Reporting from Kashmir: Restless nights of inner and outer noise

These women would not stand down. They stood together, young and old, fueled by grief and craving to be heard. The army sat across the street, staring them down while they kept shouting “Azaadi, Azaadi,” (Freedom, Freedom).
July 8th, 2010

I haven’t found the motivation to write a blog post in the past few days because I fell ill. Also, the situation in Kashmir is getting progressively worse so it’s been hard to describe the multitude of emotions I have felt. But as it’s always been, writing is a release for me, so here goes…

Last week, I got really sick. I am not sure what the culprit was but I had to make a quick visit to the hospital. It was a horrible experience. I was really out of it so Aya, Tabir and Sajid (from the hotel) were advocating for me. They were my angels. They made sure everything was clean and yelled if necessary, when it wasn’t. I was in a place I didn’t know, with people I didn’t know, forced to be in the most vulnerable of positions. I was entirely relying on God to protect me. And He did, alhumduillah. After leaving the hospital, Hafsa’s family took me in so I could recuperate. Because of all the strikes and curfews, it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to find viable food options. It was such a blessing to have home-cooked meals at Hafsa’s house. I feel so blessed. After spending a few days dehydrated and exhausted, I started to gain strength. Everyone was pretty much under house arrest because of the conflict cycles. Although there is some varying positions on what Kashmiris want, the general sentiment is for demilitarization and self-determination. From what I have understood, the cycles go like this: the army and the protesters will go back and forth. Oftentimes, the protests get violent with stone pelting from the separatists retaliated with bullets from the army. In the past month, some 15 deaths, mostly young boys, made the valley increasingly tense. Furthermore, the army institutes curfew and flag marches to quell uprisings. However, the people continue to protest because they need and want international attention and this is their only means of getting it.

There is so much corruption by leaders on both sides that I am left hurting for the common folk who are being pushed around like ragdolls. On Tuesday, July 6th, four people died in 24 hours in protesting, one of which was a woman. On this day, Aya, Tabir, Hafsa and I met with Nighat Shafi, the founder of the HELP Foundation and Nobel Peace Prize nominee of 2005 (with 1000 women for peace around the globe). Aya interviewed her on the mental well-being of the youth in this conflict zone. After car accidents, suicide is the next leading cause of death in Kashmir. Mrs. Shafi has done amazing work for the valley by starting schools and homes for women and children affected by the conflict, among other things. I did an interview with her for altmuslimah so look out for that in the coming days.

Ms. Shafi lives near her sister, Asmat Ashai, who started Funkar International. It is an organization that is trying to preserve the Kashmiri language by music. Aya also did an interview with her, featuring traditional Kashmiri music. She was generous enough to give us CDs. I loved the music, which centers on the rubab, a traditional string instrument.

After our visit with Ms. Shafi, we were driving back home. Aya was telling us about a story she is working on to document women protesters in Kashmir. Just then, we happened upon a crowd of women shouting slogans of freedom, with the army sitting side by side across the street. We got out of the car so Aya could record the voices of the women. I stood with Tabir who was taking pictures in the background. It was such a surreal experience. These women were so brave. I wondered if I could ever be that brave if life required it of me. The women were saying in Kashmiri and Urdu that they want freedom, how they want India to go, and sharing stories of how people they know were killed in conflict. We saw men starting to gather and knew that was our cue to leave. There was a potential of a peaceful protest turning ugly quite quickly so we got out of there. From the distance, we could hear the crowd growing larger with chants becoming stronger.

Back at Hafsa’s house, the four of us talked about our experience but pretty quickly, my mind started to wander, in search of lighter thoughts. I was struggling to process the intensity of what we had just experienced without internally imploding. Perhaps, I am a coward. Or maybe it is how I have understood to cope with things that are beyond me, emotions unexplainable and counter to my cushy life in the States. These women would not stand down. They stood together, young and old, fueled by grief and craving to be heard. The army sat across the street, staring them down while they kept shouting “Azaadi, Azaadi,” (Freedom, Freedom). I stood there, quietly observing, feeling like I was in some parallel universe where everything was upside down. I felt unstable just like everything around me was unstable. I wanted to run away but I couldn’t. I wanted to ease the pain of these women but I didn’t know how. I wanted to cry but I stopped myself. I needed to be vigilant, run if the situation escalated and get to our car safely.

Since then, two days have passed. I have been in doors with nowhere to go. My project with INTACH is coming slowly because I still haven’t done my site visit. I spoke with some coworkers back home and decided to pursue case studies of riverfronts that Downtown Srinagar can learn from in Singapore and China. This way, I have research I can do from home.

I know this blog post seems grime. But I refuse to let a grime reality dictate my mood. My process of digesting the daily life of Kashmiris is a welcome challenge. I don’t want to live a bubbled life, completely unaware of how my fellow man struggles. I abhor that type of existence. My life slowing down because of curfewed days and nights is a simple reminder of how grateful I am to freely move in my own country.

This land is so beautiful but is it a beautiful prison? The valley is a living, breathing entity and it is hurting. The trees are being cut down. The water is being stolen. Children are loosing their childhoods. Youth are fighting battles they may not even understand. Army and paramilitary forces are having their strings pulled by puppet masters. And black hearts are dictating the life of ordinary people who just want to live their lives. Damn the day that black hearts win.

Read blog post 1 and 2.

Through KashmirCorps, Sarah is interning during the summer of 2010 with INTACH, a historic preservation non-profit on a project focusing on the revitalization of the Jhelum riverfront. Follow her blog posts here on Altmuslimah and on the KashmirCorps web site.
Sarah Jawaid is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *