The following piece is an excerpt from Anam Zakaria’s recent book Between the Great Divide: A Journey into Pakistan-Administered Kashmir published by HarperCollins India.
In her book, Zakaria details her travels through Azad Kashmir to speak to the women and children living near the Line of Control; journalists and writers braving all odds to document events in remote areas; former fighters still committed to the cause; nationalists struggling for a united independent Kashmir; and refugees yearning to reunite with their families.
‘My name is Ayesha (the name has been changed to protect her identity). I’m a resident of Neelum Valley. I was born in 1992. Since I gained consciousness, there has been firing in Neelum... from as early as I can remember. Even during snowfall there was heavy firing. Woh kuch nahi dekhte the (they wouldn’t care who they were hitting or what the conditions were like). The firing could begin at any time and it would disturb everything. It was up to them... the Indians... whenever they willed, they would fire. Where you are sitting, a mortar once landed there too. Our fruits would get damaged, our livelihood was destroyed. We had no life. If we were alive at one moment, we didn’t know if we would be alive 10 minutes later... Our area (Athmuqam) was their main target because a Pakistan Army camp was right next to us and the main markaz (market) of Athmuqam town is nearby too.’
As the headquarters of Neelum district today, Athmuqam town is one of the most important areas in Neelum Valley. Situated right by the Neelum river, which serves as the LoC, it directly faces Indian Army posts across the river. From Ayesha’s house, one can see ‘enemy’ army pickets, staring down from the tall mountain peaks. ‘On one side, you have a girls’ college, on the other you have the Boys’ Degree College. But in those days, colleges were just empty names. Teachers wouldn’t come because of the firing. Obviously, everyone was concerned with saving their own lives. On most days we would hide inside the bunker you saw on your way up. But everyone couldn’t make bunkers—there were just two to three in every mohalla (neighbourhood)—and even if you had them, they couldn’t protect you from heavy firing. They would collapse. Those of us who could run away, would go to places like Muzaffarabad, Kutton, Sundokh, Jaghran (towns and villages further away from the LoC), where the mortars wouldn’t reach. Later, many of these places became unsafe too. And how long could we stay away from our homes anyway? Our income, our lives, were dependent on our lands, our livestock. We had to come back...
‘...But whenever we would come home after a while, everything would look so strange. There was fear in all of us. We would pray so much before coming. Pata nahi kitni mannatein mangte the. Often, we would only return during a ceasefire, or we would hide and return at night. In the mid-1990s, things were so bad that even if you lit a cigarette, you were likely to be a target for a mortar shot. We had no light, no torch... the night would be pitch dark, har jagah khauf ka manzar hota tha (there was fear everywhere). And when we would arrive, sometimes after walking for hours and hours, we couldn’t even light a fire to cook food or warm ourselves because they would see us and shoot. I remember, once one of the children was very hungry and we wanted to give him milk so we had to warm the milk on top of a lantern inside the bunker, from the little heat that came from the lantern. Otherwise, we may have been shot at because we’re right on the LoC and the Indians can see everything we do... Many people from our village became martyrs in the 1990s. We are right now sitting at my tai ammi’s (father’s elder brother’s wife) house. My first cousin, her eldest son, became a martyr too. A mortar hit him on his side and there was nothing left of his body. He was like minced meat.’
It is winter of 2015 and I am sitting opposite Ayesha on the floor, my back resting on the long round cushions they have put up against the white walls for our comfort. Haroon sits next to me, with Sharjeel seated beside him. We left Muzaffarabad early this morning to arrive in Athmuqam, a tehsil (administrative division) that is said to have suffered the worst of the conflict during the decade of the 1990s. Ayesha, an employee of Islamic Relief, an NGO, speaks to me in fluent Urdu. When we begin talking, only she and her mother are in the room with us. Over the next few hours, about sixteen other women join us, each with her own story to tell. One of them is her tai (aunt), who lost her eldest son to the conflict.
‘You see this picture? This was my son,’ her tai says as she walks in holding a photograph of a young man. ‘I would have been a grandmother today were he still alive but he became a martyr. He was on the bypass going to work when a mortar shell hit him. A car raced over him right after and crushed him. I had to collect pieces of his flesh and bones in my hands so that we could bury him.’
‘He was my nephew.’ Ayesha’s mother now speaks. ‘Maine apne haath se uska gosht andar kiya taki uska janaza ho sake (I had to shove some of the flesh back inside his body with my own bare hands so that we could have his funeral)... There were times, though, when the firing would continue for so many days that we couldn’t even go outside and pick up the dead bodies of our loved ones. They would rot outside while we mourned inside the bunkers, without any food, without any water, sometimes for days.’
‘It was always all of a sudden,’ adds Ayesha. ‘For instance, back then, if we were sitting as we are right now, we’d all know that at the slightest sound we would have to rush to the bunkers. I remember once there was a small lull in the firing and we were sitting on the steps right outside this room. We weren’t allowed to go any further because of the threat of firing. My khala (maternal aunt) was holding my hair and combing it when a mortar hit a home nearby. There was such a loud bang that everything around us shook. I remember she yelled “Allah,” and grabbed me by my hair and dragged me inside the bunker, my hair still clenched in her hands.’
‘Do you see my son, that one sitting outside?’ Ayesha’s mother points to a young boy sitting on the steps outside. I had first noticed him a few minutes after entering the house. Although close to two hours have passed, he has remained on the spot, fixated on the pebbles. ‘He has been psychologically impaired because of the war.’ Reluctantly, I ask her what happened. I’m afraid of what she may say, afraid to hear another horror story, another anecdote from their everyday reality. I almost wish I could get up and leave, pretend that these incidents had never taken place.
‘There was a moment of peace in between the firing, so I had come out to bathe my son... he was six or seven months old,’ she says. ‘I bathed him and put him to sleep on a small charpai in the verandah. We were hearing that there was peace, aman, like there is right now, so I came inside to clean the house. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, there was intense shelling, followed by smoke everywhere. I ran to the bunker to save my life, leaving my son outside on the other side of the house. He was too far away for me to reach... Had I run to the other side, I would have been hit by the mortar. I could hear him screaming but I couldn’t get out from the bunker to grab him. I would’ve been killed too. Imagine the fear, that a mother couldn’t even pick up her child and bring him inside. You cannot imagine what I went through, stuck inside a bunker, hearing his screams, thinking my son was going to be killed and there was nothing I could do to save him. The firing continued nonstop for 15 minutes—and then intermittently—but miraculously it missed him. It was only an hour later, when the firing changed its direction, that I ran out discreetly and grabbed my son. He was still lying naked, screaming. I ran with him to the road, where there were a few cars trying to take the injured to the hospitals. Thirty-five people were injured in Athmuqam that day. I sat in one of the cars and rushed to Sundokh (a village approximately 10-12 kilometres from Athmuqam). Only once I had reached there could I dress my child. There was such frenzy, such chaos everywhere. Ever since that day, my son is psychologically impaired. It’s been so many years, he’s fourteen years old now, but he still gets these fits...’
‘Everyone who was born in that generation, who lived through that time, is psychologically impaired,’ adds another woman. ‘When we hear any kind of noise, firecrackers at a wedding or something else, we panic. During shelling, even if a person died in firing right in front of us, we could not come out. There was no one to cover his or her face, to read the kalma. Often we’d hear that a mortar had hit another house but we wouldn’t go there because the minute a couple of people gathered, they would fire again.’