They will wear black bands to symbolise their suffering, and will raise placards bearing but a single question: Where are our children? As they have for years past, on 29 August, on the eve of the International Day of the Disappeared, scores of people, mostly women, will gather at Sher-e-Kashmir Park in Srinagar to demand to know the whereabouts of their missing family members. Since the conflict in Kashmir began in 1989-90, thousands of ‘enforced disappearances’ have taken place, affecting nearly every family in the Kashmir Valley. The victim’s family and friends are deliberately denied knowledge of the individual’s arrest or detention, and are subjected to slow mental torture as they await information on the fate of their loved ones. This year’s Day of the Disappeared marks the 25th anniversary of this annual observation, and some families have gathered in August of each of those years without news.
Traumatic though it is, confirmation of death tends to provide closure to the interminable wait. Facts Underground, a report released in March by by Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, a constituent of Jammu & Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, claimed that nearly 1000 unmarked graves had been found in 18 villages of Uri, Baramulla and Boniyar of northern Kashmir. The report, which estimates that around 10,000 people have gone missing since 1989, surmises that many of the missing would have ended up in these unmarked graves.
According to the report, nearly 200,000 relatives of the disappeared have been involved in tireless effort to ascertain the whereabouts of the missing. Successive state governments in J & K have made contradictory statements regarding the number of missing persons. Both the state and central government have claimed that most of these individuals, mostly young men, have crossed over into Pakistan for arms training. The families vehemently contest these claims. It is clear that, in the vast majority of cases of so-called enforced involuntary disappearance, people were detained during crackdowns and cordon-and-search operations.
The stories are thoroughly disturbing. In one case included in Facts Underground from 1991, the people of Chandanwari, in Uri, found five bodies lying on the river shore, which they took to the local graveyard. Ali Akbar Khan, a resident of Chandanwari, began the task of collecting donations for the burials – until he took a look at the bodies, and realised that his young son, Bashir Ahmad Khan, was among them. Bashir had been picked up by the army the previous week.
Among the 38 cases documented in the report is that of Abdul Rehman Padroo, who was taken into custody in December 2006, killed, labelled as a foreign militant, and then buried in an unmarked grave. Indeed, unidentified graves today dot the landscapes of several villages, including Zandifaran, Kichama, Chechal, Bimyar, Boniyar, Trikanjan, Parro, Gingal, Bijhama, Lachipora, Mayan, Charkote and Hatlonga. As the Padroo case came to light in January 2007, it became like a catalyst to galvanise thousands of people, who took to the streets of Kashmir demanding accountability. Since then, however, the police have continued to maintain that only ‘foreign militants’ are buried in the unmarked graves – unwilling to admit that innocent Kashmiris have been picked up and killed.
Evidence of further wrongdoing continues to come to light. Another organisation, the Jammu & Kashmir People’s Movement (JKPM), recently claimed to have found more than 3600 unmarked graves in Poonch and Rajouri districts of Jammu. The largest disappearances-focused group in Kashmir, the Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), led by Parveena Ahangar, whose son was disappeared, is now insisting that all recently discovered mass graves must be investigated, including DNA tests in order to provide firm evidence to family members. Since the security forces took in her son, Ahangar has not been able to trace him. “The Indian Army officers pick up our children and then they simply disappear,” she says. “If your child dies, at least you know that he is truly dead. In our case, we go through unimaginable sufferings as the situation of our children remains uncertain.”
On 11 April 2008, the centrist All Parties Hurriyat Conference leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq offered gaibana nimaz-i-jinazah – funeral prayers in absentia – for the unidentified dead. Hundreds joined him in prayer at the Jamia Masjid in the old part of Srinagar. Not all are ready to accept such closure, however, considering it premature. “Our organisation is not ready to perform Namaz-i-Jinazah,” a statement by the APDP maintained. “No one should offer funeral prayers for our children; they are alive in army custody.” Ahangar instead urged New Delhi to set up an independent commission that would be tasked with carrying out a detailed survey regarding youths disappeared in the past two decades years in the Kashmir Valley. As yet, however, there has been no official response to this request.
Families of the disappeared desperately seek solace, and find it in symbols from around the world, particularly in places with a tragic past. APDP legal advisor Mir Hafizullah inspiration came during a visit to the Philippines in 2000. “I saw a monument erected in memory of the Filipino desaparecidos [disappeared], and after my return to Kashmir we decided to build our own monument,” he said. “To our dismay, however, the foundation stones were destroyed overnight by the Indian forces. But we still aspire to have such a monument – one that can give us a bit of relief, since we still don’t have any remains of our dear missing children.”
~ Tanveen Kawoosa is a freelance writer in Srinagar.