It was a spring day in March 1995. I was riding on a public bus with my parents towards home, a popular Sufi shrine town to the Southwest of Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir. There was a huge military camp located just at the edge of town. Locals called the place “Radar” because of a huge troposcatter erected in 1981 inside the camp that was meant as a telecommunication link between India and the USSR. A similar one is in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan (a former Soviet republic).  

It was routine for the Indian military, usually the Border Security Forces (BSF) or the Central Reserve Police Forces (CRPF), to stop and search the passenger buses outside the camp. They would check everywhere: under the seats and even in the bags and belongings of the women in the bus, alleging hidden militants and ammunition as the reason for such a degrading practice. Meanwhile, they would ask the men to get off the bus and march towards the end of the camp, while the search went on inside.

The march was not so simple, however. They would sometimes randomly take one of the men and beat him, arrest him, kill him or disappear him altogether. On that spring day, when my father got down from the bus with other men, my mom insisted he carried me along in his arms. So, while he marched in a queue to get frisked and interrogated, one man in uniform stopped him.

The soldier, probably a commander, demanded to know why my father had a beard, using this as an excuse to accuse him of being a militant. My father replied that he had always had one. For this reply he got a hard slap in the face and these words that I will never forget:, “I will kill you right here and cook your daughter for dinner”. I was three years old. Luckily, they let my father go. Thousands of other fathers or children in Kashmir have not been so lucky.

Now, as I approach my thirties, I feel a strong urge to write these memories down. I sometimes wish I had more positive memories to write about, and I can’t help but wonder how my life would look if there were peace in Kashmir.

Kashmir: some background

You’re probably wondering where on earth Kashmir is even located. You’re probably wondering why you have never heard of it on the news. In the papers. On the radio. You probably don’t know that Kashmir is the most militarized zone on earth. Kashmir is a conflict zone landlocked between India, Pakistan, and China. All three nuclear powers have occupied three different chunks of Kashmir. In the south, India occupies what’s aptly known as Indian Occupied Kashmir. It is inhabited mostly by Muslims, a small percentage of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Christians. The other comparatively smaller chunk to the North is known as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. It is also ironically known as ‘Azad Kashmir or Free Kashmir’ and is majority Muslim. The uninhabited chunk which is also smaller than the rest of two is with China, called Aksai Chin.

The newly constructed shrine and houses in Charari Sharief. The town was set ablaze in 1995. Photo taken from Ifat's front yard in 2016. (Photo credit: Ifat Gazia)

I was born and brought up in the Indian Occupied Kashmir. The day I was born was one of the more violent days of the early nineties. My mother’s family struggled to bring her to a maternity hospital in Srinagar from Pulwama due to the curfew and lack of reliable transportation. My mother managed to give birth to me safely but as years went by, safety became a rare commodity. When she took me for my first vaccination she had to run through fields and take refuge in a milkman’s shed. While she was waiting outside the doctor’s clinic, a bomb went off in the vicinity. People started running in all directions. My mom’s slippers came off, but she didn’t stop. Later that day, she managed to reach home in a milk van. I don’t remember any of it.

Winters in Kashmir are very harsh with lack of basic facilities including electricity. (Photo credit: Ifat Gazia)

What I do remember are the regular Cordon And Search Operations (CASOs) in the dead of night in cold winters when we were asked to get out of our homes and assemble in mosque courtyards while the military searched our houses and rummaged through our belongings. I remember leaving home at the age of three because some militants were hiding in my town and the Indian military decided to burn the entire town to the ground. I remember the dead body of a militant tied to the front of a military truck and paraded through the areas where we had taken refuge. I remember red blood over white cloth. I remember the pages of burnt books flying through the air when the historical shrine in our town was burning. I remember eating dry biscuits and cucumbers for days.

Remembering and resisting

There is a lot I remember, and it was just the beginning of my life. It was supposed to be my childhood. I wish I had memories of going to a park, playing on swings, drawing in open sun, enjoying walks around the picturesque valley of Kashmir. But instead, these are my memories. This was my childhood, if you can even call it that.

Years went by and I became a woman, a woman shaped by the devastating violence of her childhood. Conflict tore apart my childhood. I still fail to understand my anxieties and mood swings. They are so abrupt and frequent. I don’t know who I really am beyond the person this violence created.

Ifat with a bunch of primary school kids at Baduab, Gurez in 2012. (Photo credit: Ifat Gazia)

I am preparing stories to tell my children. I know I have to edit them in my brain before I introduce them to so much violence. What will I tell them about my life, about my childhood? Living and travelling through different countries, I can see what a normal childhood looks like. Being so old, I still yearn for it. Sometimes I go to parks and enjoy the swings as if nobody's looking. I walk carefree on the road knowing I am safe. I am grateful for this phase of my life, but I am equally distressed that an entire generation is experiencing the same, or worse violence in Kashmir right now. In twenty years, they will look back and crave a beautiful childhood, a childhood they are currently losing to bullets, pellets, and bombs.

An entire generation is being lost to war in Kashmir. Just like my own childhood was lost by it. Except, when I was a child, they didn’t blind us with pellets. Now even 18-month old babies are being targeted. Back then 14-year-old boys didn’t pick up guns and become martyrs. Who brought us to this point that boys of my generation and younger prefer to die for Kashmir than to live for it?

When I see Indian nationalists spouting propaganda about stone pelters in the region, I wonder if they ever consider the reasons why someone would go out into the streets to throw stones? Having interviewed many of them, I can relate to their pain and frustration. When someone’s friend or a family member is killed right in front of their eyes, how are these boys going to contain themselves? What other ways are there to retaliate when justice has never been delivered to you? If you illegally detain a 14-year-old in jail in the absence of his guardian, torture him, brainwash him, what do you expect him to become when he comes out of the jail? Isn’t state violence the reason that these boys throw stones in the first place? We cannot ask why people defend themselves, their families and their basic human rights if we do not also ask why they have to.

The days on this earth might end, but there is no end to our pain and suffering. Not a single day goes without state violence being perpetrated on us. Last month, it was the possibility of Indo-Pak war and before the possibility could end, they banned Jamaat-e -Islami in Kashmir. This organisation was founded in 1941, even before India got independence from the British rule. Banning an Islamic political institution that runs a school or a charitable institution in almost all villages and cities of Kashmir will only bring more unrest to the already disturbed region.

Thousands of orphans who lost their fathers to the conflict study in these schools. Thankfully the ban on schools was revoked but the organisation in itself stays banned. With this ban thousands of children in Kashmir would have been left without schools and education. Who would have been responsible if some of them turned to militancy or got killed in stone throwing? Who is responsible for turning Kashmir into a breeding ground for militancy?

A need for representation

In a recent conference about South Asian media at a US university, I was amazed at how scholars from India and Pakistan didn’t even mention the name Kashmir in their presentations, when their presentations were mainly about Indo-Pak relations. We are being edited out of history, and our own present and future. We deserve equal participation in forums to speak for ourselves. Our storytelling is our truth.

We will always resist. In so many ways, we will fight. Me writing this is an act of resistance. My very existence as a Kashmiri woman is an act of resistance. But I do not want this to be every Kashmiri’s tale. I want children of the future to have memories different than my own - so that when they remember the sunshine, it is not in the pain of loss, in the heat of flames.

Ifat interviewing some local women in a village, north of Kashmir, during a reporting assignment in 2014. (Photo credit: Ifat Gazia)

I may live outside of Kashmir now, but I still read the news from home every day. I may live outside of Kashmir now, but I am still mentally and emotionally there. I feed my brain with that hopelessness and pain that everyone in Kashmir is going through. As I write this, Kashmiris continue to suffer between India and Pakistan’s old war. And again, who pays the price? It is us. It has always been us. Just a few weeks back, while Indians and Pakistanis were celebrating their respite from a possible nuclear war, a 62-hour gunfight between militants and the Indian army in Sopore district of Jammu and Kashmir led to killing of two militants, a 21-year-old boy who was protesting, and destruction of eight civilian houses, leaving at least fifty people homeless in harsh Kashmir winters.  

And in spite of the extreme use of force and uncountable human rights violations in Kashmir, the world is silent. This deafening silence costs us dozens of young lives every day, not to mention the damaged civilian properties. The ignorance of one of the oldest ongoing conflicts in the most militarized zone in the world is unacceptable. I try not to, but I lose my faith in humanity with each passing day.

Scars and strength

I was nearly four. It was noon. A group of women were protesting the burning of our town to the ground. My mom was chanting slogans of Azadi (Freedom). She was wearing a grey scarf tied behind her head. Her lips were dry and pale. The May sun was shining bright and I looked up to see her face while holding on to her leg. My eyes could barely open. The sun was exactly over her head. I remember her face, those slogans. I remember it all.