After driving thousands of feet up winding, rocky mountain roads, we pulled our Suzuki over and walked to a narrow waterfall. We splashed icy water from a melting glacier on our faces as the temperature crept toward 100 degrees.
In the background, there was an enchanting sound of an Indian bugle and conga drum, part of the festivities of Rabi-Ul-Awwal, prophet Mohammed’s birthday. Not far away, an elderly woman — her frailty showing in each step — made her way along a steep, rising path, a heavy pot balanced atop her head during her daily trip for water.
She stopped with a jolt and let out a scream. Some of us ran to the side of the small stream where she stood with face red and contorted — and then we saw the cause of her grief. A body, a girl of about 12 with long hair and baggy clothing, floated at the edge of the murky water.
Parveen Ahmad, 67, raged with disgust, cursing the fate of her people. She told us that the soldiers from the Indian side of this divided region come across the line and kidnap the young girls who drown themselves as a means of escape. “Our lives mean nothing to them,” said Ahmad.
“The river’s scent has changed since the warfare has increased, the smell of blood mixes with the water and we (villagers) are so afraid for our own lives we feel there is nothing we can do,” she said.
Soon others arrived, including male villagers identified as unarmed and plain-clothed Hisbul Mujahedeen, or freedom fighters. It was time, they made clear, for our group to be on our way. We left and never learned anything concrete about the girl or her death.
This is the way Kashmir greets a visitor: blissful and chaotic, heavenly and hellish.
The area around Muzaffarabad, in the Pakistan-occupied “free zone” where we traveled for six days last year, is a land of lush vegetation and withered children; a land where two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, are in a high-stakes face-off. Each country occupies part of Kashmir, an estimated 80,000 troops between them. And despite modest peace overtures late last year — an extension of a unilateral cease-fire on the Indian side, a pullback of some troops by Pakistan — the two sides are “merely talking about talking” as a New York Times correspondent sized up the situation.
The nations are at odds over issues dating back to the 1947 partition of the then-British colony of India into the predominantly Hindu nation of India and the predominantly Muslim nation of Pakistan.
The predominantly Muslim state of Kashmir, at the top of the Indian subcontinent, however, was left to decide which nation to join. Its leader, Maharajah Hari Singh, picked India, but a promised referendum on his choice has never been held. Instead there have been India-Pakistan wars in 1947 and 1965, interminable border clashes, and rebel groups with different agendas (some seeking independence, others accession to Pakistan) on both sides of the dividing Line of Control.
There has been unrest, especially in Indian-occupied Kashmir, where troops have responded ruthlessly to crush demands for an end to Indian rule. An Indian campaign against militants that began in 1990, said Human Rights Watch, “was marked by widespread human rights violations, including the shooting of unarmed demonstrators, civilian massacres and summary executions,” to which militants responded with murders, kidnapping and assassinations of their own.
Human Rights Watch has condemned both Indian army abuses and Pakistan’s support of fighters who have also committed serious abuses.
During the turmoil, more than 1.5 million Kashmiri refugees have fled homes in Indian-controlled Kashmir, according to the partisan [WARNING: the following link will take you directly to graphic pictures of the bodies of fatally wounded war victims] kashmirwatch.org, and their misery is evident in the makeshift camps we saw in both the Pakistan-controlled regions.
“Kashmir bucho,” in other words, “Free Kashmir,” one man yelled as clusters of refugees, perhaps 100 in all, waited like herds of sheep for nourishment and shelter along the Chinassi River in the city of Muzaffarabad, the first day on our way to our Kashmiri tour guides.
Glistening waterfalls trickled down steep rocks behind the makeshift campgrounds; frayed cloths held up by fragile sticks housed most of the hundreds of desperate-looking refugees. Soldiers were on hand to enforce martial law.
In the summer of 1999, more than 100,000 tourists poured into the regions of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan. Officials felt increasingly confident that they had brought the revolt by Muslim seekers of independence under control, and shops that had been closed for a decade reopened.
Only one short year later, tensions surged between scattered pockets of guerrillas and the security forces who blanket the region, driving trucks covered with protective sandbags. The tourists vanished and the shops closed again.
The security forces look skeptically into the eyes of all those who pass on the way to the market or a relative’s home. Many Kashmiris feel compelled to stay home, fearing being mistaken for an enemy.
“I look at these soldiers and wonder if they even care about my family or myself, whether or not they care about anybody who they do not know,” said grade-school teacher Ayesha Akhtar, trying to compose a smile.
Akhtar and her husband, Jawad, run an elementary school for Muzaffarabad. They attempt to teach the children that they have a future in the world and that they should try to excel despite the war.
“The children come to me and they ask where their sister has gone, or why their father has gone. It is not an easy occupation (teaching) to deal with every day. They always think I know the answers because I am their teacher, but sometimes I have to disappoint them with a reply of ‘I don’t know,’” said Ayesha Akhtar.
Meanwhile, the guerrilla conflicts ensue with inescapable worry for the people of Kashmir.
“My uncle compiled a one-hour slide show comparing yesterday’s Kashmir, the beautiful mountains, water, nature — and today’s Kashmir, full of bloodshed and little future,” said Junaid Mustafa, a Kashmir native and medical student who stands in dull blue jeans and a tucked-in polo shirt shipped in from the United States.
It’s conversations and sights like these that haunt a visitor long after returning home.Naheed Choudhry is a journalism student at Wayne State University and a first-generation American of Pakistani descent. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org