woes of modern day Kashmir began with the partition of Indian sub-continent.
The violent events that lead to the annexation of Kashmir to India never erased the scars of mistrust and hatred from the collective memory of both India and Pakistan.
Both countries have fought three bloody wars in the name of this 15,948 Sq.Km of landscape (area of Kashmir valley- the centre of dispute) sandwiched between Karakoram and Pir panjal mountain ranges of Himalayas.
“Our children are born hearing the sound of gun shots,” Rasheed Ahmmed, a Srinagar resident told me later about the fragile nature of peace in the valley.
Eventhough Kashmir enjoyed relative peace during the period spanning from 1947- 1989, advent of insurgency, often financed by cross border guardians, brought in to its soil a huge number of military and paramilitary forces creating Kashmir valley one of the most militarised areas in the world.
“In a conflict zone, the first affected would be children and education,” said Prof. Nazeem Rafiabadi of Kashmir University, Srinagar.
The last twenty five years have seen numerous incidents of violence and human rights violations from the sides of both the militants and military. Militants often use ordinary villagers as human shields to fight their shadow war and this result in large number of civilian casualties.
Armed forces in Kashmir enjoy special powers to do search and arrest operations with the help of two draconian laws-Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) and Public Safety Act (PSA)- which have invited wraths from civil society activists across the country for their misuses. Sandwiched between the devil and sea ordinary Kashmiris lives an uncertain life in the middle of tremendous natural beauty.
Leaving behind steep terrains and a treacherous mountain pass, the bus dropped me in Srinagar, the largest city and summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir state in the next morning.
The first glimpses of uneasiness and uncertainty of life in Kashmir could be felt while travelling from the bus station towards city centre through the main street. It was the fourth consecutive day of shut down called by the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of social, political and religious organisations pressing for the cause of Kashmir’s separation from India. The shut down call was in response to the alleged killing of a young man by security forces during a protest march.
The state government also didn’t leave any stones unturned and clamped curfew in the down town Srinagar. The main street and its arteries, adorned by Chinar trees on their both sides, were empty except for a couple of pedestrians and cyclists. Carrying AK-47s and Self Loading Rifles, security forces were patrolling all the major junctions on way to my place of stay.
“Don’t get scared of seeing this,” young Hameed would tell me with a smile, a few minutes later, while helping me to settle down in a small room in the centre of the town.
Coming from the nearby district of Budgam, 19 years old Hameed has experienced the fragile nature of peace in the valley. Having finished his higher secondary schooling, Hameed is working for an NGO to support his family. Hameed is going to guide me during my journeys across the lengths and breadths of the valley. Pleasantly speaking in a Hindi mixed with Urdu, Hameed would often express his dislike towards the current governance and security apparatus.
“All are thieves, these politicians and police. Nobody trusts them,” he said with a hopeless look.
It was Hameed who took me to Daarul Ehsan, a boys’ home in the outskirts of Srinagar. Founded by a city based NGO, Daarul Ehsan is one of the few institutions of that kind working in the valley to secure the future of conflict affected children. Most of the boys in this institution are from Baramulla and Kupwara districts of northern Kashmir, two major centres of armed conflict in the valley.
“The background of conflict has created a level of scare in the parents that they are reluctant to send their children to school. This affects the future of the society as a whole,” said Adv. Hanjoora, founder of the Islamic Relief and Research Organisation which is running Daarul Ehsan.
His claims are validated by a research carried out by Working Group on Peace, Conflict and Education of Columbia University. This study found that ‘out of the thirty schools randomly selected for the research across the valley, 79% percent were at a distance of less than 1 Km from the nearest military camp/bunker’.
The report further said that some of the schools shared a common border with the camps. 20% of the schools were just 2-3 Kms away from the nearest military camp and 1% was partially occupied by the military or Para-military troops.
A study in 2012 by UK-based organization, Save the Children, revealed that estimated number of orphans in Jammu and Kashmir state is 2, 14,000 and 37 percent of them became orphans because of armed conflict.
“We are trying to give a new future to the children from conflict affected areas.They all have aims and ambitions and are hopeful about life. Here they can laugh and play and study and lead a comfortable life unlike the thousands of orphan children in Kashmir,” Adv. Hanjoora said about Daarul Ehsan.
Walking towards the play ground in front of the small two storey building that houses the boys’ home, a boy came running towards Hameed asking him for his regular gift of chocolate.
It was Maqsood Hamid from Kupwara. Just 10 years old and an orphan, he lost his parents at the very beginning of his life. Living in Srinagar far away from home has been difficult for him in the beginning. But now he has earned new friends and enjoys living and playing with them.
“I wish to be a doctor,” he revealed his ambition adding that he also wishes to be a cricketer.
Psychological effects of conflicts on ordinary citizens, especially children, have been a topic of wide research across the world. According to a research paper published by Farooq A. Rather in the International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications, the number of patients who visited Srinagar’s lone psychiatric hospital saw an increase of 250-300 per day in 2000 from the 6 persons per day in 1990.
“Psychological pressure on children in the valley is very high. This affects their academic career and future. Due to curfews and shut downs schools often get closed. Education of girls is the most affected area in Kashmir,” said Prof. Rafiabadi.
It was another journey to Baramulla, the heavily militarised border district, that gave insights into the often neglected issue of education of girl children.
Located at a distance of 55 kilometres from Srinanagar, Baramulla is the fourth largest city in Jammu and Kashmir state. Its proximity to International Border has made it a centre point of insurgency and counter- insurgency actions.
The militarisation has made its biggest impact in this region, especially on the education of girls.
Mufzina was just three-years-old when her father left home looking for a job. No one in the village ever heard about him after that. Her young mother is forced to live her entire life waiting for husband. She cannot marry another person without knowing the whereabouts of her husband. The entire village will damn her if she does that. Without the death certificate of husband she cannot avail any government benefit.
In between the game of life and death, she has become a half widow, with the future of Mufzina in her hands. Mufzina’s future would have ended up in that remote village if a few social activists hadn’t seen her plight. Looking at the pictures of birds and animals in her text book, Mufzina is safe in her class room, away from the sounds of gun fights.
Not all children are as lucky as Maqsood or Mufzina. Official estimates peg the number of orphans in Kashmir valley as more than 2 lakh. Not to mention the issues faced by children having single parents. Conflicts inside and outside the families have created unhealable scars in the minds of these young children.
While sitting in a bus which was taking me out of this valley of heavenly beauty and bloody conflicts, I reminisced the secure and pleasant childhood I had in a village about 3,500 kilomteres away from here.
The bus was moving through a bumpy road, shaking every living and non-living things inside. It seemed to me that lives of Kashmiri children are also going through such a bumpy road, towards an uncertain future.