When the war hits home
- The women of Badgam, a village near Kargil, have witnessed three India-Pakistan wars and lived through the trauma of severed families
- Violence doesn’t need to be on the front lines. When husbands are taken, killed, or left on the other side of the border, that idea of home is shattered
The steel cauldron on a mud stove, a conspicuous presence in 87-year-old Khatooni Bi’s dark, carpeted room, bubbles over with pink butter tea, providing warmth on a cold October morning in Haral, Badgam. Approximately 10km from the town of Kargil, and a mere 3km from the Line of Control (LoC), the village was, according to local narratives, under Pakistani control until 1971. Autumn is giving way to winter and below the towering rocky mountains, under the watchful gaze of rival Pakistani and Indian armies, blades of grass form a rough green stubble over muddy brown snow. There is a now-neglected nala adjacent to the high school nearby, with stale and frothy water, which, Badgamis say, served as the LoC between the first war over Kashmir in 1947 and the Indo-Pak war of 1971.
Slowly, Badgam’s oldest female residents fill Khatooni Bi’s room, interrupting each other as they belt out exclamations in Shina, a language spoken in Gilgit-Baltistan (now claimed by Pakistan as its fifth province), and parts of India, such as the villages of Dah, Hanu, Gurez and Dras in Jammu and Kashmir. The Shia women wear colourful headscarves, paired with rich maroon or black embroidered woollen chogas. The congregation (and resultant cacophony) could easily be confused for a group of gossiping schoolgirls, but for the deep wrinkles that cut across their faces.
Nearly all of them grew up in Brresel, a neighbouring village in the Kharmang district of Gilgit-Baltistan, at a time when there was no shelling, borders or military posts. But their happy childhoods and peace proved to be short-lived.
“The first time I got married, I was nine years old," says Fatima Bi, now 79. “My brother carried me on his back to my wedding." One year later, a talaq ended the marriage. The same year, at the age of 10, she was married to Mohammed Ali from Haral. “My relatives could not accompany me on my wedding day because of a feud between the villages over pasture land," she says.
Fatima Bi is one of many women who married young into a family in Haral, India, from Brresel, Gilgit-Baltistan. Trips to and from family homes to visit siblings and parents were made on foot, till the LoC shifted following the 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan wars.
Wholly uprooting her sense of home, however, was the loss of her husband when the borders were finally etched into permanence. “He accompanied my brother-in-law’s wife to Brresel. But before he could return, the 1971 war broke out and I never saw him again," she says. She was 31 at the time. Tears stream down her face as she remembers her husband’s unfulfilled promise to return. “My husband wrote me a letter a few years after the war saying my life would improve if I remarried, but I did not want to. I will be married to him forever," she says. Before he died, he sent her a scarf and ₹200 with a travelling Haji. Today, Fatima lives with her mute and deaf daughter, and her brother-in-law’s son, a police officer, whose income supports the family.
These women of Brresel and Badgam have witnessed the India-Pakistan wars of 1965, 1971 and 1999 up close, lost two sets of families and lived through a change of nationality as a result of ideological and territorial conflicts between the two nations. Both countries today push versions of nationalism and patriotism through a narrative of war and military sacrifice, ignoring the invisible but violent lacerations in human lives and identities.
“The war destroys a sense of home as a safe space where you shield yourself from the outside world," says Samreen Mushtaq, who has completed her PhD (focusing on gender-based violence and militarization in Kashmir) from the department of political science, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. “Violence doesn’t need to be on the front lines. When husbands are taken, killed, or left on the other side of the border, that idea of home is shattered," she says.
Azima Bi, 84, became a bride at the age of 12. She managed to go home to Brresel once, a year after she was married, defying her father-in-law’s protests. She hasn’t heard from her parents or siblings since.
Azima remembers that during the 1971 war, the Indian Army occupied Haral and the villagers fled, spending 28 days hiding, terrified by the sound of firing and shelling. Finally, Indian soldiers found them, and brought them back to Haral.
She claims her husband was among the young men sent across the LoC for reconnaissance by the army. He never returned, becoming one of the 10,000 people who crossed over to Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) in 1971, a number estimated in a study conducted by the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation (CDR). Titled Living On The Margins—Complex Narratives Of People Living On The LoC, the study was published in 2016.
“The Pakistani army must have captured him, he would never leave his children behind of his own accord," she says. “I was separated from both my ancestral home and my husband, my children have been orphaned."
Four years later, her husband wrote to his younger brother Haji Issa, telling him that he was in Skardu in Gilgit-Baltistan. He said he would remarry after he sent Azima Bi a talaq via post, and suggested that Issa should take care of her. A year later, there was a nikah ceremony for Issa and Azima Bi, who then lived with him and his first wife, until both died a few years later. “I have no one anymore," says Azima Bi, clinging to the memory of the letters sent by her first husband before the talaq. “Qalam ke zariye unhone apne aansoon likhe (he expressed his sorrow using his pen)," she says.
Studies such as the Report On The Situation Of Human Rights In Kashmir: Developments In The Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir From June 2016 To April 2018, published by the United Nations Human Rights Commission last year, usually focus on the physical suffering—sexual offences and human rights violations—of women in border areas. conduct a qualitative assessment of emotional trauma and disruption of lives is a far more challenging undertaking. One such effort was made with the Kashmir Mental Health Survey Report of 2015, conducted by Doctors Without Borders, which revealed that 50% of women in the valley probably suffer from depression and 22% probably from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The women of Kargil and its surrounding villages, however, haven’t been surveyed much.
Women in these regions, with identities inextricably tied to the men in their families for economic support or as a result of compliance with custom, often live out a defeated existence when they lose male relatives, land, and access to healthcare.
Badgami women say that until a few years ago, they would give birth in the lap of the mountains, in the middle of nowhere, if they could not complete the long trek to the nearest hospital, 10km away. The men would give the women privacy by hiding behind rocks.
Kulsoom Banoo, 66, says, “Five or six of my children died before they could even be born." When she finally had her first child, a daughter, she died at the age of 6. Eventually, she had two sons and three daughters with her first husband. After he crossed over to PoK during the 1971 war and sent her a talaq via post, circumstances forced Kulsoom into a nikah with Ibrahim, a married man, 13 years her senior. She has a son with him as well.
“In circumstances where the man/men of the house are either killed or missing, again it’s the woman who becomes the virtual victim as a wife and mother, responsible for the family in his/their absence. Such virtual victims are often condemned to long-term suffering," writes researcher Sandeep Singh in the CDR study.
Raza Amjad, 51, is a high-school teacher in Haral. He pulls out a dusty tape recorder from an old trunk and presses down on a play button. What follows is a grainy message and the palpable pain of irreparable loss.
“Asgar, Amjad, Fatima, Sakina ko mera salaam, main aap ka maamaa Ibrahim bol raha hoon. Meri dua rehti hai, ki hum milein. Agar is zindagi mein hum nahi mil paye toh shayad marne ke baad humein Allah jannat mein mila dega. Hum do mulkon ke beech ki ladai mein batte hue hain. Aap logon se meri request hai ki please recordings bhejte rahiye, humare paas aur koi zariya nahi hai baat karne ka. Khuda Hafiz. (Greetings Asgar, Amjad, Fatima and Sakina, this is your maternal uncle, Ibrahim. I live in the hope that we will meet someday. If we can’t meet in this lifetime, Allah will unite us in paradise. We are divided by the war between two countries. So I request you to keep sending recordings, we have no other way of communicating with each other. Khuda hafiz)."
The cassette was sent by post in 1988 from Skardu. Ibrahim, the older brother of Amjad’s now deceased mother Azimi Bi, never saw her after she moved to Haral as a young bride. “My mother died in 1984, and took the dream of meeting her family again to her grave," says Amjad.
In a time without WhatsApp and smartphones, recorded messages on cassettes were a common mode of communication across the border. Today, too, due to poor connectivity and a lack of smartphone access for women in Badgam, long periods of waiting are the norm. Except in extraordinary cases. Haji Hussein’s wife Sakina, for instance, met her brother in Iraq, when the families went on Haj together, upwards of 40 years after they were separated. For most Badgami women, however, it is usually an exchange of presents or letters by an unreliable and often slow postal system or through men who make it across the border legally.
Khatija Banoo, 53, and Sakina Banoo, 50, rely almost exclusively on correspondence. They were 7 and 4, respectively, when their father Raza crossed over after the war. As little girls, they remember being carried everywhere on his shoulders—even for feasts up on the Pakistani military posts on the occasion of Eid, an event meant exclusively for men. “He sent my mother a talaq 13 years after the war," says Khatija. “Our entire world collapsed," she adds. Over those 13 years, their mother Azima raised them single-handedly, borrowing money and resources for their marriage.
Azima remarried too after her daughters’ marriage. But her daughters received the news of their father’s second marriage with greater happiness. “We thought he would have a son who would come visit us and reunite us with our father," says Khatija. This was not to be. Raza’s third marriage resulted in a daughter and a son, who died. But he has sent them presents and photographs over the years.
Sitting together in Khatija’s home, the sisters rummage through two white plastic bags, pulling out photographs of their father, now in his 90s. Anguished wails echo through the room as they compare recent pictures from a lanky, aged Raza with older ones that have messages inscribed at the back, from a time his steady hand could manage legible words. But the tears are broken by a smile at the sight of the traditional necklaces he sent over—14 years ago for Khatija’s daughter Zakia , and nine years ago for Sakina’s daughter Hamida.
A gendered understanding of conflict is important given that women, raised with a sense of devotion to both community and familial care, are conditioned to prioritize both over self-preservation or living out a full life with agency.
“Main dukhon ki maari hoon. Mera kya lena dena? Jung ke samay mere chaar bachche the. Yateem the. Uske allawah meri beti jo mar gayi, uski bachchi bhi paal rahi thi (I’m burdened with grief. What have I got to do with wars. I had four children. They had lost their father. And I had to take care of my dead daughter’s child as well)," says Zainab Bi, now 80. Her husband escaped to Skardu during the 1971 war.
Nearly seven decades ago, at 17, she remembers putting the soil of Brresel in her hair. It was an act of defiance when her in-laws came to take her to Badgam. She never imagined losing both—a reluctant marriage to a loving husband and the only homeland where she knew peace—to a war she didn’t even have time for.