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9524News from Kashmir: In paradise on earth, few earthy matters cause trouble

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  • Zafar Khan
    Apr 5, 2014
      Kashmir tourism: In paradise on earth, few earthy matters cause trouble
      By Masood Hussain, ET Bureau | 5 Apr, 2014, 08.00AM IST


      For the hospitality sector in Kashmir, God is in his heaven and tourists are filling up the houseboats and the hotels. Now if only the policymakers would keep pace with tourist arrivals, it truly would be paradise on earth.

      And the Rs 950 crore Kashmir tourist destination would move up one notch. The last few years have seen Maharashtra and Gujarat emerge as the two main tourist belts with West Bengal emerging as the leader during the Pooja holidays. But as more virgin areas are opened up and private players join forces, Kashmir is witnessing a surge in winter sports with Gulmarg becoming a big attraction.

      "We created a new milestone in skiing this winter," says a happy Director Tourism, Talat Ahmad. "For the first time, we successfully introduced free style skiing with euro copters from 5000 ft and believe me, we had 200 foreign participants."

      With its powder snow and expensive winter sports, this time Gulmarg was too busy hosting high spending domestic tourist and foreigners to complain about the long-drawn out winter. Last month, Tina and Anil Ambani took off for Gulmarg to ski with their kids.

      Right now, says Umer Tramboo of Khyber Resorts, the Rs 150 crore luxury hotel in Gulmarg, the occupancy is 80 percent. "Earlier, Gulmarg in winter was all about foreigners but as we marketed our resort, we had more high spending domestic tourists in Gulmarg than foreigners." Then there are the honeymooners. From the mandap to Gulmarg, tourist arrival in this category has shown a 40 % increase in the first three months of this year.

      Bollywood can't be far behind. Last summer saw eight Bollywood crews, and this summer, eight film crews have already approached for mandatory permission and facilitation with five finalising their plans. Then commercialising white water rafting is paying rich dividends.

      "In 2004, we started with two inflatable rubber boats and now there are more than 130 in operation," beamed Rouf Tramboo, a pioneer in soft adventure tourism. He is trying to get hold of skilled manpower locally as professionals from Nepal devour almost 60% of his earnings.

      But two areas are causing concern: costs of tickets have gone through the roof and part of the infrastructure is caught in a mess as ecological concerns have reached the judiciary's doors. Eight flights land in Srinagar airport daily and the number is expected to reach 32 within a month.

      Ticket costs have gone up phenomenally. Booking a ticket a week in advance means coughing up between Rs 13,000 and Rs 30,000. "We have started feeling the heat as there are cancellations," admits Rouf Tramboo. Considering backpackers make up a sizeable chunk of the traffic, ticket costs have made packages non viable for a major segment.

      Three surprises from a visit to Kashmir
      By Owen Bennett Jones
      BBC News, Srinagar


      Anyone who has visited Pakistan will have consumed more than their fair share of news - or perhaps propaganda - about Kashmir. And after 15 years of travel to the country I know the Pakistani version of the Kashmir story backwards.

      But now, after my first trip to the Indian side of the Line of Control, I have had the chance to reach my own conclusions about what's going on in Indian-administered Kashmir.

      For the uninitiated, a brief history. When the British left the subcontinent in 1947 the status of Kashmir was unresolved. To cut a very long and contested story short, the Hindu Maharaja or King of Kashmir decided his Muslim majority state would join up not with Pakistan but India. The dispute has led to wars and today Pakistan has around one-third of Kashmir and India two-thirds, including the Muslim majority, and intensely politicised, Kashmir Valley.

      Time has not healed the wounds. To keep control India has to deploy as many as 400,000 security personnel. Although all the numbers relating to Kashmir are keenly disputed it is probably fair to say that as many as 100,000 people have been killed in the struggle between Kashmiris and the Indian state.

      That's the history - what's happening today? If you listen to the Pakistani version then India is repressing the aspirations of the Kashmiri people to join Pakistan or perhaps become independent. If you listen to India, it is defending its territory against jihadi militants sent over the Line of Control by a malevolent Pakistani security apparatus.

      I arrived in Kashmir with a planeload of Indian tourists. They see a beautiful place. Kashmiri businessmen give them a warm welcome. If they should stray beyond the tourist hotspots then the Indian soldiers on patrol are, for them, a reassuring presence. But for the most part their holidays are untouched by the political conflict. The only minor inconvenience they will experience is that many of their mobile phones don't work in Kashmir. The Indian state wants to know exactly what people in Kashmir are saying.

      Which is one reason why the Kashmiri perspective on life in Kashmir is quite different to that of the tourists. Kashmiris have learnt to live with both political violence and the Indian intelligence agencies. If you are talking politics in a café in Srinagar and a stranger sits at the next table - you stop talking. If a foreign journalist asks you how many people in the Kashmir Valley support union with Pakistan, off the record you say 25% but on the record you adjust the number down to 10%.

      The Indian army has been in Kashmir so long, and it has been given such huge resources, that it now has a very tight grip on Kashmiri society. The militants - rumour has it there now just around 100 in the Kashmir Valley - are up against an army that not only monitors all communications but also has a well-developed network of paid informers and that has got to know every nook and cranny of Kashmir.

      So what has surprised me about Indian-administered Kashmir? Three things.

      First I had no idea how sharply reduced the insurgency is. For more than 20 years - as Pakistani TV showed at great length - there was intense violent conflict between separatists and the Indian army. There are still clashes today but so few that it is now possible to walk through Srinagar after sunset in relative safety. There are now more checkpoints in Peshawar or even Islamabad than in Srinagar

      Secondly, the Indian state has been remarkably unsuccessful in winning over the residents of the Kashmir Valley. Even the pro-India National Conference seems to accept Indian a rule as an unavoidable reality rather than a desired outcome. Whether they come from political traditions that look to Delhi or to Islamabad there are very few residents of the Kashmir Valley who would not embrace independence with relief and enthusiasm.

      Many students in Srinagar are adamant: Indian rule is oppressive and they are willing, if necessary, to live their whole lives in resistance.

      And the third surprise? I have often read that Kashmir has an unusually tolerant political culture. Given the levels of violence and division it seems an implausible claim. But I have never been anywhere where people are so tolerant of each other's different political positions and religious beliefs. Just think of the genuine anger felt by liberals and conservatives about the relatively minor issues that define the political divide in the United States. Well in Kashmir you can hear a fairly hardline separatist describe the Indian army chief in Kashmir as a nice man.

      Many Kashmiris disagree with each other. But for the most part they do so with grace and goodwill.

      It's an approach that is, in part, a survival strategy. Everyone knows India is unlikely to make any compromises over Kashmir for the foreseeable future. While a post-imperial power such as the UK is willing to offer an independence referendum to the Scots, emerging powers don't give up territory. If there is the slightest chance that the Kashmiris would opt for independence, then they won't be given a vote on it.

      When discussing Kashmir Western diplomats tend to raise their eyebrows and make some rather lame joke about how complicated it all is. I've always found it to be a highly irritating attitude. Kashmir remains one of the world's most intractable and important disputes which has blighted millions of lives.

      And there's one thing about the dispute that didn't come as a surprise. There's no end in sight.

      Kashmiri villagers clash with police over suspected shooting of civilians
      Police station torched in Indian Kashmir amid suspicions security forces shot dead seven civilians after mistaking them for rebels
      Agence France-Presse in Srinagar
      theguardian.com, Tuesday 25 February 2014 10.31 GMT


      Hundreds of angry villagers have clashed with police in Indian Kashmir following suspicions that security forces shot dead seven civilians they mistook for rebels.

      The villagers torched a police station in the forested Kupwara region close to the defacto border with Pakistan to demand security forces hand over the bodies for identification and burial, an unnamed police officer said.

      "Police fired tear gas and warning shots in the air to disperse the angry crowd who were hurling rocks at them," the officer said on condition of anonymity.

      A local resident, Manzoor Ahmed, said by phone that one villager was shot and wounded during Tuesday's clashes before paramilitary reinforcements were called in to control the situation.

      He said villagers suspected that seven people killed overnight on Monday were civilians rather than armed rebels, as rumours circulated about civilian hunters who had gone missing.

      On Monday, the army said it killed seven suspected rebels in Dardpora, a remote village 87 miles (140 kilometres) from the main city of Srinagar, during a joint operation with police.

      "The identities of the seven are being ascertained," army spokesman NN Joshi told AFP.

      The shootings took place near the highly militarised border that divides the Himalayan region between India and Pakistan. Both countries have claimed the territory in full since independence from Britain in 1947.

      About a dozen militant groups have been fighting Indian forces since 1989 for independence or to merge the territory with Pakistan. The fighting has left tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, dead.

      The Indian government and security establishment have recently expressed fears of a possible escalation in rebel activity ahead of the country's general elections due by the end of May.

      The Indian army has also expressed concern that battle hardened fighters from Afghanistan might turn their attention to Kashmir once again after the withdrawal of US troops from that country.

      In Pictures: gloom at Kashmir tulip garden
      Saturday, 05 April 2014


      Much to the embracement of Kashmir Government , Asia’s largest garden at the foot of fascinating Zabarwan hills was thrown open for public on Saturday without ‘blooming’ tulips. Holding mercurial weather of Kashmir responsible for the mess, Director Floriculture Sunil Misri said that tulips would start blooming once temperature will increase.

      With much fanfare, Tulip Garden was thrown open for public by Divisional Commissioner Shalender Kumar who was accompanied by some top administrative officials. Much to the annoyance of the people present there and especially tourists, there were hardly any blooming tulips there. “I expected a colourful scenery here but was totally disappointed,” a female tourist from New Delhi Shobha Rani said adding that they were misled about the presence of Tulips in the Garden.

      The dilemma of Kashmir's half-widows
      Decades of conflict have produced many ‘half-widows’ whose husbands have disappeared but are not declared deceased.
      Baba Umar Last Modified: 12 Oct 2013 14:44


      Decked by thick deodar forests, terraced corn fields, apple orchards and jagged mountains, the hamlet of Dardpora tucked in the northern rim of Indian-administered Kashmir looks idyllic.

      But scratch a little deeper and the wounds of decades of conflict sweeping across the region open up when its 300-odd widows and ‘half widows’ (women whose husbands have disappeared but not yet been declared deceased) describe the pain of losing their husbands in course of the ongoing rebellion.

      "His disappearance is still a mystery," says Begum Jaan, 52, whose husband Shamsuddin Pasal left home for evening prayers in 1998 to never return again.

      Dardpora, which paradoxically means "abode of pain", is almost 140km north of summer capital Srinagar and lies in Kupwara district close to the de-facto border Line of Control (LoC) that cuts Kashmir into Indian-administered and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

      This hamlet was once a major transit point for the young Independence-seeking Kashmiris to trek up the treacherous mountains and cross into Pakistan for weapons training in early 90s. Those returning with arms to fight Indian troops would halt in this rural area before melting in the urban Kashmir.

      Jaan says many village men joined the rebels and those like her husband were either taken away by unidentified forces or killed in the deadly skirmishes that would often erupt when Indian troops would bump into armed rebels’ hideaways.

      "Sometimes rebels used civilians as guides. Other times army forced villagers to lead search operations in the forests. Not many returned to their families. We still wait for our husbands. They may be alive. Who knows? But then they should have returned," she asks.

      Bibi Fatima’s story isn’t different either.

      It was in 1993 when her husband Vilayat Shah, a daily wager, left home in search for work. Fatima, 65, waited for his return for ten days but he was nowhere to be found.

      "I searched him for months. Except for the army camps I searched for him everywhere. And one day I just gave up," Fatima says, adding, "We are illiterate people. In this far-away unreported world we do not have any information how to proceed with the case legally."

      Snow-capped Kashmir has been in upheaval ever since the armed rebellion began in 1989.

      Over 70,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the disputed territory claimed by both India and Pakistan who rule it in two parts but claim it in entirety.

      In 2009, the Guinness Book of World Records declared Kashmir as the "planet’s largest militarised territorial dispute".

      The unresolved conflict has resulted in untold miseries, including the misfortune that befell the women whose husbands have disappeared without a trace.

      Since their husbands are not confirmed dead, they are officially not considered widows. Instead, the locals see them as "half-widows".

      Alive or in mass graves

      The government doesn’t have a figure on Kashmir’s half-widows but a report "Half widow, Half Wife? Responding to Gendered Violence in Kashmir" by a key human rights group in the region Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies (JKCCS) estimates the number of ‘half-widows’ at around 1,500.

      The report prepared after its survey in north Kashmir’s Baramullah district - one of the 22 districts of Indian-administered Kashmir - also calls on the Indian authorities to investigate the 2700 unnamed, mass graves JKCCS identified in 2009 and find out who are buried in these graves.

      "These men could be buried in mass graves too," says Khurram Parvez of JKCCS. "That’s why we are asking the state government and New Delhi to identify the dead in these graves using DNA examination. Apart from half widows, this could also help families of some 10,000 disappeared people end decades-long search and ultimately their pain."

      Many have accused Indian troops of abducting civilians, murdering them in staged encounters and concealing the crime by labelling the dead as unknown rebels when they are handed over to locals for burial.

      "We have several cases in which a civilian was buried after authorities labelled them foreign rebels. This is because if the troops kill a foreign rebel, they are paid higher rewards and honoured with medals and promotions. No soldier was ever punished for killing civilians in these cases," Parvez argues.

      Indian authorities deny such accusations and say the disappeared men could be stranded in Pakistan-administered Kashmir after having crossed the LoC to engage in rebellion activities.

      "That’s why we floated militants' rehabilitation policy. We wanted all the men to come back from the other side of the LoC so that we get to know who is alive and who isn’t," explains Tanvir Sadiq, an adviser to the Indian-administered Kashmir's chief minister.

      "Regarding mass graves, we can’t open them. It’s an Islamic area. It will hurt people’s sentiments," he told Al Jazeera in a phone interview. "We also want to establish a truth and reconciliation commission which will help reveal everything that has happened in Kashmir during the conflict."

      Sadiq says the government has schemes that offer relief to these women, but the half widows claim they rarely taste the benefits of such schemes.

      "Nobody supports us financially. And the government’s monthly 200 rupees (app $3.5) is too little to survive on especially when you have children," says Bano Begum (55) of Dardpora which is almost devoid of adult males.

      Begum’s husband Salamdin Khatana was dragged out of his small hut in 1996 by unidentified armed men. As usual her search began. But it ended when after three days a shepherd informed the family of heavy firing in the mountains in which her husband was killed.

      "But I never saw his body," she says, adding "This area was called then ‘Chotta Pakistan (little Pakistan) because of the presence of large number of rebels and Indian soldiers. We would never venture out in the evenings. The shepherd warned against going up in the mountains. That’s why I didn’t get to see my husband's body or grave."

      Remarriage: A rare choice

      Wives of disappeared men often face various socio-economic and emotional uncertainties. Since most of the disappeared men are from rural Kashmir, these widows usually live impoverished lives. And because of religious and societal pressures, most of the half-widows don’t re-marry.

      "I’ve a handicapped son. I couldn’t have looked after him if I had remarried another man,” Bano Begum says, adding “And what if my husband returns?"

      The biggest dilemma faced by the half widows is that in the absence of their bread winners, they have to rely on their in-laws or parents for their economic need with their property and custody rights undetermined.

      Economic relief such as ration cards or transfer of husband's property or bank accounts are also difficult to get as these processes require death certificate which of course half widows generally do not have as their husbands are officially not recognised as deceased.

      Under Islamic jurisprudence, a widow with children gets one-eighth of her husband’s property. A widow without children gets one-fourth. A half-widow, till her husband is declared dead, gets nothing.

      "Second marriage is often considered a taboo in our society. There is a social stigma attached to it. And when it comes to property issues, it is always a death of a husband that makes a widow eligible for property rights. In half widows’ cases such an option doesn’t exist," explains Dr Sheikh Showkat, who teaches law and human rights in the Central University of Kashmir.

      Dr Showkat says the Dissolution of The Muslim Marriage Act legally offers relief to such women who may pursue divorce if “the whereabouts of the husband have not been known for a period of four years”.

      "And if after the second marriage, her first husband arrives the first marriage stands dissolved," he says.

      However, there are some different views as well.

      According to prominent Islamic scholar, Mufti Abdul Rashid of Srinagar, a woman whose husband remains disappeared has to seek help from a Muslim judge in locating her husband for one year.

      "If the judge fails to trace her husband, he can dissolve the marriage and allow her perform another Nikkah (marriage)," argues Rashid, who comes from the Deobandi sect of Sunni Mulsims . "If the first husband appears after her Nikkah, the second marriage will be dissolved."

      Earlier, according to the Hanafi sect of Sunni Muslims, the wife of a disappeared person was supposed to wait for 90 years after which she can remarry.

      Mufti Qamar-ud-Din, another Islamic scholar, however, says the waiting period now stands reduced ( as agreed by Islamic scholars) to four years and ten days.

      "So a women can remarry after this time. But if the first husband appears, the second marriage will automatically break. She will have to abandon her second husband and live with her first husband," he explains.

      Rights groups say not a single disappeared husband has returned so far in the past 24 years of conflict.

      Meanwhile, their half-widows are at the end of their tether and often take out their frustration against visiting journalists.

      "We have become specimens," says Bano Begum. "Hundreds of people with cameras, pen and copies have visited our place, interviewed us and then never returned like our husbands. They have sold our tragedies. We are fed-up with giving out interviews. Will your report bring back my husband?"

      Her anger-laced voice tails off. What festers is her suffering in Dardpora - the abode of pain.

      Follow Baba Umar on Twitter at @BabaUmarr

      Kashmir's civilians caught in the crossfire
      Residents on each side of the Line of Control endure shelling near their homes almost daily.
      Asad Hashim Last Modified: 21 Sep 2013 12:29


      Fatehpur Thakiala, Pakistan-administered Kashmir - When the shells started to fall, Muhammad Nadeem had nowhere to hide.

      "As soon as the shelling started, my family would flee down the mountain… but I have a very weak heart, I can't leave this place," says the 65-year-old farmer, a resident of the remote village of Tarkundi, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Tarkundi, located about 115km east of the Pakistani capital Islamabad, is right on the 740km-long Line of Control (LoC), the de-facto border between Indian- and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

      "A shell could still fall at any time," he told Al Jazeera, standing in his maize fields, about 300m from the LoC. "Our homes are made of mud and wood - they could be destroyed any day."

      Tarkundi is in Nakyal sector, which has been at the centre of recent shelling between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, sparked by an August 6 attack on Indian troops which killed five soldiers in Poonch district. India blamed Pakistan for the attack, a charge Pakistan denies, and, since then, there has been a daily exchange of mainly mortar and small arms fire between the two armies across the LoC. Both countries claim Kashmir in its entirety, while Kashmiri separatists, both armed and political, demand that a 1949 UN resolution calling for a plebiscite on Kashmir's fate be implemented.

      The shelling, which violates a 2003 ceasefire agreement between the two countries, has been hitting military border posts and civilians alike, on either side of the border.

      "We were stuck inside our house for 72 hours straight [August 24-26] - without food, water or supplies - because of intense shelling. We were cut off," says Dr Muhammad Baseer Sarwar, another resident of Tarkundi.

      "The explosions would make our ears ring - we thought we were going to die," said the 42-year-old, explaining how he and the other 11 members of his family took shelter in a small basement room, venturing outside to fetch water during lulls in the shelling.

      After the dust settled, Sarwar returned upstairs to find that a mortar shell had landed in one of the home's bedrooms, destroying trunks, beds and clothes. Thankfully, he says, no-one was upstairs when it hit.

      "When you hear the shelling start, of course you get scared," says Riasatullah, a 24-year-old whose home was hit, while showing Al Jazeera an unexploded shell that still lies in his family's maize fields.

      The situation is similar across the LoC, in the village of Charunda, in Uri sector of Indian-administered Kashmir.

      "When the two sides start firing on each other, they don't see who will get killed. They only fire," says 36-year-old Abdul Rashid, whose village came under fire in January.

      Juma Khatana, 52, another villager from Charunda, says those who live along the LoC "are stranded between the two countries".

      "We always live on a razor's edge," said Khatana. "We are not rich people and we can't migrate or buy land in the city. We have to live here forever."

      In all, at least five civilians have been killed since the latest violence began, with at least two military personnel (both Pakistani) also reported to have died, according to AJK officials and the Pakistani military. Dozens more, including several Indian and Pakistani soldiers, have been injured. More than 3,000 civilians fled the Pakistan-administered side of the LoC - which is more densely populated than the Indian-administered side - due to the recent violence, with schools shut for more than a week during the most intense shelling. Farmers have been unable to tend to their crops, they say, and residents say they live a life of constant fear, as mortar fire continues on a daily basis.

      This is the human detritus created when there is friction between these two nuclear-armed neighbours: thousands on either side of the LoC are displaced, their lives disrupted and the calm of this stunningly beautiful region - referred to locally as "heaven on earth" - destroyed.

      "There is still danger here, we are still scared," says Muhammad Aslam, a 55-year-old former non-commissioned officer in the Pakistan army and a resident of Tarkundi. As he speaks, the muffled sound of distant low-calibre mortar fire reverberates through the valley.

      Shaky dialogue process

      Newly elected Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif placed a high priority on normalising relations with India during his election campaign, making it part of his economic platform to broaden trade ties with the regional economic giant.

      As such, Sharif has said that he will be discussing the Kashmir issue with Manmohan Singh, his counterpart, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly later this month.

      "For the effective pursuit of our socioeconomic agenda, good relations with all our neighbours are very essential and a priority for my government," Sharif said during a recent state visit to Turkey. "We are keen to have a comprehensive dialogue with India for the resolution of all the issues including the issue of Jammu and Kashmir."

      Those talks, however, will take place in an atmosphere of both political distrust, and a shaky, if not shattered, ceasefire along the LoC.

      "This latest flare-up along the Line of Control is actually not new," says Ejaz Haider, an Islamabad-based political and security analyst, citing several similar instances since 2007. "The LoC is not quiet anymore, especially in certain places… and in mountainous terrain it’s all about jockeying for a [tactical] advantage."

      On August 6, five Indian soldiers were killed in what armed Kashmiri separatists in Muzaffarabad told Al Jazeera was not a Pakistani military operation. Haider says that it occurred after four civilians were arrested by the Indian military close to the LoC - and killed for being "terrorists".

      "Officially we say that [Pakistan] did not [kill the Indian soldiers], but it could well be that it was decided that it was time to give them a taste of their own medicine," he said.

      'Not this kind of peace'

      In Nakyal, local officials say residents are fully behind the Pakistani army, and blame India for the recent violence. Asked whether he advocates for peace to authorities in Islamabad, Nakyal Assistant Commissioner Chaudhry Muhammad Ayub replied: "We will not accept a situation where we do not fire back. If they fire upon us, we should fire back at them. Everyone of this area feels this way."

      Haider says that the lack of a clear policy directive on a Kashmiri peace or negotiations process has created a situation where "the momentum of developments at the tactical theatre level" on the LoC begins to dictate the tenor of the Pakistan-India relationship.

      "In theory, if the states were to actually get to a point where they say we are really serious about resolving these disputes, you'll see an effect on the situation at the LoC," he says. He also warned, however, that the relationship between the state policy and tactical theatre levels is "dialectical", and that each influences the other.

      Residents also want greater clarity, calling for Islamabad to take a firm line, one way or another.

      Addressing himself to parliamentarians in the Pakistani federal capital, Dr Sarwar of Tarkundi, said: "You're sitting safe there in Islamabad. Let one shell fall outside your house and we’ll see how you react then...

      "We are ready for war as well [as peace], but if there is war, it should be open. I think there should be peace [between the two countries], but not this kind of 'peace', where the people of both sides of the Line of Control are having their homes shelled every day."

      Additional reporting by Baba Umar

      Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

      Afghan mujahideen 'owe Kashmir a debt'
      A senior Kashmiri independence fighter tells Al Jazeera he would welcome the 'help' of the Taliban.
      Asad Hashim Last Modified: 21 Sep 2013 20:07


      Muzaffarabad, Pakistan-administered Kashmir - Formed in 1989, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen has been at the forefront of the fight against the Indian army in Indian-administered Kashmir. Led by Syed Salahuddin, who is currently resident in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi, the group has carried out numerous attacks against Indian forces since the armed campaign calling for Kashmiri independence began in 1989.

      Today, it is believed to be one of the campaign's only organisations that has widespread membership from within Indian-administered Kashmir.

      Al Jazeera spoke to Muhammad Abdullah - not his real name, as he spoke on condition of anonymity - a senior fighter who has been with the movement for the past 23 years. Abdullah, a 38-year-old veteran of the Afghan war against the Soviets and of more than 50 operations in the Kupwara district of Indian-administered Kashmir, says that his group's fighters continue to cross the Line of Control - the de-facto border between the Indian- and Pakistan- administered sides of this hotly disputed territory - and will continue to do so, to fight what he calls "Indian military occupation".

      In a wide-ranging interview with Al Jazeera, conducted in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, he also said that anti-US and anti-state fighters in Afghanistan owe Kashmiris "a debt", and that he expects that it will be paid "on [Kashmiris'] terms" after the planned US military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.

      Al Jazeera: Can you tell us the nature of your organisation's work here in Kashmir?

      Muhammad Abdullah: "The objective of our work is that the Indian military occupation of Kashmir be ended through jihad. Kashimiris carried out non-violent resistance from 1947 to 1988. But nothing was achieved through that, and so, out of desperation, Kashmiri youth were forced to take up the gun, and to fight a jihad against the occupying Indian forces."

      AJ: What is your role in the movement here in Muzaffarabad? Do you co-ordinate operations? Do you provide training for fighters within Indian-administered Kashmir?

      MA: "Azad Jammu & Kashmir [AJK, the name given to Pakistan-administered Kashmir] is a part of Kashmir - both occupied Kashmir and AJK are part of one Kashmir. There is no difference between them. We have a fundamental and legal right to come here and to prepare ourselves, to organise ourselves and then, whenever we get the opportunity, to go into [Indian-administered territory] and carry out armed operations against the Indian army.

      "As far as training is concerned, I think that, before 1995, we needed to have training camps in parts of Azad Kashmir. But since then, particularly since 2000, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen has trained people in different parts of occupied Kashmir itself. Senior fighters are present. And those youth that wish to take part in the armed jihad for freedom, we train them at the local level.

      "We take weapons from the Indian forces against whom we have launched operations. Those [local] youth are trained using those arms, and they use them against the Indian army.

      "That is how things are going forward. There have been many ups and downs. We have faced many difficulties. Pakistan is not able to help us militarily. And we do not wish to become a burden on Pakistan either.

      "Therefore, through Kashmiri self-will and action, we are standing on our own two feet, and are running this armed movement. And today, there are jihadis in every corner of Jammu and Kashmir."

      Kashmir refugees living a life on hold
      Many former fighters who fled Indian-controlled Kashmir with their families are now stranded.
      Asad Hashim Last Modified: 18 Sep 2013 11:40


      Muzaffarabad, Pakistan-administered Kashmir - For Usman Ali, the decision to flee his home and take up arms against the state came not at the end of a gradual process of conversion, but all of a sudden, in a rare moment of clarity.

      It was a chill winter's night in 1992, and a then 16-year-old Ali was asleep in his shared room, rain and hail falling on the village in Indian-administered Kashmir's Karnah district.

      "It was 3am, when suddenly we heard some disturbance outside. We thought some people must have been moving past. But then we heard some women screaming. We thought it must be the army," he told Al Jazeera.

      Army officers kicked the door down, beat him and his roommate and then dragged them both outside, he said. He was ordered to join the rest of the villagers, being questioned as they lined up in a clearing.

      "There was a woman there who had just given birth, hours earlier, at home... It was cold, but the soldiers didn't care at all... This went on for about three hours, and in that time they questioned or beat almost everyone.

      "In this process, the child died in its mothers arms. It was her first child."

      The woman started screaming, pleading for help, Ali says, and she soon got the attention of a soldier, who asked her why she was making such noise.

      "Let it die," Ali recalls him saying when she told him.

      A few weeks later, Ali says, he heard about the rape of 22 women in his village - allegedly by Indian security forces.

      "That was the turning point for me. I thought that forget life, forget parents - I decided that I must go to Pakistan, get training there, and fight against this. Whether I do it with stones or guns. This was oppression, this was cruelty. And who will stop the oppressor?"

      Ali, now 37, recalls how he crossed the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border between India and Pakistan in the disputed territory of Kashmir, under cover of darkness, expecting to receive training from armed pro-independence groups and to return to fight Indian security forces.

      It's been 21 years, however, and Ali was never able to find a way to go back.

      "I didn't enroll in school here because when I came, I didn't come for school. I came to take part in the struggle for independence. I felt that if my life here was difficult, I was doing it for my family who was suffering over there. There should be some reason I came here. But after staying here so long, I have lost out."

      Ali is unemployed, and has been for most of the past two decades. He survives on a monthly stipend that the government of Pakistan-administered Kashmir provides to him and his family.

      His story is not atypical. Since an armed movement against Indian rule over Kashmir began in 1989, thousands of refugees such as Ali put their lives on hold when they crossed into Pakistan - whether fleeing the ensuing security forces' crackdown or to take up arms against India. They now live in Pakistan, most without jobs, citizenship or even identity cards, and struggle to get by on what the government provides.

      The government of Pakistan-administered Kashmir - known as Azad Jammu & Kashmir, or AJK - provides each of the 34,812 registered refugees to have arrived in Pakistan since 1990 with a monthly stipend of Rs1,500 ($14), or about Rs9,000 ($86) per month for a typical family.

      The government also provides land for the 24 refugee camps that it operates, housing 22,773 people. The rest live in various areas and cities across AJK, officials told Al Jazeera.

      Whether in camps or outside, however, most refugees continue to live in makeshift dwellings - shanty houses made of mud, brick and corrugated iron for those lucky enough to afford it, while simple tents give shelter to thousands of others.

      One of 'the disappeared'

      For those now in AJK, the memories of the homes and lives they left behind on "the other side" - as the Indian-controlled side of the LoC is known here - bring a mixture of longing and pain.

      "When we came here, we didn't think that we would go and study, start a business, make something of ourselves - we thought that we would come, help out in the cause in whatever way we could, and when Kashmir was freed, we would go back," says 37-year-old Chaudhry Mushtaq, who lives in the Manak Payan refugee camp in Muzaffarabad, the capital of AJK.

      Mushtaq fled his home at 17, after both his father and brother had been imprisoned by Indian authorities on suspicion of being part of the pro-independence movement.

      "At the time I was very young. I was scared and didn't know how to [cross the LoC]. But the pressure and cruelty on the other side was so much that all day, every day, the army men would come and bother our family. So it was my mother who said that I should leave, no matter what, so that I avoid my brother's fate," he told Al Jazeera.

      It has now been 19 years, but neither he nor his family have heard a word about what happened to his brother and father. They have become, he said, members of "the disappeared".

      Uzair Ahmed Ghazali, 38, came over in similar circumstances.

      "[In 1989], Indian forces began carrying out more raids, arresting young and old alike, imposing curfews, curtailing people's movements. Shooting people wherever they found them. So in that situation, I received reports that I was also going to be captured. The elders in the village told me that intelligence agency and security forces personnel were roaming in my village. So out of fear, like others, we ran away here to Azad Kashmir," he told Al Jazeera of his flight as a 15-year-old boy from the village of Kandi.

      India's government denies it carries out unwarranted arrests or detentions, saying those arrested were suspected of involvement in the armed anti-state campaign in Kashmir, and the detentions are legal under Indian law.

      The fate of refugees in Pakistan bears a striking similarity to that of the tens of thousands of Hindu refugees - known as "pandits" - who have fled Indian-administered Kashmir for other parts of India since 1989, citing direct threats made against them by armed Muslim pro-independence groups.

      For both groups, there are stories of families divided by the conflict. Ghazali, for example, has a brother, two sisters and his mother on "the other side". In late August, he went to the de facto border by the banks of the Neelum River to meet his mother, but neither Pakistani nor Indian authorities would let them descend to meet each other.

      "We just waved to each other from across the river," he said. "At least I could see her properly - she's 75 years old and couldn't even see a few feet ahead of her."

      Hope of 'martyrdom'

      Just as many have had their families cleaved in two by the conflict, they have also started new ones in Pakistan.

      Mushtaq married a Pakistani in 1997, and now has five children who live with him in his small hut. Caught in a bureaucratic legal limbo, they are neither allowed to be Pakistani citizens, nor do they have the ability to return home.

      "Our children have grown up here, and they ask us what is our future? We are very upset by that. How do I explain to them?" he asks.

      It's a sentiment shared by Chaudhry Qamaruddin, a former fighter with the armed movement who would cross the border frequently during the early 1990s, but finally fled to Pakistan for good in 1997 "to save [my] life".

      His family in the Lolab Valley area of Indian-administered Kashmir was persecuted because of his involvement in the armed campaign, he says. After his wife and child were killed and his home burned to the ground, he left the area for good.

      "Our children interview us [about our homeland] the same way that you are doing right now," he told Al Jazeera. "They ask who we will live with, where we will stay, what will we do? They ask who their family is over there. For them, they were born here, they only know here. So they will not return so happily, I think."

      Qamaruddin says he still holds "the hope in my heart that I will be martyred" while fighting for Kashmir, and promises he will teach his five-year-old to fight for Kashmir's independence, too, if it is required.

      "I'll go across the border and fight for my country. Even if I am killed, I accept that. I will always be with the freedom movement… We responded to their oppression by fighting against them... The oppression has only increased and we have fought them in response to that."

      Others just want to return home - not to fight, but simply to be reunited with their family.

      "I don't feel like this is my home," says Zareena Begum, a 42-year-old refugee from the village of Amrohi in Indian-administered Kashmir. "My home is there. Right now, I just wait for death.

      "I miss my mother, and my father died three years ago. I couldn't go for the funeral because I only heard about it three months after it happened."

      Smiling only slightly while looking at her husband, a former member of the armed movement, she says - using a dialect he is not conversant in: "I curse to the grave the person who brought me here."

      Families such as Zareena's do have the opportunity to return under a new policy instituted by Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir. The "rehabilitation policy", put in place three years ago by the Indian government, allows former members of armed groups to return home by travelling via Nepal (they cannot go via Pakistan because that country's government has consistently denied that it aided or allowed armed groups to function on its territory).

      So far, the Indian government says at least 300 people have returned under the policy.

      There has been widespread criticism of the programme by those who have taken part in it, however, mostly over the surveillance and strictures they are subject to once they return home.

      "They call us back with money and programmes, but it's all a trick. They are trying to get us back, but we will not be free there," says 45-year-old Hakimuddin Sheikh, the former fighter who is Zareena's husband.

      "Going back [under the policy] would mean surrendering to [India] - it would mean accepting their rule," says Usman Ali, the refugee from Karna. "I would prefer death to that."

      The lack of people crossing the LoC is not just because of distrust of the new policy. Many refugees told Al Jazeera the process for getting family visit permits - involving intelligence agency approval on both sides of the de facto border - takes months, if not years, to complete.

      Many feel the only way to return would be with a resolution over Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Recently elected Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has made normalising ties with India a key part of his economic platform, promising a new trade regime with the regional economic giant. He is due to meet with Manmohan Singh, his Indian counterpart, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on September 29, where the two leaders are sure to discuss a recently heightened state of hostilities across the LoC by both country's militaries.

      In AJK, however, there is little hope among refugees for the peace process.

      "I have lost faith in the United Nations, in the Security Council, in rights organisations, in world powers, in the India and Pakistan talks process," says Ghazali. "We have lost hundreds of thousands of lives to this struggle... We have seen thousands raped, arrested, interrogated. Houses and markets have been burned. But the world? The world talks of the rights of birds and animals, but it doesn't see humanity in Kashmir."

      The refugee from Kandi says he has "lost faith in the people of this world. But I have faith in God that this can be achieved".

      It is that faith in God, rather than man, that keeps the hope of one day returning home alive in Ali's heart, too.

      "I still have hope that I will go home. Without that hope, I cannot live for a single day."

      Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim