Life in a war zone: The boy who is the boatman of Kashmir

With his father away, fighting in the war with India, nine-year-old Arif has a family to support - by ferrying people across the Dal Lake. Now his extraordinary story has been made into a film. By Justin Huggler
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The Independent Online

As the sun slowly sinks into the waters of Kashmir's famous Dal Lake, the water and the air merge in a glowing vision of fire. Across the shimmering bronze cuts a solitary, gondola-like boat. The boatman standing upright in the stern is a small boy who deftly steers with a single oar.

These are the opening scenes of a remarkable documentary on Kashmir that is up for inclusion in next month's Raindance festival in London. Floating Lamp of the Shadow Valley tells the story of a nine-year-old boatman who has become the sole breadwinner for his family. The tourists on the houseboats probably see Arif Dar as he threads his way past on his simple wooden boat, but it is unlikely they realise how much rests on his young shoulders. By ferrying passengers across the lake, he has to earn enough to support his mother, his three brothers and his sister.

They are victims of the war between the Indian army and Islamic militants in Kashmir. But Arif's father is not dead; he is a militant, too busy fighting to support his family. This story of the resilience of a nine-year-old boy who has taken over the responsibilities of his father plays out against the haunting beauty of Kashmir, the lake carpeted with lotus, Arif's boat gliding through bowers, blossom blowing on the breeze.

The story behind the making of Floating Lamp is as remarkable as the film. This is a documentary that has been made by a director who was in constant personal danger from the militants while he was in Kashmir, yet stayed for a year to film Arif's story. Rajesh Jala worked his way into the life of a Kashmiri militant's family, although his own father had been specifically targeted by the militants years before.

Mr Jala is a member of the community most at risk in Kashmir, and the last people you would expect to risk their lives to tell of Kashmiri Muslim suffering. He is a Kashmiri Hindu, of the Kashmiri Pundits, the Valley's Hindu minority, who were forced to flee their homeland, all 300,000 of them, when the militants started systematically killing them in the 1990s.

Mr Jala had to abandon his home when he was 20, when a neighbour came in the dead of night to warn the family that the militants were going to kill his father. Today the Pundits are a refugee people, most living in tent cities and camps in northern India. With their own disaster to deal with, few have found the time to worry about the sufferings of the Muslim community that they feel pushed them out. Mr Jala is the exception.

"I have my roots," he says. "My heart belongs to Kashmir. I don't hold every Kashmiri Muslim responsible for the violence there. They too are suffering. I wanted to do something to show the world that the people are suffering. I first saw Arif in 2004. I had gone back to Kashmir on a shoot for another documentary. I saw this kid baling out his boat."

It was not a shikara, the grand boats much like Venetian gondolas on which the tourists glide across the lake. It was a naav, one of the simpler boats that are used to ferry passengers across.

"He thought I was a foreigner: I had long hair and I was wearing a photographer's jacket, and he spoke to me in English. I told him, 'I'm Kashmiri'. He said, 'I'll take you out on the lake for a tour'. I was amazed. Another kid came up behind us and said 'Don't go out with him, he's a very bad rower'. He even claimed Arif had drowned a passenger. But I had a strange feeling; I thought this could lead somewhere. I decided to go."

It was a compulsion that led Mr Jala to make one of the most powerful films to come out of Kashmir. Arif's story is one that transcends the endless struggle between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Faced with an absentee father who did not provide for them, the family was destitute. There are few opportunities for a woman from a poor background to earn a living in conservative Kashmir. Arif's mother made a little money with a spinning-wheel. With it, she bought her son a boat, and he became the sole provider for a family in the midst of war. In Mr Jala's words, he is "facing challenges that have adults on their knees".

The film shows the two sides to Arif's life. At one moment, he is playing rough and tumble with his brothers, fighting over a toy gun, and crying when his mother scolds him. At the next, he is staring thoughtfully out at the lake and weighing up the family's problems like a grown man, trying to shut out the sound of his brothers playing. "I will educate my brothers and sister," he says. "We will get my sister married. I will fulfil my mother's dreams."

Arif works for the family, but he also goes to school. When Mr Jala asks Arif's sister, Rosy, on camera what would have happened if Arif had not become a child boatman, she answers simply: "We would have died."

You can feel Arif's exhaustion as he tries to dig his boat out of the frozen surface of the lake in winter, armed only with his oar, fighting for breath in the icy air. In the monsoon, he works with a huge leaf from a chinar, the tree that is Kashmir's symbol, draped over his head to keep the rain off. The leaf flies off in a gust of wind, and Arif runs the length of the boat and leans out over the water with his oar to retrieve it, all without rocking the boat.

The film revels in the beauty of Kashmir's changing seasons. At one point, Arif disappears into the dark under a bridge from the ice and mists of winter and emerges into the riot of green that is the spring thaw. His boat laden with fresh vegetables, he heads to the famous "floating vegetable market", which is conducted from boats floating on the lake, scolding an adult boatman who tries to pinch some of his vegetables.

But his life is not immune to the world outside. Arif got caught up in the shoot-out in central Srinagar last year when the militants attacked the visitors' centre, from where the first direct bus to Pakistani-held Kashmir was to depart, and Mr Jala was there to film it.

When Mr Jala asks him how he feels after he has escaped without injury, Arif says his only thought was of his father. "He could have been there," he says of the militants who were shooting at him. "He could have been one of them."

The film does not shirk from depicting the abuses committed by the Indian security forces against Muslims, a taboo in most polite Indian society, which does not accept they happen. At a recent showing of the film at a fashionable party in Delhi, there were dark mutterings from some guests when it showed a Muslim shopkeeper explaining how the army burnt his shop down.

Ari was also affected by last year's devastating Kashmir earthquake. His family home is a makeshift hut on the edge of the lake, hammered together from old bits of wooden doors and corrugated iron roofing.

It was badly damaged in the earthquake, and Mr Jala filmed as Arif found his limits. Unable to deal with the heavy repairs, the family had to turn to Arif's father, who, for once, came through for them and repaired the hut. But at the end of the film, it is wrecked again, this time by the local authorities, who demolish it as an illegal structure.

For Mr Jala, filming the family as they faced the prospect of losing their home must have brought uncomfortable memories. When he was forced to flee Kashmir in 1990, he moved to a temporary refugee shelter in Delhi.

Although it was housed in a community centre in the fashionable South Extension neighbourhood, the shelter was anything but comfortable. Twenty-seven families were crammed together, and for the first few years, there was not enough space for everyone to lie down at night.

Mr Jala spent the nights sleeping in the open in the park, or under the balcony of the community centre during the monsoon rains. It is an experience that could easily have embittered him towards Kashmiri Muslims: his family had to abandon their home, they lost everything at the hands of the militants.

The Pundits did not stand a chance when the militants came after them. They were 300,000 living amid more than four million Muslims, and most, like Mr Jala, did not live together in Hindu neighbourhoods, but in houses dotted among Muslim ones.

"We had bad times in Kashmir; we were on the receiving end," he says. "But my friends in Kashmir were Muslims. When the militants wanted to kill my father, it was a Muslim neighbour who came in the night to warn us. We owe her."

Many Kashmiri Hindus have made return trips to their homeland. But most carefully stick to well-guarded areas in central Srinagar. Mr Jala went off the map. He spent day after day filming at Arif's home, in a slum area next to a militant camp. He had to persuade Arif's father, a militant, to let a member of the very Hindu community the militants had "cleansed" from Kashmir film inside his house.

"I never advertised the fact that I was Hindu, but I never lied about it either," he says. "In Arif's neighbourhood, everyone knew I was Hindu. Arif's father knew. He was extremely reluctant. He didn't want to let us shoot. But after he saw we were helping the family, he agreed to let us."

The result is one of the most haunting documentaries this year. Arif's story would be remarkable without the backdrop of the Kashmir conflict.

As he continues to support his family, it is hard to escape the feeling that, at only nine, he knows more about how to be a man than his militant father ever will.

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