Kashmir's long battle takes toll on people

Not knowing the fate of missing family members leaves anxious relatives in a state of despair.

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SRINAGAR, INDIA // Kashmir's insurgency against Indian rule has eased in recent times, but two decades on from its inception, the emotional toll the violence has taken on the local population endures. Last year, hundreds of thousands turned out for peaceful protests and participated in regional elections, even as once-mighty separatist groups called for boycotts, suggesting political realities are slowly changing. But studies show, and mental health professionals attest, that millions of Kashmiris are suffering from psychological and emotional problems after years of insurgency and counterinsurgency that many feel have ruined the fabric of their society. Fareeda Khan began to suffer bouts of depression after both of her sons - 16-year-old Sajad Ahmed, a militant associated with the Hizb ul Mujahideen group, and Ishfaq Ahmed, 20, an autorickshaw driver with no proven links to militancy - were killed by Indian security and the Ikhwanis, a pro-militant Indian militia, in 1996.

Her condition deteriorated after her husband, Mohammed Tahir Khan, a small-time trader, was killed by the Ikhwanis in the summer of 2000. "Every evening before going to bed I peep through the window for a glimpse of the graves of my husband and two sons," said Mrs Khan, 48, whose deceased sons and husband are buried outside her house. Mrs Khan said her depression became increasingly frequent and she began to have suicidal thoughts, but the need to support her two daughters - one of whom is now married and the other who has just graduated from Kashmir University - kept her from ending her life. But many such as Mrs Khan either do not have the willpower or the familial ties to persevere. A 2004 study, Women and Children under armed conflict in Kashmir, by A G Madhosh, former head of the faculty of education at Kashmir University, found that 80 per cent of women widowed by the conflict in Kashmir have suicidal tendencies. Kashmiri mental health professionals say they have treated thousands of women suffering from such illnesses as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. "Before the conflict I would hardly see a couple of patients a day, but now you will find dozens have queued up outside my clinic hours before I'm actually in," said Dr Abdul Waheed Khan, a psychiatrist at the Sher-i-Kashmir Medical College Hospital in Srinagar, adding that he has recorded a ten-fold increase in patients with anxiety disorders and depression over the past 15 years. By conservative estimates, including that of the department of sociology and social work at Kashmir University, the number of war widows has reached 33,000. Of these, there are about 5,000 "half-widows", women whose husbands have disappeared without confirmation of death, putting them in a position of legal and social limbo. "Some of them are waiting for 20 years, but as there is no confirmation of their husbands being dead, or alive, they can't remarry," said Parveena Ahangar, chairperson of a breakaway faction of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons. Many of those who have remarried, often because they have children and no source of income, have been ostracised by their communities who condemn them for taking another husband without confirmation of the death of their first husband. Mental health workers say the continuous occupation by Indian security forces who enforce curfews, checkpoints and regular searches, as well as the trauma of violence, have also taken a toll on Kashmiris' emotional well-being. Indian officials say 47,000 have been killed since the outbreak of violence in 1989-90, though the state's main separatist group, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, says the number is closer to 100,000. And alongside the psychological damage, the turmoil has affected the fabric of Kashmiri society, leaving thousands of shattered families and many unable to afford marriage. Students from Kashmir University's department of sociology and social work, under department head Bashir Ahmed Dabla, recently investigated the phenomenon of the rising age of marriage across Kashmir, which is largely attributed to the conflict. Of 1,500 individuals surveyed, many complained of "social deviance", disrupted social and family life, growing age gaps between generations, an increase in divorce, social alienation and a rise in drug addiction. Of the 1,500 respondents, 365 noticed a decrease in the population, 361 said there had been an increase in depression and 295 saw a rise in suicides. Now, social and religious authorities, who have been approached by locals looking for help and direction, are encouraging those who can afford it to take a second "widowed" wife. While polygamy has traditionally been alien to Kashmiri Muslims, many, including hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, are advocating it as a solution to the problem of widows and also to prevent the "social evils" of illicit relationships. yjameel@thenational.ae