From the Other Side of Kashmir, a Tale All Too Familiar

An excerpt from the book 'Between the Great Divide' by Anam Zakaria.

Traveling through Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Pakistani writer Anam Zakaria breaks the silence surrounding a people who, despite being stakeholders, are often ignored in discussions on the present and future of Jammu & Kashmir. Here is an extract from her book Between the Great Divide, from which a critical perspective for understanding the Kashmir conflict emerges and will surprise and enlighten Indians and Pakistanis alike.

Sharjeel returns and we sit back in the car, driving towards the village where we are meant to conduct the first interview. I can see young boys playing cricket on the road that was crammed with displaced civilians last year. Up ahead, there are women sitting by the river, chatting amongst one another. We slow down and Sharjeel asks them if they can point us towards the house of the woman who died last year. Without hesitation, they point us to the left. We pass a small market where shopkeepers are busy selling goodies right before Iftar time. Sharjeel laughs and says, “You can see people today. Last year when I came, I couldn’t see a single person in the market. It was an abandoned area … all the stores were closed. Do you see the holes in those shutters? They were caused by the splinters.” As he says this, I notice the small holes that gape at us as we drive by. I wonder if they will meet the same fate this August. Will the firing resume with the same intensity?

Between the Great Divide by Anam Zakaria, Harper Collins India (August 2017).

Before I can ask Sharjeel, he tells us to stop the car. He points towards an elderly man walking on the street ahead of us and says, “It’s his house we are looking for. He lost his wife to firing last year.” We roll down our windows and Sharjeel greets him. I step out of the car and meet the elderly man, telling him I’m very sorry about his loss. Shaukat (the name has been changed to protect his identity) says he is humbled to know that we came all the way from Islamabad to enquire about his wife and insists that we come over to his house and meet his daughter. “She will tell you everything.”

As we drive to his house, he tells me, “I was praying at night when I heard the firing. I told my family not to step out. The next morning, the firing started again at about 5:20 and went on till 9 am. Then it completely stopped. Eid-ul-Azha was round the corner and we had tied the goats for slaughter outside. When the firing stopped, my mother and wife went out to make sure the animals were okay. Right then a mortar hit the goat and split it into two; the top half of the goat was just sliced off. The splinter from that mortar hit my gharwali’s (homemaker’s) face. Firing continued for two hours after that and we just held her as she bled. No one was willing to give us a ride. People were asking for lakhs of rupees just to cross the road amidst the firing. Finally someone agreed to take us to Nakyal Hospital in the city (Nakyal is a tehsil – administrative unit – of Kotli district). The doctors there told us to take her to the CMH (Civil Military Hospital) in Rawalpindi for proper treatment but she died on the way.” His voice breaks and for a moment we are all silent; the only sound is of the engine vibrating as we drive up the steep road. Then he says, “We were lucky the firing stopped the next morning and we were able to hold her funeral in peace. It started again at 6 pm, but at least we got to bury her properly…”

We park our car and walk out. He guides us through the wild landscape towards his house, telling us to step carefully as there might be snakes hiding in the grass. Petrified of reptiles, I hold my breath as we walk through the thick undergrowth. The route is steep and we have to make our way through rocks, wet mud and thorns. I wonder how difficult it must have been for Shaukat to carry his injured wife on this route, especially during the firing. Walking ahead of us, Shaukat mentions in passing that during the Kargil conflict, a bomb fell right here, crushing four young children from his neighbourhood.

A small open space, surrounded by trees, greets us at the entrance to his home. “Do you see those holes in the trees? That’s where the splinters hit. The goat was tied to this tree.” He bends forward and removes a rock from the foot of the tree. Underneath it is a sharp rusty piece of metal, the splinter that had hit his wife. This is the first time I am seeing one and Haroon and I lean forward to touch it. He quickly tells us to move back – “It’s poisonous!” he exclaims. I wonder why he has not thrown the lethal piece that killed his wife, especially given that he has children in the house, but he tells me he keeps it well hidden.

Perhaps it serves as the last reminder of his wife, one he is unwilling to let go of.

We have to climb a small rock before we enter another open space. On the left, I can see a few rooms. A couple of young girls, presumably his daughters, are busy making Iftari in a long hallway in front of the rooms. They come to greet us and drag a couple of chairs out on to the verandah. One of his daughters comes and sits with me. The girls had a number of reporters come and interview them last year about the incident and seem to have become used to answering questions surrounding one of the most traumatic events in their lives. She was fifteen and completing her matriculation when the incident took place.

“I had to leave school and take care of the home after my mother’s death. I couldn’t complete my education.” She assumes I am a reporter from one of the news channels and speaks to me with a straight face, her emphasis on making sure I understand and convey her demand for a hospital and better roads to the government (she says her mother could have been saved if there had been a good hospital in her area). She almost seems to have been hardened by the loss of her mother, by having to give up her education (so as to look after her siblings), by living amidst the firing, year in and year out.

She tells me that she has heard firing ever since she was a young child. In school, the headmaster would tell the children to huddle together and hide until it stopped. At home, her father would tell them to rush inside. The uncertainty, the constant state of emergency, the loud explosions, have shaped her childhood and now her adulthood.