I didn’t even know that a place called Gurez exists in Kashmir. When my close friend from work offered me a trip to Gurez with her and her sister, I unknowingly said yes.
I didn’t know what it was, where it was, and what to expect when I get there. I was just happy to get a break from Srinagar.
I was warned that there will be no network, and no internet connection in Gurez. Nothing would make me happier than a complete detachment from work, people and the online world I am so addicted to.
I was excited to explore the unknown. After the initial excitement, came the afterthought: Will I survive? Me, a city girl, used to fast paced life, manage 5 days without any connection to the outside world?
I love my work and staying away from it for so long made me a tad worried. However, with a lot of thinking and over thinking, anxiety and dilemma, I boarded the car to Gurez.
We were a mismatched group of eight people. Everyone speaks Kashmiri, and me not being able to understand the language, spent most of the journey deep in my own thoughts. The indescribable beauty helped me zone out completely and find a small little fantasy world for myself.
It was not long before I was pulled back to reality, by the massive army vehicles and unending checkpoints.
The AK47 assault rifles sticking out of all the armoured vehicles that looked like mini tanks, or the check-posts and the ever-suspicious gaze by the army inside the car kept reminding me where I was.
I was occupying the seat next to the driver and more than once Mr. Abdul Salam, our driver was asked, “Agewali sawari kahan se ayi hai?“(Where did the passenger in the front come from?).
I suspected that it was quite surprising for them to see an Indian with seven Kashmiris. But I didn’t want to have any prejudiced thought, so I pushed the same out of my mind and started enjoying the view once again.
In a few hours, my suspicion was confirmed.
We reached the Gurez valley tourism point, where we had to spend quite some time at the check post, waiting.
The big hoarding of the tourism department warned us about things we shouldn’t do. Photography was one of them. One army personnel informed us that the barbed wires on our left indicated the starting of the Line of Control (LoC). LoC is the line where both India and Pakistan decided to stop warring over the land of Kashmir, each keeping a slice and declaring a ceasefire, happy with the status quo. Hence photography was strictly not allowed.
My anxiety grew by a few notches when I realised how close we were to Pakistan.
We were travelling with two men. One, the driver Mr. Salam, and another, a person working with National Rural Livelihood Mission. Both of them de-boarded the car and went for getting frisked, their bodies and clothes were thoroughly checked.
One woman from the armed personnel came to us. Her first question was, “Aap logon ke saath koi admi nahi hain?” (Aren’t you travelling with any men?).
She was visibly surprised to see six women sitting in the car without any male companion. We assured her that there are two men with us. Being reassured that there are two mighty men to protect the six tiny women travelers, she proceeded to ask us questions about our whereabouts and itinerary.
She then asked for my identity proof. I, like an obedient citizen, handed over my passport and Aadhar documents.
“Jai Hind Madam,” greeted one army personnel. My curt Hello in return didn’t seem like music to his ears.
He then proceeded with his questions. “Aap Kahan se hain? Idhar kyun aaye ho?” After asking me various other questions and getting shocked to know that I have come all the way from Kolkata to do an internship in Kashmir, he more or less became satisfied.
He then moved on to interview my fellow travelers. I was awaiting another Jai Hind from him. He disappointed me. None of my co-passengers were greeted similarly. Not only the ‘Othering’ of my companions was visible, the betrayal of the realisation of the fact that Kashmiris were not Indian was evident from the army man’s different questions.
After a long time, we were allowed to move forward. I thought, this might be the last checking. I was wrong. After innumerable checkpoints, we finally reached Dawar, the main town in Gurez late in the afternoon.
The breathtaking beauty made me fall short of words.
The Habba Khatoon peak, the ‘pride of Gurez’, shines like a jewel in moonlight. The peak in the middle of two ranges stands like a guardian angel of the people, the Wall of the North.
The history of Habba Khatoon, the 16th Century poetess who sang songs of love and lamentation, and her connection to Gurez, makes the place more mystifying, and a paradise for romantics like me.
Our accommodation was right next to the Kishan Ganga, the river which flows downstream into Pakistan, and recognised as the river Neelum in the neighbouring country.
Sitting by the river in the evening, the BDO of Gurez educated us about the tragedies this hamlet faces. The continuous shelling from Pakistan has taken away many lives, he tells us. The omnipresence of the Indian Armed Forces in unimaginably large numbers, has made the people forget what freedom, or a normal civilian life one expects in a remote area like this, looks like.
I understood what he meant more clearly the very next day.
Gurez was witnessing a festival for the first time. The main motive of the festival was to promote tourism. People from different villages had gathered. The air was filled with happiness, and smiling faces. Children were running around. Schoolchildren had flocked together.
Some adults were sitting in the shade of the tents, some were buying merchandises displayed by the various government departments as part of the exhibition.
The forces made sure that not even the children would come anywhere near ‘VIP’ tents.
It started to looking like any regular fair, except that the majestic Habba Khatoon peak and the natural beauty surrounding the venue increased the beauty infinitely. But, there was one exception.The AK47 assault rifle holding army personnels whose presence loomed over anything the fair had to offer.
It was a new sight for me. Not the army, but the sight of gun-holding uniformed men in a festival.
In my twenty-three years of existence, in which I have witnessed many festivals in various countries, I have never seen weapon holding army personnels. That image struck me more than the surroundings.
Army is embedded into the lives of the Gorai people. Gradually, it became clearer how the army has made the people dependent on them. For a casual onlooker, it will seem like a place where the people have to be dependent on army because of the geographic positioning of the region. But that is one aspect; there is much more to the story.
Gurez has no network. There is only one government tower from BSNL, and that too offers scarce reception. On the other hand, army has strong network (which it obviously would).
In any kind of emergency, the people have to be dependent on military support, and it is preferred that way. In the winters, when heavy snowfall blocks all roads and any contact with the outside world is almost impossible, the forces have a role of the savior to play.
Villages like Tulail, one of the last villages of Indian administered Kashmir, doesn’t even have a network tower.
The villagers of Bakhtur, the last Zilla of Indian administered Kashmir lives under the constant fear of shelling and firing.
Pakistan, occupies higher grounds, and has a military advantage.
India, on the other hand, occupying lower ground, has deployed a weapon to keep the Pakistanis from firing. Humans.
The people living on the front-lines are being used by India as shields. Trapped, these people of Gurez have been living with the worst form of fear.
Their lives, pawns in the hands of two warring nuclear neighbours. The families of many of the villagers are living on the other side of the LoC, divided by wires that cuts across the heart of these peoples’ existence. These are the first line of victims of a military occupation.
Gurez is certainly a paradise, a romantic, mystifying and unearthed secret. But it is also a Frankenstein’s monster. A place so majestic, beautiful, soulful but cut, stitched and barbed everywhere.
A place, which, to satisfy the egotistical warring nations has been cut off from her ancestral roots of Gilgit-Baltistan and rewired and stitched with Indian administered Kashmir. A place which is waiting for its turn to be accepted in humankind without any more harm.
Utsa Sarmin is a research scholar from Cambridge University, United Kingdom. She has completed her M.Phil in development studies.
Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position and policy of Free Press Kashmir.