`Disappeared' victims of conflict in Kashmir

Vanished: Indian security forces have abducted hundreds of young men since the beginning of a bloody insurgency in Kashmir, human rights activists say.

January 24, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SRINAGAR, India - The last words Parveena Akhter heard from her son, Javed, before soldiers forced him into a jeep at 3 o'clock one morning were these: "Save me! Save me!"

The Kashmir Valley had descended into violence and separatists were setting off bombs and shooting at Indian soldiers. Akhter rushed to the police station the next morning and demanded to know where her son was.

"I thought that they wouldn't harm him because he wasn't involved in anything," said Akhter, sitting cross-legged on a green wool rug on the floor of Javed's old room.

As the months passed, Akhter heard different stories: Javed, 16, was in an army camp, in jail or in a hospital. The director general of the Kashmir police said he knew her son was innocent and assured her he would be released.

"Don't worry," she recalls him saying.

That was 11 years ago.

Since a bloody insurgency against Indian rule began here in 1989, tens of thousands have died. Among the victims are believed to be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young men like Javed who disappeared without a trace, according to human rights activists here.

Those disappeared young men are the invisible victims in the battle for the fate of Kashmir, a disputed mountain region over which India and its archrival Pakistan have fought two wars. The dangers posed by any renewal of fighting drastically increased in 1998 when India and Pakistan detonated nuclear weapons.

The two countries have again faced off over the issue of Kashmir in the past month, after a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament building in New Delhi that left 12 dead, including the five assailants. India blamed the assault on Pakistani-based militants fighting in Kashmir. India sent hundreds of thousands of troops to the Pakistani border in the biggest military deployment in South Asia in three decades. Tensions have eased considerably in recent days, but the conflict in Kashmir continues.

The problems here began in 1947 when Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan were partitioned at the end of British colonial rule. The overwhelming majority of Kashmiris were Muslim, but the Hindu maharaja who oversaw Kashmir chose to join India.

The most recent chapter of violence began in the late 1980s after a Muslim coalition ran for office and lost in an election most here say was rigged. Kashmiris protested the results, and bloodshed ensued.

Frustrated by the violence directed against them, Indian security forces rounded up anyone they could find in hopes of extracting information about the perpetrators, according to residents. Some, like Javed, were detained in the middle of the night by the Indian Army's Border Security Force. Others were pulled from the street at dusk or simply went off to work and never returned.

Family members of the missing have formed a group called "Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons" that is documenting 560 cases of missing people, according to Parvez Imroz, a human rights attorney who works with the group. "We want to expose that the repression is systematic and institutional," Imroz said.

Up to 5,000 missing

It is difficult to know exactly how many people have gone missing, because families are reluctant to come forward for fear of reprisal, according to Imroz. Based on interviews in rural areas, association officials estimate that the number could be as high as 4,000 to 5,000.

All of the disappeared in Kashmir are men, most between the age of 18 and 35. Imroz blames Indian security forces and ex-militants working with them for almost every abduction. He claims that authorities usually torture abductees, kill them and then dump their bodies in lakes, rivers or forests.

Government officials dismiss the allegations. They say most of those who disappeared went to Pakistan to train as terrorists.

"I cannot recall more than two or three cases that could be a disappearance," said Ashok Bhan, inspector general of police for the Kashmir Valley. "It's all exaggerated, and it's all propaganda."

Family members insist that their husbands and sons had nothing to do with the insurgency. On occasion, though, the families have been mistaken.

Abdul Badyari, a motor rickshaw driver with ruggedly handsome looks, disappeared late one afternoon two years ago while waiting for passengers downtown. His wife, Shafiqa, was at home, pregnant with their second daughter.

Later, Abdul's friends told her that he had worked as a courier for militants. Shafiqa, 24, says she is convinced her husband had ended his connections before their marriage.

Abdul's work was the family's only source of income. Shafiqa and their three children now rely on an orphan's trust to pay tuition and provide food.

Disappearances have taken a terrible emotional toll. Akhter became so distraught that family members removed her daughter, Samia Nabi, then 6 years old,from their home out of concern for her welfare.

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