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Conflict Leaves Women Stranded in Divided Kashmir

Sunday, October 14, 2007

In Indian-controlled Kashmir women with husbands on the other side of the militarized zone have spent years and decades struggling for reunion. In the meantime they endure official suspicion and harassment and struggle for their daily survival.

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In Indian-controlled Kashmir women with husbands on the other side of the militarized zone have spent years and decades struggling for reunion. In the meantime they endure official suspicion and harassment and struggle for their daily survival.
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Hanifa Akhtar studies photos of her family.

SRINAGAR, India (WOMENSENEWS)--Hanifa Akhtar doesn't own a computer or know how to use one. All she knows about them is how much she hates them.

That's because she has applied to local authorities for a passport or permit to cross the so-called Line of Control--the de facto border between India and Pakistan that straddles Kashmir and forms the world's heaviest militarized zone--half a dozen times.

But each time the computer at security headquarters lumps her into the category of people who should be blocked either for being separatists, suspected separatists or for being related to a separatist.

Akhtar 36, who survives by collecting and selling firewood and working as a day laborer, wants to go to the Pakistan side of Kashmir, just a few kilometers away, to join her husband Farid Ahmad Bhat, who crossed the border 17 years ago.

At the time, Bhat promised his wife of two years he would soon return to her and their 15-day-old baby. But she has not seen him since 1990.

When Bhat left thousands of people were crossing the border for training to combat Indian rule.

But Akhtar and other relatives say he was not interested in insurgency. They say he left because his brother Nazir Ahmad was killed by unidentified gunmen and that left him anxious to avoid getting drawn into the battle between Kashmiri insurgents and the Indian army.

But the government's computerized records say that Bhat--who owns a clothing shop in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir--went there for arms training to become a guerrilla.


Long Running Conflict

Kashmir is occupied by India and Pakistan and claimed in full by both. The countries have fought three border wars since 1947, two over Kashmir.

The largely Muslim province has been a flashpoint for tensions between the two nations since the end of British colonial rule. The current insurgency, which seeks to reunite all of Kashmir under Pakistan's rule, started in 1989; the death toll has been estimated in the tens of thousands.

Among the estimated 30,000 to 50,000 families and individuals separated by the long conflict, human rights groups estimate that between 200 and 300 women are in Akhtar's situation: stranded on the Indian side of the border with husbands now inaccessible to them in Pakistan.

Left behind, these wives often struggle to survive, get harassed by authorities and, according to some rights activists, are punished on the basis of suspicions even when there is little or no proof that their husbands are involved in the insurgency.

One is Niaz Mohammed, 70, separated from her husband Barkat Bi, 70, since 1965. For 42 years the couple were close enough to see each other across the border line between their two villages and they could even hear each other if they yelled loudly enough. Earlier this year, in March, they finally managed to have a reunion, when Niaz Mohammed was granted a permit for 28 days to visit Barkat Bi on the Indian side.

Theses stories are exhausting, even for onlookers.

Jana Begum of Uri, a village in India close to the Line of Control, died in the massive Oct. 8, 2005, earthquake after years of waiting for her husband Sherzaman, who fled to Pakistan-administered Kashmir after refusing to work as an informer for the Indian army. Her relatives now think death must have brought her relief.


Broken Families High on Agenda

During the official peace process of the past three years the plight of separated families has often been high on the agenda. But after opening five meeting points across the Line of Control, fewer than 2,000 people have managed to win the related travel permits, granted only after verification by numerous security agencies on both sides of the border.

In 2005 India and Pakistan took a step toward improved relations by starting a bus service between the two parts of Kashmir.

Akhtar was among the first to fill out the form required to take the bus, but was denied permission for the same reason she has always been provided: her suspected links to separatist activity.

Parvez Imroz, founder of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies, a nongovernmental agency working for human rights, says India uses passports to punish people for any connection with separatists, however remote.

In 2006 Akhtar's daughter Nahida Akhtar crossed to the Pakistan side of the border when she was 15. She and her grandmother had succeeded in getting a passport and went to visit her father.

"He kept Nahida with him in the hope I would also reach there soon and we would live happily ever after," sighs Akhtar.

Akhtar wonders why--if her daughter and mother-in-law can visit her husband--she cannot. "What is my fault?" she asks.


Desperate to Clear Her Computer Name

In her desperation to get the passport Akhtar at one point bribed a government official with about $750 by selling every valuable thing in her house to clear her name from the computer.

But the official turned out to be an imposter and the money was wasted.

She longs to leave India-administered Kashmir not only to rejoin her husband but also to escape harassment on her side of the border. Army intelligence officers sporadically raid her house or houses of her relatives to find her, question her about Bhat and have even beaten her.

The house she briefly shared with her husband was reduced to ashes during a raid by the Indian army in 1999. Her relatives, along with human rights activists, allege that Abdul Rashid, one of her most supportive brothers, was subjected to enforced disappearance by the military.

Sitting inside her two-room mud house, tears roll down Akhtar's cheeks whenever she opens up the old photo album that provides her only tangible link with her husband and daughter.

She's stopped getting letters because correspondence in the past attracted the attention of authorities who took it as a reason to harass her.

She can't reach her husband by phone because India in 1989 blocked the calling facility from Kashmir to Pakistan.

Every six months or so Bhat manages to get through to her on the phone, but their conversations are restrained by fear the security police may be eavesdropping.

On Oct. 14, 2005, following the earthquake, Akhtar tried to cross the Line of Control illegally while security agents were preoccupied. She and some others who were looking to reunite with family members made it through a number of checkpoints. But that happened to be the day when the army was redeployed. When she reached the point where civilians are strictly prohibited a relative emphasized the risks she would face and persuaded her to turn back.

Haroon Mirani is a Kashmir-based freelance journalist who has covered the region for the past five years.

Women's eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.

For more information:

Charkha Web site for separated families:
http://www.charkha.org/newsletter/cvs_eng_aug04.htm

"Kashmir's Half-Widows Struggle for Fuller Life":
http://womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/3031/

"In Kashmir, Women Police Streets Taliban-Style":
http://womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/2883/

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