Imagine growing up in here. What would that do to you?
“My name is Ayesha. 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…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.”
The 1990s, the decade in which women like Ayesha were born and raised, saw increased tensions between India and Pakistan and growing violence in Indian-administered Kashmir. As India cracked down on Kashmiris in the Valley and accused Pakistan of cross-LoC infiltration and militancy, shelling across the Line of Control became a frequent reality for thousands of residents. Neelum Valley, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, was particularly vulnerable given its proximity to the LoC. It is estimated that 2,500-3,000 people were killedin Neelum Valley during the 1990s due to shelling related incidents. Many others were left with physical injuries and psychological scars, constant reminders of the violence they had endured. While the 2003 ceasefire brought relative respite to some areas, since Hizbul Mujahideen’s leader, Burhan Wani’s killing in 2016, the LoC has remained heated. Ceasefire violations have escalated, pushing many Kashmiris back to the bunkers. The gendered dimension of wars and conflicts has, like elsewhere in the world, meant that Kashmiri women and children have disproportionately suffered.
While men in the region have traditionally been more mobile, being able to move to cities further away from the LoC to secure jobs, women and children have often been left behind to take care of homes and livestock. During periods of heavy shelling, and after a particular incident in which shelling at a government school killed 28 school children, schools were also shut down, leaving a generation of Kashmiris without education. During my research for my book, Between the Great Divide, I recorded harrowing stories of women and children hiding for days inside bunkers; these pitch dark small spaces, with no washroom or other basic facilities, were the only refuge from the mortar shells which can slice humans and animals alike. Without food and water, sometimes for days, some women resorted to cutting their flesh and having children suck blood to keep them hydrated. Others spoke of losing their children to firing, and having to pick up their chopped body parts for burial. ‘My son was like minced meat’, said one woman. Later research would reveal that many women have also endured sexual violence in these bunkers, which are shared by other members from the community. Sometimes as many as 20-30 people cram into these closed spaces since individual families are unable to afford building their own bunkers.
Sitting with the women of Neelum Valley for these interviews, it became apparent that their lives had been and continue to be shaped by the conflict. By the turn of the century, they told me that they had simply had enough. Collecting in groups, the women began to hold protests, marching towards the Commanding Officer in the area and campaigning for a return to normalcy. When the authorities tried to stop them, the women continued to resist. ‘[They would say], we don’t like talking to you women, tell your men to come talk to us.’ Defiant the women stood strong, carrying placards and chanting for peace, and refused to step down. Today, many people in Kashmir believe that the relative peace in Neelum Valley was restored due to these women’s protests. With the shelling returning to the region after 2016, the women have come together for protests again, their struggle for peace an ongoing process. They tell me they have relinquished all fear after all that they have lost, that they have no choice but to keep fighting for peace. Their lives, their livelihoods depend on it.
Before I left Neelum Valley on one of my trips, a middle-aged woman who had hosted my visit took my hand and asked me to step inside one of the bunkers with her. The path was rocky, and I wondered how women and children made it safely to these bunkers amidst the frenzy and chaos when firing begins. As I hesitatingly stepped inside a small dark room, of no more than 7×13 feet and the woman shut the door behind us, my heart immediately began to race. It was pitch dark and it felt like there was no air or ventilation in the room, a suffocating feeling washing over me. Quietly she whispered, ‘Imagine growing up in here. What would that do to you?’ That stifling reality, which lasted no more than 30 seconds for me, was a constant state of normalcy for the thousands of women and children I left behind in Neelum Valley. With the LoC active today, it is a reality that countless Kashmiris continue to face day in and day out.
The impact of the Kashmir conflict on the women of Neelum Valley and the full-length of these interviews were first published in Between the Great Divide: A Journey into Pakistan-administered Kashmir (HarperCollins Publishers India 2018).
About the author: Anam Zakaria is the author of Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians, Between the Great Divide: A Journey into Pakistan-administered Kashmir and 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons