In a Paradise torn, Kashmiris Long for Independence - By Raymond Bonner Back   Home  
Dil Bazeer Asharaf is fed up.

He is 24 years old. He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Kashmir, and then he completed a two-year program in computer science at a well-regarded technical institute. He has a girlfriend, but he can not find a job.

So he works in his brother's telephone shop, where people come to make long-distance calls from a 7- by-22-foot space wedged between a fruit-and-vegetable seller and a general store. Business is lousy, he said.

Why?

"It's the militants," he said.

The militants are the men who have taken up arms and have been waging a war for the past 12 years to wrest the state of Jammu and Kashmir away from Indian control.

A few years ago, Mr. Asharaf would have voted had any such vote been held to unite mostly Muslim Kashmir with Pakistan. But no longer. He said the turning point was when Pakistanis and Afghans who had been trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, which were run by Osama bin Laden, effectively took over what had been an indigenous Kashmiri guerrilla army.

Mr. Asharaf's anger with the militants is expressed by many residents here. That is good news for the government of India.

But there is more. Mr. Asharaf is just as fed up with the Indian military and police forces, and with being part of India. "The army is also no good," he said. "They're killing innocent people and harassing everyone."

For example, he said, an Indian military officer had come in the day before and had told him he must keep a record of all telephone calls made to numbers outside Kashmir.

Although Mr. Asharaf does not want to be part of Pakistan, he wants nothing to do with India, either. He wants independence for Kashmir.

That appears to be attitude of most Kashmiris, according to polls, many Indian officials and interviews conducted over several days here with merchants, shoppers, and people enjoying a religious holiday in a park on the edge of glistening Dal Lake.

This region of towering mountains and exquisite natural beauty has become a war zone. Soldiers in full combat gear are everywhere. Residents fear to go out at night. Tourists shun the place.

In the last few years, a daily average of one soldier, two civilians and three militants have been killed, a spokesman for the army here, Lt. Col. Mukthiar Singh, said in an interview this week. The Indian government says its security forces have killed a total of 15,000 militants. Human rights organizations put the number of dead at many times that, and residents here say that many of the men the government calls militants are only suspected sympathizers.

The war, the fear, the death and destruction, have taken a heavy psychological toll. In 1990, about 1,700 men and women sought help in Srinagar at the Psychiatric Diseases Hospital, a run-down facility where bare light bulbs hang from exposed wires in the director's office. Last year, the number seeking help was 47,828, according to hospital records.

Most of the patients are women. The major illnesses are depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, hospital doctors said. Suicide rates are climbing, primarily among teenagers.

Children here are being deprived a normal childhood, said Dr. Mushtaq A. Margoob, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the Government Medical College, Srinagar. Instead of spending Sundays with their parents in the beautiful Mughal gardens here, families stay at home, fearing another bombing.

This was a hospitable society where, at one time, "when somebody invited you for lunch, you found you were there for dinner," Dr. Margoob said. "When you're invited for dinner, you'll have breakfast."

Now, many people are afraid to venture out at night, fearing the army, which increases its checkpoints after dark, as much as the militants.

"My sister never goes out," said Hilal Ahmad Bhat, who took his sister's children to a park on a recent holiday along Dal Lake, where other children were splashing and laughing in the park fountains and men were hawking colorful balloons. "I thought, `O.K., let's take them out, we'll have some fun."

His sister's husband was killed a few years ago by shrapnel from a grenade thrown at soldiers. She has two daughters, 13-year-old Farhana, in bright red today, and 10-year-old Farhat, in orange.

"What is the future for these girls?" asked Mr. Bhat, who was married five months ago. "I'm 25; sometimes I don't think we're going to get rid of this thing."

He said militants had come to his house demanding money and food, which they paid for. "We are helpless," he said.

The militants later destroyed his house because he has a government job and comes from a family that has long been pro-India an exception here, he agreed. A few days later, a militant leader came and offered compensation, but Mr. Bhat turned it down. Then a senior Indian official came and offered compensation, but he never came back and nothing happened.

Many here say that the Indian government is not doing even the little things it could to take advantage of Kashmiris' resentment of the militants.

Last week, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visited Kashmir for the first time in nearly two years. He announced a number of economic and development plans, but he pointedly did not meet with any leaders of the Hurriyat, a coalition of 23 political parties and organizations that advocates a negotiated settlement of the Kashmiri conflict.

If the prime minister were determined to win the hearts and minds of Kashmiris, one Pakistani analyst said, he would also have visited the widow of Abdul Ghani Lone, a senior Hurriyat leader who was assassinated on May 21, a few days before the prime minister's visit. He did telephone Mr. Lone's son on the day of the assassination, but no representative of the prime minister was sent to Mr. Lone's funeral.

"I don't like Pakistan. I don't like India," said Mehrajuddin, who is the owner of Hasty Tasty restaurant on Srinagar's most elegant shopping street and who uses only one name. He cursed the government for the lack of electricity, which meant that his restaurant had to close at 8 p.m.

"We want independence."
Published in Newyorktimes dated May 28