SRINAGAR, Dec 10: Taja Begum is praying for her son. She has not seen him for more than a decade. She does not know if he is alive or dead.
According to Taja, he was picked up by security forces late one night in a round-up of suspected militants. Security forces deny having arrested him.
Twenty-seven-year-old Mukhtar Ahmad Beig is just one of hundreds of people to have “disappeared” in the Kashmir conflict, his true fate possibly never to be known, even by his own mother.
As the muezzin in the nearby mosque continued to sing the call to evening prayers, Taja wrapped her Koran in a cloth and sat down to recount her story in a long room, furnished only with cushions and a thick red carpet.
From the window, there was the blue outline of the Himalayas in the dimming light and, immediately below, a graveyard.
It was 11:30 p.m. on the night of September 26, 2000 when security forces pounded on the door and said they wanted to search the house, she says.
She thinks there were at least two dozen soldiers. “I could not count them because my heart was beating so fast. They searched every part of the house,” she says.
She is crying by now, finding it hard to tell the tale. The rest of the family was herded into one room and Mukhtar taken away. She has never found out why, or what happened to him.
In the early 1990s, Mukhtar joined a militancy which started in 1989.
Then he surrendered, served time in jail, and, according to his mother, had been working peacefully since his release in 1996 selling wholesale cigarettes to shops.
Security forces have repeatedly denied having arrested him.
NASTY LITTLE WAR
Altogether at least 50,000 people have died – separatists put the toll at 100,000 – in this nasty little war in one of the most beautiful parts of the world.
Accusations of atrocities are made by both sides. As usual, truth is one of the first casualties of war.
Even the causes of the conflict are disputed.
Government says the militants cross the mountain passes of the Himalayas to sow terrorism in the lush Kashmir Valley, making it impossible for New Delhi to solve the dispute peacefully.
If you ask the opposing parties involved about human rights abuses in Kashmir, you get totally irreconciliable answers.
Security forces say they are aware of the need to win the hearts and minds of the Kashmiri people and avoid abuses which might make them turn hostile.
HEARTS AND MINDS
“These are my people. I have lost the battle if I use more than adequate minimum force,” says a senior security official.
Families say they were innocent people, murdered in what have been dubbed “fake encounters” — staged gunbattles where police claim to have killed suspected militants.
The independent Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), says at least 10,000 people have disappeared in the past 22 years, most of them in the “custody of security forces”.
Authorities put the numbers of missing at between 1,000 and 3,000. They deny allegations that people disappear from custody and say their investigations reveal that most of them crossed into Pakistani Kashmir for arms training.
For Taja Begum, continuously in search of her son, the niceties of who is telling the truth are irrelevant.
“It’s bad. The situation is bad,” she says, speaking of the constant fear which Kashmiris have learned to live with by day and avoid by night, emptying the streets as soon as it is dark.
“There is always a fear of attack,” she says. “Immediately after sunset we close our doors.”