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Afsana Bhat – WNN Justice
(WNN) Srinagar, INDIAN ADMINISTERED KASHMIR, SOUTHERN ASIA: Bibi Fatimah, a middle-aged mother of three children, traveled 85 kilometers (50 miles) from the Kupwara district to Srinagar, the state’s summer capital, to participate in a monthly protest organized by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons.
Fatimah, who became a member of the local association in 2013, came to demand information about the whereabouts of her husband, Peer Welayat Shah, who went missing in 1993. A laborer by profession, Shah left his home in search of a job one day and then never returned, Fatimah says.
After his disappearance, the family plunged into a deep financial crisis from which it has not recovered. Fatimah and her family members did menial jobs to eke out a living, and all three of her children had to leave school early because of their precarious finances. Her son, Syed Anwar Shah, a 24-year-old laborer, is their source of income today. But he has a disability that makes it hard for him to work.
“He is going to be operated upon for the fifth time as he has some health issues with his leg,” Fatimah says.
Fatimah’s own medical expenses weigh on the family as well. She suffers from depression but struggles to afford the monthly cost of her medication.
“Medicine costs me 500 rupees [$7] a month, and often I can’t afford it,” she says.
She also owes a neighboring shopkeeper 200,000 rupees ($2,900) that she borrowed for the renovation of her house, she says. But she has no means to repay it or to finish the renovation.
“My house is still incomplete, and I have no means to return the borrowed money,” she says. “No one helps, except Allah. We are left on our own.”
Local police lodged a missing persons report for her husband, Fatimah says. But without a body, she could not register the paperwork that would make her eligible to seek compensation or job assistance from the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission.
To raise public awareness about cases such as Fatimah’s, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons has planned an event for the International Day of the Disappeared, observed annually on Aug. 30. This year, victims’ families from across the Kashmir Valley will gather in Srinagar to memorialize their missing loved ones through programs, sit-ins, seminars and debates that the association and human rights organizations have organized.
“On the eve of International Day of the Disappeared,” the association’s president, Parveena Ahangar, says, “we remember our missing dears from the core of our heart, and that relieves us from our pains and problems.”
It is an additional step forward in their crusade for justice.
“[We] take a pledge to fight for justice till our last breath,” she says.
Fatimah, along with many of the women gathered at the monthly protest, link their husbands’ disappearances to the ongoing conflict in the mountainous territory, which both India and Pakistan have claimed since the two countries gained independence from British rule in 1947.
In 1989, an armed insurgency broke out between Kashmiri separatists and the Indian government in the Indian-administered part. As the conflict intensified, people began disappearing.
In cases that the United Nations Commission on Human Rights transmitted to the Indian government, the commission attributed the disappearances primarily to Indian security forces, including the army, paramilitary groups connected to the army and the police, according to a commission report.
Many of the members of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons say that their loved ones were innocent and that the government owes them answers. Some of these families have now waited more than two decades for information about their relatives’ whereabouts but have heard nothing.
The association maintains that 8,000 people to 10,000 people here have disappeared during the previous 25 years, according to a report it published in 2012.
Representatives of the state government, in comments to the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly and elsewhere, have said that around 3,000 people were missing but that most were living in Pakistan after crossing the Line of Control between the two countries for arms training to participate in the separatist movement.
A state police report confirmed in 2006 that 331 people had died in police custody and 111 people had been subject to enforced disappearance following detention since 1989, according to an Amnesty International report.
Fatimah’s neighbor, Begum Jan, accompanies her at the monthly protest. A mother of four children, Jan says her husband, Shams-ud-Din Boswal, went out one evening for work in 1998 and never returned.
“It was peak militancy period that time,” she says, referring to the separatist insurgency.
Both Jan and Fatimah say that their husbands were not militants and they do not understand why they were subject to disappearance. Like Fatimah’s family, Jan’s family has also suffered economically as a result of losing its breadwinner.
Today, Jan cannot afford her children’s education and health care, she says. Her youngest daughter had to drop out of school because of a medical problem. Jan sold her cow to pay for treatment, but she is now unable to pay for more medicine. Her elder son dropped out of school in order to work.
She hopes her younger son will be able to continue with his studies, she says. The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons plans to help to pay for his school materials.
“He wears last year’s uniform as we can’t afford the fresh one,” she says. “He is also in need of books.
Both Fatimah and Jan recently learned about the association and have been attending the group’s monthly sit-in since April.
Members of the association travel from all corners of the Kashmir Valley to a park in the center of Srinagar to attend the protests. They hold placards stating their demands: “We want our dear ones back, who have been picked up by the security forces,” “We demand an independent credible commission on enforced disappearances,” and, “No one shall be subjected to enforced disappearances.”
Members of the association do not want jobs, money or compensation, Ahangar says. They want justice.
Ahangar understands the pain of victims’ families, as her son, Javed Ahmad, went missing in 1990 at age 17, she says. In 1994, she mobilized families of missing relatives and formed the association. The group’s members demand the return of their loved ones if they are alive or their bodies if they are dead. They also advocate for an independent commission to investigate the disappearances.
Financial strain, like Fatimah’s and Jan’s, are common following a disappearance, Ahangar says. She has seen many cases where women from the families of the missing struggle to survive, unable to address health concerns, the education of their children, and the marriage of their daughters.
Hajra Begum, who traveled 60 kilometers (35 miles) from Bandipora district to Srinagar for the monthly protest, says she has lost her four sons in the conflict. Three are dead, and one is missing. Without her sons, she faced financial ruin and has no one to economically support her.
Her economic burden includes paying for treatment for her health issues and for her granddaughter’s education, she says. The association, which she has belonged to for 19 years, provides financial assistance for medicine for her and books and tuition fees for her granddaughter.
The association has several donors who provide aid to families for health care, education, and the marriage of their daughters, Ahangar says. The group has also purchased land to create a memorial in remembrance of their loved ones.
In addition to providing support and visibility for victims’ families, the association petitions the government for the revocation of various acts, which critics, including Human Rights Watch, say have allowed the state to violate human rights. The association also pushes the state to conduct investigations into disappearances and to prosecute and punish those responsible for the disappearances.
Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, proposed the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission to probe militancy-related violence in the state, including disappearances, during the past 20 years at a March 2011 session of the state Legislative Assembly. But more than two years later, the government not yet created the commission.
Abdullah has also promoted the state government’s rehabilitation policy as a way to recover missing family members by allowing residents who had crossed into Pakistan during the insurgency as youth to return home and to reunite with their families. He stated this in a June 2013 government meeting in New Delhi, the capital of India.
But Ahangar is skeptical that many of the disappeared are waiting in Pakistan. Many families say they know that a state security force arrested their relatives, she says. They demand the return of their relatives – dead or alive.
“We’ll fight till our last breath,” she says.
Interviews for this story were conducted in Urdu, Kashmiri and English.
As a correspondent for the Global Press Institute working from Kashmir’s large urban capital city of Srinagar in the northern region of India on the foothills of the Himalayan mountains, Afsana Bhat is a human rights journalist who is dedicated to improving the world by “helping the masses and giving a voice to the voiceless.”
This story has been authorized through WNN news affiliate GPI – Global Press Institute. Reprint copyright permission for any text in this story must be obtained from GPI.