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They fight painful memories, face hardships and an uncertain future. Tens of thousands of children orphaned by two decade conflict in Kashmir suffer silently. NGO’s reach to very few, government ignores the most. Shazia Yousuf and Shazia Khan rediscover Kashmir’s most pressing crisis.

Javed Ahmad of Zachaldara Handwara has a story to tell, a story of a fragmented family. With the sudden disappearance of his father, Bashir Ahmad, a grocer on November 02, 2001, Javed’s childhood disappeared too. Responsibilities replaced dreams turning a 15-year-old school boy into a labourer – the only bread earner for his half widow mother Rafiqa and his three younger siblings Shaista (5) and Irfan (7) and Sajad (10).

A year later as Rafiqa realised Javed’s shoulders were too tender for the burden, she admitted Irfan in a religious seminary (Darul Uloom) while Sajad ended up in an orphanage.

Today the family is left with the memories of a disappearance and a life of destitution with its two members away from home. “It is not my husband alone, my two sons disappeared too,” Rafiqa says. The once sweet home of six turned into a battered group of three souls.

Mudasir and his brother Musadiq of Baramulla lost both parents to a crossfire in 2004. Mudasir (then 4) moved in with a distant relative while Musadiq (then 6) was brought to a Srinagar based orphanage. “In the beginning at orphanage Musadiq showed a lot of aggression,” says the warden of Orphanage “he was depressed. The aggression was natural. We consulted psychiatrists who suggested that he should be sent back to his native place. But we were helpless. There was nobody to take care of him,” said the warden.

The orphanage rules prevented adoption of both siblings, but considering Musadiq’s condition they decided to adopt Mudasir too. But before they could approach Mudasir’s relatives, he had been admitted in another orphanage in Srinagar. Despite living in same city, the two brothers do not see each other.

Then there is 13-year-old Gazi from Souzan village of Doda. Eight years back Gazi’s whole family including his parents, sister, uncle, and aunt were killed by security forces, who barged into their house after a militant attack nearby. Miraculously Gazi survived but the incident left him with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After eight years in an orphanage Gazi is still treated as a special child there.

Javaid, Irfan, Sajid, Shaista, Mudasir, Gazi and Musadiq are not the only faces of colossal tragedy that has befallen Kashmir in the last two decades. Such scenes of misery and hardship are widespread. But the magnitude of crisis is yet to be fully assessed. In many villages along the Line of Control the crisis is more severe. Dardpora village in Kupawra with some 280 widows has more than 600 orphans.

Suffering silently

Living in the shadow of violence, children in Kashmir have been suffering silently. Studies of the conflict in the valley conducted so far have largely focussed on the political and military aspects while excluding children – the biggest causalities of conflict.

“Children’s experiences and perceptions, for example have been ignored – especially when they have been the victims of violence and abuses,” says Fouzia Qazi, founder of Chinar, a charitable organisation. “These children grow up in the shadow of gruesome violence and immense social change. Often without family protection and guidance they are left to menial labour. These children can also become easy recruits for all sorts of violent causes.”

Dissatisfied by the system, uncertain about the present and awful memories of past, a large number of such children are plunging into realms of darkness. For them the responsibility of feeding or sharing the burden of the family due to the loss of earning hand becomes priority.

“Since most of these orphans belong to middle or lower middle class families’ majority of them are working for meagre sums. They are more vulnerable to develop criminal tendencies due to economic hardships and exploitation,” says Prof Bashir Ahmad Dabla, a sociologist.

A study by Dabla – Impact of conflict situation on women and children in Kashmir says, “The most crucial problems… the children faced after the death of their father included economic hardships (48.33 per cent), psychological setback (22.00 per cent), denial of love and affection (13.66 per cent), and apathy by relatives and friends (08.66 per cent).”

The study shows that 86 of the 300 orphans received financial help from relatives, 67 from government organizations, 36 from NGOs, and 24 from other sources like neighbours and well-wishers. But the rest of 87 orphans received no help at all.

“If there is rise in child labour there is increase in child abuse and child exploitation”, says Dabla. “The society is responsible for it. Society has lot of potential and has to show flexibility in accommodating these orphans in local and community and other rehabilitation centres.”

Due to the low socio economic status juvenile crimes have shown a considerable rise in the valley. Though in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the Juvenile justice Act Law has been passed in the same way as in centre. However, the law has not been implemented in the state so far because the required rules have not been framed and approved so far. With the result, juveniles are tried under Children Act in normal courts and are being kept in normal jails. No juvenile rehabilitation homes are available in the state.

Apart from monetary aid, these children need help to overcome pain of loss. Due to lack of socialization, they have been living an abnormal life with the perception of being normal.

Experts said that the low socio-economic status and lack of parental care paves way to stress disorders and personality changes, and deviance, which in turn leads to mental illness.

The overall economic conditions of a person can be improved but there is no substitute for emotional losses. These young minds have suffered a lot. The deprivation of their childhood feeds on their mental health, “One in 10 of every such child will have a deformed adulthood,” says psychologist Shazada Amin.

As per the records available at lone psychiatric hospital of valley, in 1980 only14 per cent of people suffered from depressive disorders, this figure shot up to 32 per cent in 1989 and has now risen to almost 80 per cent. “Problems like fear, anxiety, recurring nightmares, difficulty in concentrating, depression and a sense of hopelessness are growing among people especially those who have faced the violation at a close end,” says Dr Arshad Hussain, a psychiatrist. Besides that a good number of patients suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) are also visting regularly.

“If these stress disorders are to be curbed we need to absorb orphans and other destitute in extended families rather than in orphanages,” says Dr Hussain.

Few years back a study conducted by the Institute of Jammu and Kashmir Affairs states that 57.3 percent of children have become fearful, 55.3 percent suffer from depression and 54.25 percent cannot sleep properly in Kashmir region. While in Jammu region, the corresponding figures were 51.17 percent, 25.98 percent and 41.17 percent respectively.

To cope up with the terrible memories of past and uncertain present some children have lost their lives to drug addiction. Besides, there is a growing alienation due to the ignorance about their culture and values, “When your survival is at risk, your sense of duty towards your culture automatically takes a back seat. In an unwelcoming society, orphans develop hostility towards preserving culture and traditions”, says Dr Rouf.

Challenging number

Before 1989, Kashmir had only one orphanage run by a local NGO and two homes run by Social Welfare Department. However the eruption of armed conflict has created a large number of orphans, widows and destitutes in the state.

There is no authentic statistics available about the number of orphans, but the government recently claimed the number to be around 26,355. Off them 5379 were kin of slain militants, it said.

The government figures tabled in Assembly in recent session sare based on a survey conducted by J&K Rehabilitation Council.  “The council estimated the number of widows and orphans on the basis of police data statistics,” said a senior officer in J&K social welfare department.

Social activists and studies on the impact of conflict put the number of orphans at more than 50,000. “Since the number is huge and the resources are less, we were not able to conduct any door to door survey. But after working for a decade in an orphanage we estimate that there must be around 40,000 to 50,000, orphans in Valley,” said Syed Attiullah Bukhari, Chairman Yateem Khana, a constituent of Muslim Welfare Society.

Whereas, A R Hanjura, Chairman Yateem Trust puts the number of orphans in the Valley at more than 80,000.  International aid agency UNICEF in its study “The impact of armed conflict on children” in 1997 said that Kashmir has as many as 100,000 special or orphaned children. The study stated that in last decade of conflict, the proportion of war victims who are civilians has jumped dramatically from 5 per cent over to 90 per cent.

Twelve years have passed since then with many more adding to the tragic list.

Government Response

The state government provides an ex-gratia payment of Rs. 1,00,000 and now in some special cases they provide Rs. 4,00,000 to the next of kin of the deceased. However, for receiving the relief widows and children have to produce non-involvement certificate from the police, clearing them of any affiliations of their relatives with militancy activity.

This policy rules out a good number of orphans and half orphans. According to the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), since the armed revolt broke out in 1989, around 10,000 people have been disappeared.

(Bait-ul-Hilal, an orphanage run by J&K Yateem Foundation at Jawahar Nagar Srinagar.Pic Bilal Bahadur)

Majority of half widows and half orphans are living in abject poverty. Many widows and orphans are even deserted by their in laws. They cannot claim the property of their fathers. Without any proof that their fathers are dead they are not eligible for government compensation. To declare their relatives dead half widows and orphans have to wait for five years before they apply for such benefits.

In addition, the children of deceased militants are altogether ignored and discriminated. Under the present state and central government policy, children and widows of militants do not get any kind of relief or financial assistance. With the result this lot of identified orphans remain outside the ambit of rehabilitation.

In 1997 the state set up ‘J&K Rehabilitation Council’ for Victims of Militancy (RCVM) with the objective ‘to provide immediate relief to the destitute victims of militancy and to go for all the lawful activities to formulate projects that will be helpful in their physical, psychological and economic rehabilitation’. The council was supposed to spend the interest money of rupees 100 Cr. Corpus fund. But the corpus never crossed rupees 18.03 Cr and consequently the scheme failed to meet its objective.

The Social Welfare Department through the council offers different scholarships to widows, handicapped, orphaned children and other destitute – having no affiliation with militants. National Foundation Of Communal Harmony (NFCH) through council provides Rs. 600 per month to BPL students. For marrying orphan girls and widows it spends Rs. 10,000.

Recently the central government has implemented the overall rehabilitation scholarship programme that can accommodate the children of militants but its cumbersome process has ensured that only few children receive aid.

For accommodating militancy hit orphans, state government also established some 33 destitute homes in different districts of valley – 21 for males and 12 for females. Most of these homes, according to child rights activists, are in shambles, where children are treated like servants.

Disappointed by the government’s rehabilitation council that discriminates children on the basis on their background, many conscious minds started building special homes for rehabilitating children without discrimination.

To cater to the huge problem, some 3,000 registered (and many unregistered ones) NGO’s started operating in valley. But only few worked effectively. According to the available figure at present there are only 18 NGO orphanages working vibrantly for orphans. “The population is so huge that all these special homes are not able to accommodate all orphans of valley. All orphanages and other government sponsored centres put up less than 2,000 children, that mean one to two percent of estimated number of orphans. However, how to nourish rest is a question?” says A R Hunjura.

The rise in the number of ‘unchecked’ orphanages has also increased the risk of child exploitation. “Though these special homes are open to all but there is no facility of standard, criterion, policy or law, which can govern orphanages or state sponsored centres. In many of these NGOs corruption is deeply rooted. Funds are not properly utilized on overall development of orphans and other destitute,” says Hanjura.

Orphanages

Many experts opine that orphanages can not replace natural families. It has its own social demerits. “In Muslim society like Kashmir we should not encourage orphanage culture. To gather orphans from different areas of state and keep them together in an orphanage has its own social demerits. They grow with a different kind of mentality which is not good for their future It is preferable for those who have lost everything,” says Umar-ul-Yousuf, Chairman Sakhawat Centre. “In spite of orphanages it would be better to facilitate financial assistance to sthese children so that they can be brought up under the guidance of their relatives.”

Dr. Rouf Mohi-ud-Din, Director of Koshish, a social group advocating for marginalized children, and former chairman of Jammu and Kashmir Yateem Foundation said that though relatives find orphanages a feasible option, but “these homes are nothing more than shelter homes which uprooted orphan children from their natural moorings.”

“Relatives especially mothers of orphans ask us to admit one of their special children in such homes. They think children would get better education and other facilities but in their later stages it becomes difficult for children to adjust in the society.”

Rouf believes that natural moorings of children have no alternative, especially when the state is not taking responsibility for its citizens, particularly children and women.

According to Prof Dabla, “they need home and homely environment. In orphanages they find themselves lost. Identity crises are at peak. Although the family sends them for security but there is no mental security at orphanages.”

Solution

Experts add that rehabilitation of the alarming number of orphans is near impossible. On one hand the process demands huge funds and well designed projects on the other hand state government is in no mood to implement any child or widow policy. To end this problem forever we need concrete solutions that include remarriage of widows and accommodation of orphans within society.

Quoting the verses from Holy Quran Dr Rouf says after Battle of Uhud Muslims not only had lost badly against the Pagans, but a number of Muslims were also killed and left a number of widows and orphans. Though women and children had been taken care of one way or another but were not accommodated fully. For this reason, Prophet Muhammad (SAW) ordered remaining Muslim males to marry multiple wives and protect orphans.

Dr Rouf says when remarriage of widows helped Prophet to solve that major social problem and why not we are implementing the same awareness in our society. Remarriages of widows not only accommodate the orphans but will also prevent society from major sins like drug addiction, child trafficking, prostitution and other crimes.

In addition experts suggest establishment of rehabilitation centres like income generating units that help the destitute earn their livelihood.

At present a huge population of orphans are growing in a world which they do not identify with. These orphans are living alone- finding themselves lost in the absence of a fatherly figure they can follow. Torn between their needs and desires, this entire generation seems lost to the deafening sounds of bullets and battlefields. They are asking for a parenthood and homely environment that can put their fragmented lives together.

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