Why don't Kashmiri women want to hide in bunkers during cross-border firing?

“When you’re so close to each other, in this small space, you can understand what would transpire."
Updated 26 Mar, 2019 07:28pm
Illustration by Marium Ali
Illustration by Marium Ali

After the 2005 earthquake, several girls were kidnapped, sexually abused or raped in the camps. We had all heard stories about what happened to them… we didn’t want to risk our safety or that of our children… so we picked up our belongings and came here instead…

I am sitting amidst four Kashmiri women in Bara Kahu, on the outskirts of Islamabad. Five families, including half a dozen children, are cramped inside this house.

On the outside, it seems as if India-Pakistan tensions have de-escalated. Just recently, officials from both countries met to discuss the Kartarpur peace corridor.

However for Kashmiris, peace remains elusive. The events of and after February 26th have resulted in deaths, injuries and displacement in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK). The internet is still shut and cell phones are hardly working. Those living across the Line of Control in the Indian-held Kashmir have been caught in the crossfire too.

The women I sit with today have been displaced from a village near Chakotti, which has faced the brunt of firing over the past few weeks. They tell me that the stories of what happens to girls in relief camps and community bunkers are known across Kashmir.

That’s why they didn’t want to move into the temporary shelters set up by the government. Instead, they came here, to Bara Kahu. They are one of the fortunate few families who could afford to do so.

Despite promises, the government has failed to provide individual bunkers to families even in areas that have faced heavy shelling for years.

The communal bunkers, several of which were built by relief agencies like the Islamic Relief in the 1990s, are small dark spaces of about 13x7 feet.

During heavy shelling, anywhere between 20 to 30 people have to cram inside, hoping against hope that a mortar won’t come their way. I am told that it is within these bunkers and camps that sexual exploitation takes place.

Read next: How women in Kashmir's Neelum Valley ensured ceasefire at the LoC

These cases, however, go unreported and undocumented. Notions of ‘shame’ and ‘honour’ have pushed generations of abuse survivors into silence.

Women thus remain reluctant to speak about the prevalence of abuse, though I am told it is an open secret. At most they say they have heard that it happened to ‘others.’

No one wants to share their own experiences; for years they have been hushed into silence, told that their ‘honour’, their ‘future prospects’, their ‘respect’ hinges on staying mum.

The ‘dishonour’ rests not so much in the act as it does in speaking about the act. Those whose abuse becomes known are shamed far more than those who abuse.

Some men, however, are more forthcoming. The fact that ‘honour’ is associated with women frees the men to speak about what they witnessed or even engaged in.

Society is structured in a way that even abuse endured by women can often only be spoken of by men. That space too is not theirs to claim.

While women express the general fear and vulnerability they feel, it is men who go into the details of what happened. I spoke to one such man, on the condition of anonymity.

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A resident of Neelum Valley, he spoke of the abuse he had perpetrated on women when he was a young teenager in the 1990s. The term he used for all instances he engaged in — from molestation to penetrative rape — was ‘setting’. Larki ke saath setting ho gaye (I got in a setting with a girl) is a common phrase.

While the phrase may denote consent from both parties, what women feel about such ‘setting’ is often ignored, their consent either assumed or not deemed significant.

As the man said to me, “larkiyan tou shuru mein sharmati hi hain” (women are always shy in the beginning). Women’s rejection of men is dismissed as mere shyness or nervousness; they must all be willing, they must all come around to liking it.

However, in other cases he himself admits, “kuch zabardasti bhi karte thay” (sometimes we would force it). He said he had engaged in seven or eight such ‘settings’. Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation:

“Five or six families from the mohalla (neighbourhood) would hide inside the morchas (bunkers) together… during firing, everybody is trying to save their own lives… we are not concerned with who is a man or a woman… but once the firing halts, things change.

“Usually, families who have come from the mohalla to seek refuge in the community bunker stay the night. They are too scared to leave in case the firing starts again.

“There used to be many of us squeezed together… sitting, lying down next to each other in the pitch dark… there would be no light.

“When you’re so close to each other, in this small space, where you can even hear each other’s breath… aap samajh sakti hain kya hota ho ga… (you can understand what would transpire).

“All the senior boys in my school would talk about how many settings they had in bunkers. I did my first setting when I was 15 or 16 years old.

“When the elders would sleep, that’s when it would start… yes, many times the girls didn’t like it. They would pull back, they would try moving away… they were women of all ages… as young as 13 or 14 and as old as 35-40. Some of them were married, they had children…

“In our society no one wants to speak about such things. Even when the elders in the family found out, no one wanted to bring any attention to what had happened.

“They would say ‘inse shaadi kon karega?’ (who would marry them [the girls]?)… if ever there was any noise, a tamasha, the families themselves would try to cover it up. They would say ‘keera kaat gaya kuch nai hoa’ (nothing happened, she yelled because of an insect bite)…”

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He tells me that there were a few incidents that did became public.

Once, a man caught raping a girl was tied to a pole for three days as punishment, but the girl became unmarriageable in their community.

“Eventually, she was married off in a far away village, where nobody knew what had happened to her.”

Another girl, who was 'caught' being raped by her cousin, was forced to marry him overnight. “She hated her cousin, she would always be cursing him but her family got a moulvi and married her off to him the same night.”

In cases where girls were impregnated as a result of rape, emotional and physical abuse followed. Taking them to the hospital would give away their identity and so these women were subjected to home abortions.

He tells me of one girl who was operated on at home to abort the pregnancy; the premature stillborn baby was then thrown away by the women of the village, only to be discovered later in the mouth of a donkey.


The recent escalation in firing, the setting up of relief camps and the refurbishing of community bunkers has triggered memories of the abuse endured by many residents of AJK over the past decades.

The women I meet in Bara Kahu demand that bunkers should be built for each home in areas prone to firing so they don’t have to risk their safety any longer.

Their demands and protests have, however, gone in vain so far.

As the conflict heats up again, families are left oscillating between the fear of death from shelling and the threat of sexual violence in what are meant to be communal safe havens.

A few weeks back in Neelum, fellow journalist Jalaluddin Mughal asked a widow why she didn’t hide with her daughter in the community bunker during the firing. She responded: “hum jaan bachayein ya izzat bachayein?” (Should we save our lives or our honour?).

Have you experienced the Kashmir firsthand? Share your experience with us at prism@dawn.com


Author Image

Anam Zakaria is the author of Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians and Between the Great Divide: A Journey into Pakistan-administered Kashmir

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (46) Closed

Shaikh masood
Mar 26, 2019 06:06pm
Very sad to hear, please move to bigger cities for better prospects till this issue settles
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Muhammad Faheem Khan
Mar 26, 2019 06:06pm
Thankyou for raising this issue
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Sachin Soni
Mar 26, 2019 06:12pm
Very sad. But how come such crimes can be commited in a bunker which is too crowded.
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Mar 26, 2019 06:15pm
You shown a rare courage.
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Mar 26, 2019 06:21pm
Very sad
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Pak Army
Mar 26, 2019 07:16pm
Such a heartbreaking news.It is the responsibility of the government to protect and save the lives of woman and take action against these stance
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Amit Asthana
Mar 26, 2019 07:45pm
Girls are always at receiving end. But at least at the time of war they expect mercy from their own people which unfortunately they are not getting. Shameful men take advantage even of this situation. This mentally is not country specific and we need to change outlook towards women who plays several difficult roles as a mother, a sister, a wife and seldom complains.
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Hamna Khan
Mar 26, 2019 08:21pm
A bitter truth
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Taimur Malik
Mar 26, 2019 08:53pm
And what exactly are you trying to say
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Ehsan USA
Mar 26, 2019 09:27pm
Nicely narrated the abuse from those percieved to be their own.
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Mar 26, 2019 09:40pm
Setting is bad. As always , criminality flourishes in pitch darkness, where as light in itself is sufficient to keep in check most of the shameful behavior. So ,a very simple solution is: Try some engineering innovation to devolop some source of light such as rechargeable battery based lamp to be put in these bunkers. It would be safe for these closed bunkers as it would not emit smoke,there would be no risk of electrocution or electric short circuit in the bunkers. I do not think, that it would then be possible for a boy to rape a girl when dozens of pairs of eyes are recording every act. Even , when most of the people are asleep , any sound of distress would force people to open theirs eyes, and see whatever may be happening at that time. Just the possibility of it would deter most of the potential rapist.
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Mar 26, 2019 10:31pm
Feeling sad . But we have not heard such stories on the Indian side of LOC.
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Aftab Malik
Mar 26, 2019 11:20pm
This is what happens in repressed cultures.. it's really sad that these people are taking inspiration from the seventh century Arab who molested women
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Mar 26, 2019 11:25pm
At least women and men be kept in different shelter. Too bad
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Zeeshan Ahmed
Mar 26, 2019 11:51pm
Sad is an understatement, no woman should have to deal with this.
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Mar 27, 2019 12:12am
This kind of atrocity must not go unpunished.
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Mar 27, 2019 12:14am
Catch the perpetrators and punish them to the fullest extent of the law.
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Mar 27, 2019 01:15am
Shame on India for putting Kashmiris and specially the women through all this. Time for India to hold UN supervised Plebiscite and let Kashmir live in peace.
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Mar 27, 2019 01:16am
@Siddharth, And all because of Indian evasion of the UN Plebiscite.
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Eye opener
Mar 27, 2019 01:44am
@SHIBU In India, they do it in day light and they do it in public.
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Mar 27, 2019 05:39am
Unbearable reading. Shocking and very sad.
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Mar 27, 2019 05:45am
it's when criminals know they can get away with a crime. society at large blames the victim because it's easier than actually providing justice. the state should provide bunkers to each household. the cost is not huge, the safety of the women folk is more important. the police, judiciary and media should not be allowed to name the victims.
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Mar 27, 2019 07:11am
There was a video of Taliban beating a woman while her brother holding her down, it was viral and referred to as an iconic image of Taliban brutality. Taliban were brutal, but this video was a depiction of imagination and all participants were actors that was appealing to be discovered later. Another example of falls depiction of imaginary brutality is a cry of a Syrian girl from a besieged locality. These examples of wrongs which fabricate what We heard happening does not do justice to the victims of actual crime, because when the reality of such depictions come out it erode the trust of people. This story may be true but hard to believe due to holes that are obvious. First, I know for fact women and man never cramp in a place no matter how small it is. Segregation in our society does not allow it, then how come that happen. Second, if it did happen how a sexual offence happen in presence of other man and women. Third, setting a girl is a term when two eloped not rape.
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Mar 27, 2019 08:16am
@Taimur Malik, he is trying to say the patriarchal set-up of the society is made up to treat women as slaves, even in Time of distress. No matter what is the issue ie. Safety, security, nationalism . Am I clear?
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Mar 27, 2019 08:26am
A heartbreaking narrative. Very well written. This should be read
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Amit Asthana
Mar 27, 2019 10:47am
@Zak, Do you know how to read and understand English. It says on your side of border because in India we never heard any such things happening inside bunker.
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Mar 27, 2019 12:10pm
@Taimur Malik, she is raising voice. She is encouraging Women that they should complain instead of enduring it then only their will be some changes take place.
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Mar 27, 2019 12:13pm
@Shaikh masood, NO!! Why should they move? The solution lies with improving male behaviour, NOT in relocation!
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Mar 27, 2019 12:13pm
@Zak, first read the article it is about pakistan side kashmir. In our side women have access to raise voice.
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Mar 27, 2019 12:40pm
Who's Kashmiri?
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Fizza Kazmi
Mar 27, 2019 01:48pm
this is perhaps the most depressing thing I have read all day!
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Mar 27, 2019 02:06pm
@Ranajyoti, No it's not clear..!! What is Nationalism...???
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Dr I Ahmed
Mar 27, 2019 02:13pm
This society of ostentatiously pious & religious people who are full of national pride, zeal, slogans & quotations should be up in arms to protect our vulnerable women as our first priority.
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Mar 27, 2019 04:53pm
@illawarrior, how about males improve their own behaviour? meantime women may have no choice but to get out of their way. Male attitudes in Pakistan are horrific
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Mar 27, 2019 04:54pm
@Siddharth, really?
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Mar 27, 2019 05:36pm
Iraq, Palestine, Yemen are at war. They still manage to protect their women and their men still don't become immoral. Why can't we protect our females and why are these vile predators even unable to control themselves in a bunker during shelling. I am so enraged right now. What has happened to our society? They don't even distinguish between boys and girls. Something needs to be done. Now.
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Mar 27, 2019 07:07pm
Sad story of women being vulnerable and exploited everywhere.
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Mar 27, 2019 07:16pm
@Kumar(Varanasi), Yes, LED lights are ridiculously cheap nowadays, and there are mechanical and solar combined ones, mostly made in China. Our government needs to come through for civilians too just as it is forced to cede all funds for the forces.
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Adnan Turab Ali
Mar 27, 2019 07:44pm
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Mar 27, 2019 08:17pm
Shame on these males to exploit the poor and vulnerable.
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Tahir Chaudhry
Mar 28, 2019 12:13am
Very sad indeed. How fellow human beings take advantage of the week.
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Mar 28, 2019 06:13am
@Sachin Soni, Just like rape and sexual harassment can be committed in public. You should read the article through. The bunkers are dark and cramped. Anything can happen.
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Mar 28, 2019 01:29pm
Dear Anam, It was a horrifying read, but a must read. Thank you for highlighting the flight of ordinary Kashmiris that gets so ignored otherwise. I really urge the AJK government to take necessary actions immediately to safeguard Kashmiri women who are equally their responsibility.
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Mar 28, 2019 04:43pm
@Zak, The symptoms of your condition are getting worse! Consult a Psychiatrist asap.
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Mar 28, 2019 04:48pm
@Amit Asthana, He is not well.
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Mar 29, 2019 01:57am
Let all parents teach their sons how to treat women from such an early age. Nothing would go wrong later.
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