Without trace

After years of conflict, Kashmir finally has hope. But that's no comfort to the wives of the disappeared. Justin Huggler meets the 'half-widows'
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The Independent Online

Ulshan Chopan has not seen her husband for 11 years, since 23 August 1994, the day he was arrested by Indian security forces. Since then, he has disappeared without trace. He is not being held in any jail - not officially, anyway. The security forces will not say where he is, or even whether he is alive or dead. He's just one more name on a list of 8,000 - the civilians who have disappeared after being arrested in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Ulshan Chopan has not seen her husband for 11 years, since 23 August 1994, the day he was arrested by Indian security forces. Since then, he has disappeared without trace. He is not being held in any jail - not officially, anyway. The security forces will not say where he is, or even whether he is alive or dead. He's just one more name on a list of 8,000 - the civilians who have disappeared after being arrested in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

From time to time a body turns up, dredged out of the Dal Lake with its houseboats where the foreign tourists stay, or found buried in the forests that still cover much of Kashmir. But the vast majority of the missing are never found, and they leave behind women, such as Gulshan, who cannot remarry because they do not know if their husband is alive or dead. In Kashmir, they call them the half-widows.

When I found Gulshan, she had been thrown out of the family home. Like most young couples in Kashmir, she and her husband lived with his parents. After he disappeared they ordered her out.

Ledro, the village where Gulshan lives, is in the mountains. Down in the valley, the fields are blazing gold with the first crop of saffron. But spring has not reached the mountains yet. An icy wind blows down from the mist-shrouded snowfields above, numbing your fingers. Inside, the people sit warming their hands over little pots of glowing embers.

Recently, newspapers have been full of good news about Kashmir. After 58 years of animosity, India and Pakistan are talking peace. This month, the first bus service connecting Indian and Pakistani Kashmir began. You could be forgiven for thinking life in Kashmir is returning to normal. But the half-widows tell another story.

Gulshan's case is typical. In 1994 her husband was one of a group of men rounded up from the village by Indian soldiers and forced to work as porters for Hindu pilgrims visiting a nearby shrine - work the Kashmiris resent. On 22 August, on his way home, he and two other men were arrested by the Border Security Force. The other two, who were later released, remember Mr Chopan being badly beaten and bleeding. That's the last anyone saw of him.

Today, Gulshan is allowed in her parents-in-law's house only to meet the visiting foreign journalists. After her husband disappeared, she tells us later, her parents-in-law used to beat her. Once, when they were beating her, her 10-year-old son Pervez ran out of the house in fear. Not looking where he was going, he was hit by a car and killed.

The family has no photographs of Mr Chopan. Gulshan's mother-in-law, weeping, fetches the one tattered picture they have, of the dead boy Pervez. "I keep it because his face reminds me of my son," she says.

"Please let me see it," says Gulshan. "Let me see my son." You sense she has not seen this picture in a long time. The old woman tries to refuse but Gulshan pleads. Reluctantly the old woman hands the picture over, and Gulshan bends over it and kisses the face of her dead son. Then she breaks down and collapses, burying her face in the picture and crying her heart out. The old woman snatches the picture back out of her hands. None of the family tries to comfort Gulshan. They sit and watch.

Outside the air is cold and clear. The sweet scent of woodfires hangs on the breeze. "They blamed me for the disappearance of their son," Gulshan says as we walk away. "They wanted me to marry their other son, but how could I? I believe my husband is still alive and he will come back."

This is the life of the half-widows of Kashmir. Since Partition, India and Pakistan have both claimed all of Muslim-majority Kashmir - despite the fact most Kashmiris say they want to be part of neither country and favour independence. They have fought two wars over the state, and came close to the world's first nuclear war over it three years ago.

Today Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan along a ceasefire line. The half-widows are a phenomenon confined to the Indian side, where India has 200,000 soldiers on active duty, fighting militant groups who oppose Indian control, many of whom have been trained and backed by Pakistan.

India has responded with brutal repression, arresting and torturing anyone even suspected of being a militant. Caught in the middle are the innocent victims, such as Mr Chopan.

Under Islamic law, the half-widows cannot remarry unless proof is found that their husbands are dead. Scholars argue over how long the half-widows have to wait: some say seven years, some say 19. Very few ever remarry.

And it's not just the waiting. Most are rejected by their husband's families, who see them as an unnecessary financial burden, and shameful. Few women can find work.

When we met Rafika Khan, she and her four children had just been thrown out of their home by her father-in-law. "Three days ago he beat me and dragged me out of the house," she says. Now she has fled to her own parents, who have taken her and the children in. They are desperately poor - their house is just a shack with corrogated iron for walls - and the extra mouths will be hard to feed.

Rafika's husband, Mushtaq, disappeared on 13 April 1997. "The security forces came to our house and dragged him out of bed and interrogated him in front of us," she says. "He was bleeding badly in front of his children."

Rafika says her husband was not a militant and she has no idea why they came for him. It's no secret that the innocent are often arrested in the atmosphere of paranoia that pervades Kashmir. Informers make a good living here.

Rafika tried to track down her husband. It is a trail familiar to all the half-widows: one of false leads and disappointments. Two surrendered militants told the family he was in Camp Malaysia, an army base. When they went there the soldiers denied any knowledge of him. In 2001, police officials told the family he was alive in Sharifabad Camp. "But they didn't show him to us," says Rafika.

Because of a legal anomaly, the family has an admission from the state government that Mr Khan went missing in security forces' custody - but the authorities are doing nothing to find him. The state human-rights commission can find that people have gone missing in custody and hand out compensation money of 100,000 rupees (£1,200). But that's all the families get: no information on where their loved ones are, or whether they are alive.

"My father-in-law took the compensation money, and he didn't give a penny to me or my children," says Rafika.

Not all the half-widows have a family to return to when their parents-in-law throw them out. Shamima Gasi's husband Shabir was arrested on 22 January 2000 - the half-widows all remember the exact dates they last saw their husband. When we spoke to her, Shamima had a black eye. She said her father-in-law had thrown a cooking pot at her face. "My parents-in-law don't like me," she says. "They're telling me to leave the house, but if they throw me out I have nowhere to go. I am an orphan, I have no parents to go to. My only brother is a polio victim and cannot work. My children and I are entirely dependent on my father-in-law."

"It was around 8pm," she says of the night her husband was arrested. "I had given birth to my daughter just 15 days before. Soldiers from the 6th Rashtriya Rifles came and dragged him out. We heard his screams from outside the house. They were interrogating him. My son heard it."

She says her husband was not a militant. But a militant called Abdul Hamid Badyari had been trying to persuade her husband to join. She says her husband refused, but she fears that Badyari, who was arrested the day before her husband, may have informed on him to save his own skin.

"I believe my husband is still alive," says Shamima. "I hope maybe he is working for f the army to save his life." Kashmir is full of rumours about the disappeared: that some are working as informers, that others are kept as slave labourers inside army bases. People want to believe anything that might mean their loved ones are still alive.

Shamima knows what her husband has probably been through in army detention. Her brother-in-law was also arrested but later released. "He couldn't stand up," she says. "He told us he was blindfolded, stripped naked, beaten with logs, and had electric cables put directly on his arms and back."

Not all the half-widows are thrown out by their husband's families. An exception is Shaqila Lone, whose parents-in-law have continued to support her and her five children since her husband, Mohammed Shafi Lone, was arrested in 2002. The family fears he was arrested because he had a long beard. It may seem trivial, but in Kashmir long beards are seen as a mark of the militants, and security forces are suspicious of full-bearded men. "He kept his beard long because he was very religious," says his brother, Abdurrashid. "I warned him many times to cut his beard."

In the corner, Shaqila's father-in-law, Ghulam, breaks down and weeps. You can see his shame at crying in front of us.

Most of the half-widows have been able to take their cases to the courts only because of the work of an extraordinary Kashmiri woman, Parveena Ahangar. She sits in the living room of her house, poring over a great jumble of photographs of all the half-widows she has campaigned for.

She is not a half-widow; it was her son who disappeared, after he was arrested in 1990. But unlike others whose relatives had disappeared, she decided to fight. She has pursued her son's case relentlessly through the Indian courts. She is still waiting for a final judgement. She says Indian officials offered her a million rupees (£12,000) to drop the case. She refused.

As the case dragged on, she started to hunt down the relatives of other disappeared people, and take their cases up as well. She founded her own NGO, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP).

Without Ahangar's work, it is unlikely the outside world would have heard of the plight of the half-widows. The authorities officially admit to 3,931 cases of disappearances in security forces' custody. APDP says it has at least 8,000 in its records.

Most of the half-widows met their husbands through arranged marriages. Tahira Rather is an exception - and that makes her story perhaps the most poignant. Her marriage to Tariq was a love-match. They eloped when Tahira was only 16, and she had to lie about her age to get married at a register office - the marriage age for women in India is 18.

"We used to eat from one plate," she says, smiling gently as she remembers. "My husband called me Fara; it was a love name. He never wanted to go anywhere without me. It was love at first sight. He sent his mother round to my family to ask for my hand, but they refused. Then he told his family if he could not marry me he would take poison."

The young lovers ran away and were married. But on 11 December 2002, Mr Rather disappeared without trace. Tahira does not even know if he was arrested. He left on the bus for a job interview in Delhi, and was seen briefly in Srinagar, on the way, but after that he was never seen again.

Today she is living with her four-year-old son, Sahil, in a room that measures just 3m by 1.5m. It is living room, bedroom and kitchen, and it doubles as Tahira's workplace. She works as a beautician, and when we call there are two clients in her room. Shyly giggling, they draw their veils across their faces.

Tahira makes only 1,200 rupees (£14) a month. She is so poor she had to put two of her children into an orphanage after her parents-in-law threw her out of their home in Uri. "They told me, 'Go to Delhi and work in a brothel. You can make more money there,'" she says.

But the only orphanage was in Srinagar, four hours' drive away. Unable to bear the long drive to see her children, Tahira left her home village and moved to Srinagar, renting this pitiful little room for 500 rupees (£6) a month so she could visit her children once a week.

She went to Delhi to try to trace her husband. But she discovered nothing. She even applied to the office of the Indian Prime Minister at the time, Atal Behari Vajpayee, for help. "All Vajpayee gave me was the bus fare back to Srinagar," she says.

"I don't know what happened to him. I don't blame anybody. But I still believe he is alive and he will come back to me some day. Sometimes my son asks me in the night, 'What will we do if Dad comes back?' Then I cry and I can't sleep the whole night."

For her, and for all the half-widows, the waiting goes on.