The conflict continues breaking families and adding to the destitute population. Muhammad Younis meets three widows and their children who lost their main support base in three different situations, to bring home the larger reality that the unending crisis is taking a huge toll of life
Reluctant to break his father’s story to Suhaib, his mother pleads him to go out and play with other children. All he has been told is that his father has gone on a pilgrimage to Mecca and would return any time soon, bringing him innumerable toys. Bereft of raising any serious questions, the 6-year old has been buying the story for about two years now.“But for how long?”
In Pahalgam’s Siligam village is the Thoker House, situated on the banks of a bubbling conduit of river Lidder snaking by. Maryam, a 70-year-old widow, is the head of the family now. More than half a dozen years ago, as her husband Ali Muhammad, a labourer, passed away, the sole responsibility of running the family fell on the shoulders of their only son Aijaz Ahmad Thoker, in his twenties then. She got him married to Aafiya Akhter. The couple had two sons, Suhaib and Afaaq.
Aijaz was the sole bread-winner of the 9-member family, comprising of his mother, wife, children and four sisters, one of them unmarried. Almost a month after the birth of Afaaq, the family lost Aijaz. He was killed on July 9, 2016, in the immediate aftermath of the killing of Burhan Wani.
That morning, Aijaz had gone to almost all the abattoirs in the neighbouring villages to buy mutton for his wife, still in bed post-delivery. But life was frozen and businesses were closed. The only slaughterhouse in the vicinity yet to be checked was near Akad Park. Along with his friend Adil (name changed), as Aijaz went there, a protest was already going on in the area.
“They could easily go past the gathering,” said Maryam, as she gathered later. But on their return with empty hands again, the protest had taken a violent turn and clashes were going on. “Eventually the forces had opened fire on the stone pelters, and a local youth being shot had fallen on the ground.”
Nobody from the protestors dared to come closer and pick up the wounded. Aijaz, watching the scene, couldn’t hold himself. He told his friend that they should go and do the job, “Otherwise, he had told him the person might bleed to death. Although my son was right, how could one risk his own life for some other person?”
Aadil denied him from getting involved, let alone offering himself. “But my son, as brave and pious he was, didn’t listen to his friend, and ventured to save the youth.” The forces let Aijaz come close enough towards the injured youth, but the moment, he would bend to pick him up, a bullet fired by the forces went through his skull. “The person that my son had gone to save that day is alive, but he, on the other hand, is no more,” a sob escapes Maryam’s trembling lips.
To meet the ends of the family, Aijaz worked as an auto driver. Post his death, as the family had no adult male member to drive it, they sold it off. Now the family is dependent on others. “Sometimes, any God-loving person knocks our door, and seeing our condition, pays us Rs 100 or 200 for running our family. We literally don’t have anything.”
The government paid a compensation of five lakh rupees to the immediate kin of the slain civilians who were killed in 2016. The blood money stands credited in the bank accounts of the minor orphans Suhaib and Afaaq, which they can withdraw when they turn adults. “But tell me, until then, how would we manage to bring them up?” a concerned Aafiya asks.
The situation of almost all the orphans and widows in Kashmir is similar. Although no recent data exists, a 2008 survey by known sociologist Bashir Ahmed Dabla suggested there were 32,400 widows and 97,200 orphans in Kashmir and the number was growing. It excluded those named as half-widows– women who lack any information about their husbands, and their children.
The widows and orphans in the study comprised wives and children of civilians killed by the security forces, of militants or those who were caught in the crossfire.
Rubeena Akhter is one such widow. Just two years before the study, her husband Shabir Ahmad Dar was killed on September 14, 2006. She doesn’t buy the “popular” story about her slain husband.
Shabir hailed from Pulwama’s Hathiwara village. A photographer by profession, Dar had his shop situated in the main Samboora market, a kilometre away from his home. Once in a while, he would go to video shoot the marriage ceremonies in the vicinity, and thus, in this way, manage the expenses of his family. Also, he was making little savings for their first baby, expected soon.
Three days before the baby was finally due, some unknown people paid a visit to Shabir’s shop during broad daylight. They were on a bike. They asked him for video shooting a marriage in Gundabal village, some five kilometres away from Samboora. The neighbouring shop owners had seen him shuttering down his shop, and with his instruments, getting on the bike. With the shopkeepers, he had left a word for his family about his return till evening that day.
“I waited for him till late evening,” Rubeena, recalling that night, said. “When he didn’t turn up, I put off the lights, and with this thought that he might not have accomplished his work and thus would arrive on the next morning.”
Next day, Rubeena was having lunch, when the news about somebody’s beheaded body found in the Karewas of Lethapora spread like a wildfire, bringing disquiet to the whole area. It was like a “destructive hailstorm” for the Dar family when it was established that the body belonged to Shabir. It took a whole day for the family to locate the head severed from its trunk and traced at a different spot on the karewa. Then only the burial took place.
Five days later, on September 18, a militant outfit staked the claim saying Shabir was the informer of the army and was responsible for tipping off the whereabouts of their Commander Bilal Ahmad Dar, which lead to the latter’s killing.
More than a decade before the brutal murder, Shabir’s younger brother Muhammad Rafiq alias Buland Khan was among the first lot of Kashmiri militants. He fell to bullets in 1996. During his brother’s militancy years and after that, Shabir would be, day in and out, summoned by the army and the police’s Special Operations Group (SOG). “He used to be a well built and handsome boy, but because of the tortures in the camps he reduced to an emaciated constitution,” said their elder brother Nazir Ahmad. “I don’t understand how could he have been an informer?”
Zahida, Shabir’s daughter is currently enrolled in the fourth standard. She hasn’t seen her father, but his pictures tell her how he looked like. To give her the share of the love of her father seems the only motive left for Rubeena now. She hasn’t ever thought of marrying again, although it has been almost 12 years now and she is just 31. “If I remarry, who would take care of her (Zahida),” she shares her worries.
It is quarter to four, and Rubeena, outside her one storey house, situated on the banks of river Jhelum, is waiting on a road for the Dehli Public School (DPS) bus to drop her daughter. “Now if you ask me how I could afford to admit my girl in such an expensive school, you won’t even comprehend how I managed it,” Rubeena said.
In the locality, almost all children go to DPS. Since Zahida’s friends were also there, she didn’t want to go to any school other than the particular one. “It could have been very much difficult, if the school administration, knowing my circumstances, hadn’t cut me some slack during her admission. And, after that, her fee is paid by another God-fearing person who I am deeply indebted to,” says Rubeena. She is an Asha Worker herself. “It becomes very troublesome when we aren’t paid our salaries on time.”
Kashmir’s widows and orphans have emerged as a significant group primarily because of the direct effect of armed conflict. With the continuity and intensification of the conflict, the living conditions of this vulnerable group have deteriorated to miserable sub-human levels. Apart from wives and children, most of the slain were the main source of dependence to aged parents and unmarried daughters. They all were reduced to destitution.
Although they survive on alms, the Thoker Family still has a sort of satisfaction that their three daughters are settled. “Otherwise, who would have provided for their marriage?” asks Maryam. “I hope Allah will make some plan for the fourth one also.”
But Najars’ of Awantipora were not that fortunate enough. The family comprised of four sisters and their old carpenter father, Abdul Rashid Najar. After his eldest daughter’s marriage, Rashid’s second daughter Roziya Jan married Showkat Ahmad Qasab from the neighbourhood. “My father was getting old, and there was no male member left in the family to take care of us in case of any eventuality, so he decided not to marry me out, rather Showkat was married into our family.” The knot was tied in 2010.
Najars’ own a truck. After the marriage, Showkat would drive it to run the family. “He was a very gentle and sober person,” Roziya remembers “About my two younger sisters, he would always say that they were like his own sisters, and would always provide for them. He also used to say that he won’t rest until getting them married too in good families.”
In 2014, everything changed. For Ramadhan, the month of fasting, Showkat wanted to stay home. His father-in-law was fine with the decision. He told Showkat to go back steering the wheels only after the Eid festival. One evening, Showkat left for Maghrib prayers but didn’t return. The family thought that he might have gone to his parents’ house. But it turned out to be untrue the next morning. Two months later, when Showkat’s dead body crossed the threshold of Najar house the family learned that he had joined militancy. Showkat was killed in an encounter in Pulwama’s Chersoo village. “He didn’t say a word, nor did he ever try to contact us during those two months,” Roziya said.
Six months after the marriage in 2010, Showkat had an abrupt transformation in his behaviour. He became punctual in offering five-time prayers and grew a long beard. The Kashmir valley then was going through a violent stage. There were mass protests and a lot of civilian killings. Like others, Showkat also used to take part in stone pelting sometimes. “But police never caught him, and his name ever come up in their books,” says his widow. “As such, he didn’t have any serious confrontation with the police that might have prompted him for settling the scores. Thus, I would say, there was nothing personal in his joining the militancy.”
At the time of Showkat’s killing, his daughter Muntaha Showkat was two and a half years old. From the parental side of her father, she didn’t get any help. “They said when she (Munteha) would be adult enough, only then they would think of providing her something from her father’s inheritance.”
Roziya waited for long, but finally, she had no choice but to marry again. “Initially, I didn’t want to marry for the second time, but seeing the economic conditions of my family, my little daughter and her education, my younger sisters and my old father, I had to go for it,” she admitted. In October 2017, an unmarried local tied a knot with Roziya. “Muntaha, until my second marriage, was like waiting for her father to come back, but now, it seems she finds him in my second husband. And she is happy.”