One refugee who had returned to his village in Shopian in Indian-administered Kashmir told me of the difficulties he had faced, and continues to face, there. We spoke over a WhatsApp call that got disconnected over twenty-five times during the one-hour conversation. In bits and pieces, Sayar Lone told me about how he had come to Pakistan-administered Kashmir for arms training in 2001, only being able to return home over a decade later, in 2012. Below is a translated excerpt from our conversation, which took place in Urdu/Hindi:
“We left for school one morning in 2001, and one of our friends told us he had met a mujahid who said he could help us cross over to Pakistan. We were seventeen-to-eighteen-year-olds...We had no idea what Pakistan had, what people did in Pakistan, what jihad was, but everyone wanted to go across. We all wanted to get arms training and come back and fight.
My friends and I decided to go too.
It took us three months to reach as we only travelled during the night...Of course we were scared, but when we realised that we were too far ahead, that we couldn’t go back, we decided that there was no point in fear. I told myself that whatever happens will happen. Even if I die I didn’t have a choice. Once I made that decision, there was no more fear.
We eventually reached a Hizbul Mujahideen camp, where there were 800-900 other boys, all from makbooza Kashmir. There were two other camps nearby too, one in Mansehra (a town in Mansehra district in the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and one in Balakot (another town in Mansehra district). There were about 2,000-3,000 other boys like me in these camps.
It was 2001, and the elders in the camps were informed that they had to lie low, that there would be no more attacks because 9/11 had happened and Pakistan was fighting the War on Terror and couldn’t be seen to support militancy. There were fences on the Line of Control by now and it wouldn’t be possible to cross over anyway, like it was in the 1990s. We were young and didn’t know much...It was the elders’ decision and we just listened to them.
I lived in the camp until 2006, but there was no arms training. We were just instructed to pray five times a day and had a one-hour Quran class in which we were taught about jihad. They told us that India was our enemy, is our enemy, and will always be our enemy. We had to fight against her, even if it meant losing our lives. They explained that jihad meant fighting against oppression, against zulm (cruelty). There used to be crackdowns every month in my village before I left. We had seen so much, so I began to understand the true meaning of jihad. But there was no ammunition, no activity in the camp and eventually it closed down.
People left and got married. That’s what I did too.
I moved to Islamabad and somebody introduced me to the family of my wife-to-be, who lived in Rawalpindi. We got married in 2007 and had a daughter. I wanted to bring them back to my home and meet my parents. I hadn’t told them anything before leaving but at that time everyone knew that if the boy didn’t return by sunset, he had become a mujahid. When I spoke to them, three years after crossing the LoC, they began to cry on the phone. They had thought I must have died. They ached for me to come back. I wanted to see them, my father especially, because he was sick, but I was happy in Pakistan. I had an ID card. I got a stipend from the government every month as a refugee and I had a job in Metro Shoes (a well known shoe store in Pakistan) in Islamabad. Life was good.
But my family kept insisting we come back, so we did in 2012.
The Indian government had promised by now that under the new rehabilitation policy, those who had left Kashmir for training between 1989 and 2009 could return with their dependents. I thought this meant we would be safe, no one would bother us...But since there were no legal channels to cross over for us, we had to pay Rs 3 lakh (approximately US $3,000) to an agent to cross over through Nepal. And then, when we finally reached, I was initially interrogated by every agency. I was even arrested for fifteen days. Everything the government promised, all the compensation, the money for surrendering, was never given to us. No one even asked us how we were doing once they were done interrogating me. But I don’t care. I don’t expect anything out of the government. I am only concerned about my wife. We thought she would be able to visit her family in Pakistan whenever she wanted, but it’s been four years and they just don’t let her go.”
Irum, Sayar’s Pakistani wife, had just completed her FA (11th-12th grade) when she married Sayar.
I also spoke to her on this call and she told me that she had no idea about Sayar’s past until she crossed over to Shopian in 2012:
“I learnt about why Sayar came to Pakistan from people in Kashmir once we reached Shopian. Before that, I didn’t know anything. All I knew was that a woman’s home is in her sasural (in-laws)...ladki sasural mein hi acchi lagti hai (It’s best if the girl lives with her in-laws)...So, I thought I must go and live there too.
My father-in-law was unwell, and my mother-in-law would keep asking us to come, so I convinced my husband. I thought I would return for a visit every six months. But I’m not allowed to travel because I don’t have the state subject document (allotted to Kashmiris on both sides of the LoC) and I don’t have an Indian passport. There are about 200-300 other such Pakistani women who are in the same position. They say that if they let us go, the Pakistan Army may bother us. They may not let us come back.
That doesn’t make any sense. My husband’s home is my home. Of course I will come back. I have now approached the chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti... She has promised to look into my case. I am the first woman who has been able to highlight her case like that, so I am very hopeful.”
Back in Pakistan, Irum’s father is a heart patient, his condition worsening after she left. When we spoke, she told me his kidneys were on the verge of failing, and his diabetes was out of control. He desperately wanted to see his daughter one more time, but laws and legalities stood in the way. Irum and Sayar’s daughter (who was seven years old when we spoke in 2016) also wants to see her grandparents, her uncles and aunts. Irum told me that she has had a hard time adjusting with her in-laws as well. “The culture here is very different. My in-laws don’t treat me like a daughter. I haven’t been able to adjust...How can I when my mind is in two places? I just wish I could see my family again. Can you please write about this so that there is more pressure on the government?”
I promised her I would but I am not sure what good that will do. There are countless other stories like Sayar and Irum’s. Stories of people who are separated from their families, who have to pay the cost of family members joining militancy, who are unable to get permits and visas to go to this or that side. I was about to meet many such people during my visit to the Manakpayan camp that day.
Excerpted with permission from Between The Great Divide: A Journey Into Pakistan-Administerd Kashmir, Anam Zakaria, HarperCollins India.