PANZU, July 23: Five years have passed since masked gunmen knocked on the door one night and shot Sarwa’s husband, a faith healer, six times in the chest at point-blank range.
The Kashmiri villager still can’t shake off the despair. She complained of sleeplessness, mysterious pains, flashbacks, and nightmares. Her children sat near her in a courtyard of her house. They were quiet, unsmiling, with suspicious eyes.
They are the survivors of Kashmir’s 23-year-old separatist war and have the mental scars to show it.
“I’d commit suicide but I’m just living for my children,” said the middle-aged woman, her dark eyes often staring into space.
“I feel very sad all the time, thinking of my husband,”
But behind those headlines, stories from survivors like Sarwa are repeated across Kashmir where doctors say thousands of people — witness to killings, rape and torture by both sides in the dispute — suffer traumas.
Violence has subsided since a tentative peace process started in 2004.
But there is little evidence the impact of war has diminished.
“Wherever you look in Kashmir, you’ll find the mental scars of war,” said a counseller
A survey in rural Kashmir published last year by medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres showed one in six respondents had been detained by security forces. Of these, more than three-quarters said they were tortured.
The survey, based on interviews with 510 people, showed one in ten respondents had lost one or more members of their nuclear family. A third said they had lost one or more of their extended family members.
LIFE UNDER CONSTANT THREAT
Chats with Kashmiris quickly throw up stories of the war — accounts of relatives killed or tortured, of near misses in bomb attacks and of life under constant threat from anonymous phone calls.
Trauma does not spare the troops either, and many of the soldiers stationed in Kashmir face psychological problems.
“Lots of security officers come here, there are lots of suicide attempts,” said Abinah Syed, a doctor at Srinagar’s run-down psychiatry hospital said.
“They miss their families, they fear attacks. Many have seen a colleague dying.”
Sarwa, who did not want to give her full name, said she did not know who killed her husband. But she talked about how he was “martyred” — a way of saying in Kashmir that troops had killed him.
“My eldest son is much quieter since his father died,” Sarwa added. “And my neighbour also suffers from the same symptoms as me, sleeplessness, headaches.”
In the nearby town of Pulwama, Actionaid has some 1,200 cases on its counselling files. Most are women.
“The violence may go down, but it is shocking to see there is no fall in the people coming for help,” said Saudia Qutab, who works on the counselling project.
Qutab recently faced a mother suffering from uncontrolled weeping, sleeplessness and outbursts of aggression. Her 16-year-old son went to school seven years ago. He never returned, one of an estimated 10,000 “disappearances” in Kashmir.
“It is the disappeared cases that are often worse, because families have no closure,” Qutab said.
Despite the stigma in Kashmir of entering a “mental hospital”, many villagers had travelled miles.
Most recount nothing. They just ask for medicine.
“The fear of authority is so great, traumas often don’t even come out in the chamber of the doctor,” said a consultant at the hospital.
“There is no trust for anybody. There is a community paranoia,” he said, the door to his office constantly opened by patients pleading for his signature.