Through the vicious cycle of violence that has gripped the Valley and wreaked havoc in her family, a slender thread still binds Shameem to her life…
She does not know whether such an ordinary life — of peace and the quiet happiness and honest toil — will be within reach of even her young son.
There are dark evenings when middle-aged widow Shameem trudges down to banks of the river Jhelum, which flows not far from her home in a village in the mountains of Kashmir. She ties stones to her body, and contemplates suicide. She longs for rest and solace in the only place left where she feels that she can attain these: the cold lap of the river bed. But she is held back each time by thoughts of her young teenaged son, unsteady of mind and body, who was a baby when his father was killed at point blank range in front of his children in his home.
Shameem did not suspect initially that her husband Ghulam Mohammed had joined the militants in 1991. There were many times when she found his bed empty at night, but he told her that he was tending patients. He ran two successful medical stores. He also left home for days at a stretch, but assured her that this was part of his duties with the State government where he was employed as a medical assistant. Those were the heady early days of the insurgency, when militants were celebrated as freedom fighters. They were turbaned and feted in many homes before they left for training camps across the border.
Three years passed this way. It was when army soldiers first brutally raided their home that she discovered that her husband was a militant. One day Ghulam shared his frightening predicament with his wife. By that time, the militant groups had fragmented into factions, some of which had fallen into murderous blood feuds with other groups. Ghulam’s own splinter group had been reduced to a minority, and he feared that insurgents of other factions would take his life. Shameem’s father counselled that his only hope was to surrender to the army, and become a counter-insurgent renegade, or what they locally called themselves: ikwani (which translates ironically into “brother”).
The ikwanis were bitterly hated by the Kashmiri people. Armed by the security forces, they became a law unto themselves, arbitrarily looting and killing like brigands whom none could control. But it was still only with the protection of the powerful army that they believed that her husband had any chance of survival, and Shameem therefore persuaded her husband to surrender to the army. Her father arranged for him to meet the local commanding officer. Ghulam was given arms and a security guard by the armed forces.
In this way Ghulam desperately held onto his life, but late one night in 1995, the militant faction ambushed his home, raining bullets and grenades during a four-hour gun battle. Ghulam returned fire, and ultimately survived the attack. However, the gun battle left dead his young daughter and Shameem’s younger brother who was visiting, as well as four other visiting renegades. His older son was badly injured.
A year later, he was walking in his orchard when he was shot at again. His security guard fell dead, and Ghulam’s leg was pumped with bullets. Harrowing months followed as Shameem struggled for medical care to save the life and the leg of her husband. Later, after three surgeries in Srinagar, the doctors pronounced that they had no option but to cut off his leg. “I loved him a lot”, Shameem told us simply. “I could not bear to see him suffer this way”. She resolutely sold all their orchard land, and took him to Delhi for prolonged treatment. She spent Rs. 7,00,000, and ultimately he was able to walk again, although with support. While they were away, Shameem’s father and other brother were also killed in their home.
When they returned to their village in 1998, Ghulam hobbling on his crutches, he published an advertisement in the newspapers, begging everyone for forgiveness, publicly breaking his links with every organisation he was associated with in the past, and pleading for another chance to only quietly live. But one night, he was visited at his home by his unforgiving militant former comrades. They ate his food, but while parting, they pounded his other good leg with a burst of bullets. His little daughter who witnessed the encounter recounts that he called back the departing militants, unbuttoned his shirt, and shouted that if they had to kill him, they should do it in one blow, not bit by bit. “We have sold our lands and all our belongings. How will my family look after me now? If you will not let me live”, he pleaded, “shoot me in my heart”. This was his one appeal that they heeded. They fired into his chest, and he fell dead in a heap before his distraught young daughter. His younger son was also in the room, but still a baby.
For many years, Shameem laboured in people’s homes and farms to feed her children, but she could herself eat sometimes once in three days. Eventually, as the widow of a surrendered militant, Shameem was employed in a government job as an office peon. But the family was ostracised by the village as renegade traitors. Her teenaged son Aftab disappeared one day returning from school. She learnt later that unable to bear the burdens of the stigma of being the offspring of a treacherous ikwani, he had joined the militants. He was all of 13 years old at that time. But he was mortally frightened and could not redeem himself as a freedom fighter. He returned to his mother, further shamed and utterly defeated, one night just three weeks later.
Shameem now was afraid not just of the militants, but also the army, as she was not just the widow of a renegade but also the mother of a “militant”. She felt that her best bet was to hand her boy over to the Kashmir police. “At least they are our own people”. They held the boy for a few months before returning him to his mother. Since then, he just lost his mind. She hoped in her desperation that he would heal if he married, and she found him a bride at the age of 14 years. He is 19 now, with a four-year-old son. But none of this has brought him peace. He does not study or work. He has taken to drugs and alcohol. He often gets into a fury, breaking what he can in their home. The Special Task Force of the army picks him up periodically, and a year earlier returned him with a broken leg.
The thread that still binds her to life is her younger teenaged son, who was a small child in the same room when his father was killed. She has lost to the cycles of violence that have engulfed the valley for three decades nearly everyone she loved in her life: her husband, her daughter, her father, her two brothers, and — although he is alive in body — her older son. It is in her withdrawn, timid and unsteady youngest child that she invests her last hopes and dreams.
She wanted an ordinary life: a loving spouse with whom she would raise her children, and let them free to the world as good human beings when the time was right. It is the tragedy of her homeland that even this humble aspiration was so completely unattainable for her. Indeed she does not know whether such an ordinary life — of peace and the quiet happiness of a family and of honest toil — will be within reach of even her young son: the slender thread who still ties her to this life.