Syeda Begum

Pain, personal loss, poverty and violent death have for long been constant features of her life. A lonely old widow, Syeda Begum has lost all her four sons to the conflict. For seven years, since her only surviving son disappeared, she has lived with borrowed hope – an adopted child she brought home from a maternity hospital. Umar Beigh and Syed Asma report

She looked dignified and well-kempt. Syeda Begum sat outside the door to her single-bed-sized home working a spinning wheel under the warm autumn sun. The lonely old widow has been by herself for several years.

“During Bakshi’s regime, my brother was shot through his head in a protest. That bullet followed us one by one. Now I am all alone,” Syeda said. “I lost all my sons and khandan [extended family] to the same [political] conditions having prolonged.”

Syeda’s personal life is closely intertwined with the violence associated with the political history of Kashmir. According to her, much before the onset of armed rebellion in Kashmir, when Syeda must have been a child, she lost her brother to a bullet fired by the police during a protest demonstration. It took the family a long time to deal with the loss. Those were the days when an unnatural or violent death would become the talk of the town for months, if not years.

Syeda was married into a middle class family in Baramulla. Her husband owned a few orchards and made good of his fruit business. The couple had five children, four sons and a daughter. As they were on their way to raise a family, fate struck a terrible blow when Syeda’s husband had a fall. The family had to sell off all they had, including the orchards, in the hope that the breadwinner would recover. But he never did, and left behind a widow with five young children in penury.

With great difficulty, and whatever help her extended family could offer, Syeda raised her children. They started dreaming together of a comfortable life again when the boys started earning small amounts of money doing whatever work they could lay their hands on.

Then came 1990. The armed militancy exploded on the scene. Coupled with the government’s military response to it and the subsequent horror, Syeda’s family found itself in the eye of the storm.

One cold winter day in 1990, when war, chaos and fear had engulfed Kashmir, a little after a clash between militants and government forces in their neighbourhood, Syeda’s oldest son Nazir Ahmed was shot and killed by soldiers outside their home in Sekidafar, she says. He was 25 and had recently established a small grocery shop just across the road from their shack-like home. “It was a Thursday,” Syeda remembers. Shocked, she had to go to a hospital for identifying the dead body of her son before it was buried. “I saw the bullet injuries on his chest,” she said.

As the family was dealing with what had befallen them, Syeda’s youngest son, Tariq, started chipping in to help his two brothers by working as a hawker of sundry goods. Within a year of Nazir’s killing, Tariq—along with a group of protesters—found himself being chased by paramilitaries along the banks of Jhelum in his neighbourhood. Later, Tariq’s body was fished out from Jhelum along with a few others. He was 18.

“They (soldiers) had fired into the water,” Syeda said. “He died in an Aabi Chhag (A chase in water).”

The family, now reduced from seven members to four, felt devastated again. Around that time something shifted within Syeda’s struggling household. The younger of her two surviving sons, Ishtiyaq, started keeping “their company”, she said in an ominous tone. “He would move around with them (armed militants). I don’t know if he had picked up the gun but he was with them and came to see me once in a long while,” said Syeda. “He would leave within seconds.”

From then on, Syeda must have lived with the horror and uncertainty of her son Ishtiyaq’s life, who in all probability was an armed rebel now. “He was frustrated after the killing of his two brothers,” she said. For all practical purposes, Syeda’s family was now reduced to three members, with Nazir Ahmed to take care of his ageing mother and a young sister.

The poor family also had to deal with frequent raids by police and government forces who were looking for Ishtiyaq. “Once the soldiers broke this door and barged in,” Syeda said pointing to the damaged door. “It is still not properly repaired.”

After a little over a year of Tariq killing in an Aabi Chhag, Syeda received more devastating news – something that she must have expected deep within her.

Syeda’s third son, who had turned an armed militant after losing two of his brothers as collateral in the war, was killed during a gun battle between rebels and the government forces. Ishtiyaq was in his 20s when his mother was taken to the police control room to identify his body.

“He was hit with a burst of fire across his chest,” she said sobbing. “The copy of a pocket Quran he was carrying on him was torn by bullets his chest had received.”

“I felt the light in my eyes fading. Darkness.”

Police did not have details of the circumstances of the death of Syeda’s son’s. Authorities in the local police station, when asked, said: “During that time a lot of people were killed and we do not have everybody’s record. Her (Syeda’s) sons are among them.”

Syeda and her young daughter Rubina were now being looked after by her only surviving son Nisar Ahmed, a small-time tailor. Soon, Nisar went silent and stopped working. He could not deal with the loss of his three brothers, one after another in quick succession. One day he suddenly lost control of himself and started going around shouting unintelligibly.

And then, he dropped his clothes and started going out into the streets naked and shouting. Just as Syeda was beginning to learn to deal with the loss of her three sons, she found herself in an extremely difficult situation – this time so different that she didn’t know what to do. Finally, she took her son Nisar to the psychiatric hospital for treatment. “They put him on medicines but nothing helped him,” she said. Until one day when Nisar left home naked and shouting and never returned.

Syeda went from one police station to another but never found her last surviving son. By now Syeda was so used to losing her children that within a couple of years of Nisar’s disappearance she reconciled with it. “If he was alive, he would have definitely come back to his mother,” she said, believing all her sons are gone. “I can’t say anything, but if he returned, I would keep him well and manage somehow.”

“No one comes through that door. I keep imagining my sons coming in, but no one actually does,” Syeda said keeping her pensive gaze toward the door to her austere tiny home. “Who will?” While Syeda’s sons left her within a space of four years, two more in her extended family also died during the same period. “Her sister-in-law’s two sons were well known fighters of HM. They both died fighting during the same period,” said Syeda’s neighbour.

There are no surviving male members from her immediate family who Syeda could look up to in times of need.  Syeda has sent her daughter Rubina, her youngest child, into the care of a relative living in Pattan area. Rubina has not been well for the past few years. “She sometimes vomits blood while coughing,” said Syeda. “I did not try to get her married off because I know she will be returned to me as soon as her illness is discovered.”

At this point, Syeda sobs uncontrollably, as if she knows that she might have to witness her youngest and last surviving child’s dying too.

With so much loss and pain to deal with, just how does Syeda manage to carry on and put up that smile once in a while? Some seven years earlier, when she lost hope of her missing son’s return, Syeda went to a maternity hospital to check on a distant relative of hers. The woman had just delivered twins – a boy and a girl. “They are poor and asked me to take the baby boy with me for company,” Syeda said.

Syeda has brought the boy up and sends him to a school where he is not charged any fee. She cannot sleep when Mohsin goes away to meet up with his biological parents once in a long while. Mohsin has brought some cheer to Syeda’s life.

“He has started taking up responsibility in his own sweet and childish way,” Syeda said smiling. The only time she smiled was while talking about Mohsin. Her sunken eyes start shining when she brings Mohsin’s name on her lips.

“He will perhaps go back to his own parents when I die, Syeda says. “What else can he do, although he tells me that he will stay with the neighbours after I die.”

The child has perhaps figured out well that it is the next-door neighbours who come closest to being their family. “I spin yarn sometimes. But I never ask anyone for anything. I do not earn much because I do not need money,” Syeda said. “My neighbours take very good care of me. They send enough cooked food for us and have told me even if I need medical care in the middle of the night, they will take me to hospital in their car.”

“But there is no one to keep my door.” When asked what does she think about the circumstances that have left her in this condition, Syeda said: “Nothing will ever change here, because whatever people do, it is India that always wins.”

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