They call it the valley of death. News headlines brim over with talk about the numerous, nameless, innocent people who have died…but nobody talks about the child witness…
For over a decade now, children in the Kashmir Valley have seen first hand the ravages of war at quarters so close that most adults would have problems dealing with them. They have been witness to the bloodshed on the streets, they have seen their parents get killed, their siblings declared missing, their teachers become targets of violence. That's apart from the innumerable children who have been killed or maimed by stray bullets.
In fact, an entire generation of Kashmiri children know no other rule than that of the gun, their vocabulary is peppered with words like crackdown, crossfire, interrogation -- language that children their age in other places would find totally alien. Young children are finding themselves vulnerable to developing depressive disorders that need urgent care.
But unlike other places in the world like Iraq or Bosnia or Sierra Leone, there is no real network of aid agencies that has been able to provide counselling to children. Even doctors who treat children for increasing anxiety-related problems admit to a lack of any formal psychological care in the state.
Psychiatrists working in Srinagar hospitals and in private clinics say that parents are generally hesitant to accept that problems like aggressive behaviour or depression, or even general melancholy in their children are a result of the fear that the environment around them has created.
Independent studies by psychiatrists in Srinagar suggest:
A study conducted by Kashmir University for the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare says that education has suffered the most. In the 12 years of militancy, between 1989 and 1996:
- The number of patients visiting psychiatry clinics have shot up over fourfold since 1989. They are mostly adults.
- From 14 per cent who suffered from depressive disorders in 1980, the figure now hovers at 80 per cent.
It's almost become a joke. Periodic hartals called by militants or cordon and search operations by the security forces over the last decade have meant that children in the Valley have had more holidays in a school year than anywhere else in the country.
- School days dropped from 210 to 60 in a year because of indefinite strikes.
- Almost a fifth of the Valley's schools were razed to ground by militants who went on a school burning spree.
- Many of those that remained standing were occupied by security forces.
But there is reason to hope. It's actually hard to find a child here who wants to skip classes. Their books have become a refuge for most and that is what is helping schools and the many orphanages in the Valley fight these statistics.
This article was published in NDTV