The widows of Dardpora are a grim reminder of the brutal violence that has characterised the Kashmir conflict. Located 120 kilometres from Srinagar in Kupwara District, life in this village lives up to its name, for dard means pain, and pora, a hamlet. Out of 1000 households in Dardpora, as many as 300 families have lost their bread-earners in the ongoing turmoil. While the majority of them were militants killed in encounters with the Indian Army, the remaining were killed by militants, either in inter-group clashes or after being branded as informants for the Indian Army.
The 8 October Kashmir Earthquake ruined much of what death had left untouched. “After Uri and Tangdhar on this side of Kashmir, Dardpora is worst affected,” says Ghulam Nabi Mir, the village sarpanch. “120 houses have been completely destroyed and the remaining 800 are partially damaged. It is risky to go inside a cracked house.” While some people have erected makeshift hutments in the premises of their houses, those who cannot afford to do so share space with other neighbourhood families. But it is the women of the village, particularly the widows, who have had to bear the brunt of this twin tragedy.
37-year-old Haseena has been a widow for the last 13 years, since her husband, a militant with the Hizbul Mujahideen, was killed in an encounter with the Indian Army. With three sons and one daughter, Haseena struggles to make ends meet. “To feed my family, I first took a loan for buying a cow; then I borrowed money to educate my children; and finally a loan for agricultural purposes,” she sighs. “Being a defaulter, bank officials do come to my house, but where will I bring the money to repay their loan?”
Unfortunately, the tragedies have continues to pile up. Two of her children suffer from chronic illness – 14-year-old Zahid suffers from epilepsy and 17-year-old Saima is a cancer patient. Last year, Haseena sold her family’s land in order to treat them. The earthquake devastated them further – the family’s house was rendered uninhabitable, and she and her children now sleep at the house of Begum Jan, another widow.
“For me, both India and Pakistan are guilty,” she says. “Being a militant, my husband died an unsung death. Living in an Indian-controlled state has made me an untouchable, because no government office takes responsibility for militant families.” While the government does provide compensation and employment opportunities to family members of those killed in militant violence, this is not available to relatives of killed militants.
40-year-old Begum Jan’s story is not very different, except that she has never received proof of her husband’s death. In 1992, she was told that her husband, Shamsudin Poswal, had been killed along the Line of Control during a fierce encounter with Indian security forces. Poswal’s body was never brought to the village for burial, nor is there any other record of his death. “Initially, I too was sceptical about his death,” she recalls, “but he has not returned for years, so I have begun to believe the rumours.”
In the absence of any aid from the government or non-government agencies, widows like Haseena and Begum Jan are completely disillusioned. “People come, take notes, click photos and go back,” Begum Jan complains. “If you cannot do anything, why do you make us recall our agonies?”
Meet 50-year-old Shaha, whose husband, Abdullah Bhat, was labelled an informer working with the Indian Army. She says he was fired upon as he was coming back from a day’s work in the fields. For Shaha, this was not the end of her sorrows. Her son Mudasir, whom Shaha sent to Punjab to earn a livelihood for the sake of his mother and three sisters, went missing there. Since then, there has been no news of him.
Fatima, 60, lost her husband Villayat Shah in crossfire between militants and soldiers while grazing cattle. His son Maroof, a militant, was killed a year later, and Fatima now lives with Maroof’s widow, Salema. Both widows are reconciled to a life of misery and pain. “We were five sisters and among them only I was married. How can I go back to my father? I prefer to stay here taking the sufferings as my destiny,” says Salema.
The consequences of these widespread killings are not limited to surviving female family members. 70-year-old Rehmatullah Khoja, a former farmer, is now a destitute beggar. His son Ghulam Qadir Khoja – a militant killed by the Indian Army – left behind three small children and a wife. His daughter-in-law remarried, leaving the children with Rehmatullah and his wife. Now, he goes door-to-door in Dardpora begging for alms, at times accompanied by Qadir’s son Imran. Another grandson has been sent to an orphanage outside of Kashmir. “Whatever I bring from the day’s begging, we cook in the evening,” says Rehmatullah. “I was not a beggar. I too had expectations from my son, but destiny had all this in store for me.”
The humanitarian catastrophe is coupled with the backwardness of the village as a whole, which makes life extremely difficult for the survivors. Half of Dardpora is devoid of electricity or drinking water. Difficult terrain makes the village highly inaccessible. Agriculture is the main source of income, but the area almost always remains drought-affected.
Mir Ghulam Rasool, a social worker and retired teacher in Dardpora, has a sound explanation for the disproportionate number of widows in the village. “Dardpora is the last village along LOC,” he says. “Earlier, when Kashmiri youth used to cross the border for arms training, our village fell on the most-used track. Locals from this village too got involved, with some straightaway joining the militant ranks and others acting as guides to facilitate the cross-over. Later, in the gun battles between the Indian Army and militants, naturally this village was to suffer, and it did.”
On the pathetic condition of the widows, Mir says that community support has not been feasible because of the widespread poverty. “When villagers do not have enough themselves, how can they support or help anyone else?” he asks. The local MLA, he says, rarely visits the village and has not ensured support to violence-affected families.
The actions of higher levels of government have not been of much greater help. The issue pertaining to the rehabilitation of widows of militants was enshrined in the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) reached by two ruling-coalition partners in the state government, the Congress and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), in 2002. It is yet to be implemented. On the contrary, during a council meeting of the Rehabilitation Council in October 2005, the Ministry of Home Affairs is reported to have spurned the decision taken by ex-Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed to rehabilitate the dependents of killed militants.
There is a ray of hope, however, since the activist NGO Action Aid selected Dardpora for post-earthquake relief and rehabilitation. “In a survey of this village, we found hardly any house that was not damaged,” recalls Action Aid project officer Abdul Jaleel Lone. “We then saw the destitute households run by widows and the overall backwardness of the area. There was no question about not running a project here.” The organisation has donated roofing sheets to the families for making hutments and distributed food. “We are trying to focus on the permanent rehabilitation of the families here,” Lone adds.
~ Peerzada Arshad Hamid is a Srinagar-based journalist.