In love with Kashmir

Justine Hardy is a journalist, a writer and an aid worker, working in the area of  mental health in Kashmir. Aliya Bashir talks to the author whose three out of five books are on Kashmir.

She came to Kashmir when she was just five. Her mother had brought her along on a trip to the region. Those childhood memories never went away and she came back as a journalist in early ‘90’s.

Justine Hardy, 44, has since been a frequent visitor to the Valley – as a journalist, as an author and as an aid-worker.

After the October 2005 earthquake, Hardy landed in Kashmir, not as a journalist but to work for the quake hit people in Uri and Tanghdhar areas. She started a local NGO, Kashmir Welfare Trust, which built shelters for the now homeless people besides providing them food and medicine. Later, the organisation expanded its area of activities.

“At present, the Trust is focussed on addressing the deep-rooted economic and conflict trauma of the valleyites. We are trying to help the victims through education and rehabilitation,” says Hardy.

In 2009, she founded, Healing Kashmir, an organisation, which brings therapists and practitioners from the UK to work in rural and urban areas in Kashmir for psychiatric help programmes.

“We found that medication is part of the problem. So our work is an unusual (one). A humane combination of conventional and alternative therapies that enable psychiatric patients to return to their families and live their lives without medication or on lower doses,” she says. “We are training our doctors and counsellors to help the people to recover and find their way back to quality life, thus allowing society to progress and heal.”

Healing Kashmir is developing the first-ever mental health helpline and a care centre – Kashmir Life Line, in Srinagar under its mental health project in Kashmir.

“The helpline will be available round the clock on a toll free number. It will offer a high level of therapeutic support to callers in total confidence where a caller can share any problem. The health centre will be available for the patients for a mental health support,” Hardy says. All the helpline staff is from Kashmir and currently undergoing training. The helpline is set to go live in March.

Justine says that one of the most negative feelings she had observed in Kashmir was that people had “no hope for future”. “Without hope, the human condition descends into despair, or it is consumed with a level of rage that drives it to take uncalculated and devastating risks. The rate of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is increasing at an alarming rate both directly and indirectly due to conflict,” she says. “The young minds are trapped in a cycle of rage, anger, and frustration that can cause psychosis or a full mental breakdown in a fragile mind.”

She says that despair and depression were manifest in the young men she met at the Government Hospital of Psychiatric Diseases. “The physical anger seeks an outlet and if there is no vent, it will explode inside them. And without any consideration of the fallout, young men pick up stones and hurl them with the full force of their rage and frustration,” Hardy says.

Hardy, a British journalist, filmmaker, yoga teacher and mental health therapist, is also the author of five books including three on Kashmir. Her books on Kashmir include Goat- a story of Kashmir and Notting Hill, The Wonder House, a novel set against the conflict and her most recent book, In the Valley of Mist, which revolves around a Kashmiri family’s life.

Twelve years ago when Justine was looking for a business family in Kashmir which could help her to buy pashmina from local weavers, she came in touch with Dar family. “I worked with Dar family who helped me to buy stock from weavers at healthy prices for them, and sell them in the UK in order to finance a slum education project that I work with. They became my landlords and friends as well,” she says.

She says that after several years of reporting from Kashmir she had met extraordinary artisans – weavers and embroiders. Her latest book, In the valley of the Mist, she has portrayed the Dar family’s struggle, while living in a conflict zone.

“It is based on how one family in particular; my friends and landlords in Kashmir have lived through the arc of conflict. The setting is the Valley, with a focus on the lakes, but the threads of the story take a reader into the most remote rural areas to the mountains of the Pir Panjal, and into the snow,” she says.

Justine’s books tell the story of Kashmir, through the eyes of its residents who are bearing the brunt, to people who know little or nothing about raging conflict in the valley. “The way conflict has been portrayed, whether we are talking about Baghdad, Kabul, Basra, or Srinagar, it is through the prism of both the military and political stories.

I feel the real core of conflict is played out through the lives of ordinary people who are struggling to live their lives through everyday raids, bombings, curfews, the collapse of infrastructures and basic amenities, and other things that come in the domain of war and conflict,” she says. “The stories of these people and families draw the reader into the story of Kashmir, and its ongoing conflict.”

Justine writes for The Financial Times. She also freelances for The Times, various Cond? Nast magazines such as Vanity Fair and Traveller, as well as other publications and produced documentary films for the BBC and Channel 4.

For her aid work in Kashmir she says, “We are getting our funds from outside through the charity deposits in both India and outside and I am still earning my livelihood from writing stories. But, I don’t allow my journalism to creep into my aid work.”


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