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Relatives of Missing Persons in Kashmir Want Answers - 2003-11-10

More than 30,000 people have lost their lives in the armed conflict that began in Indian Kashmir in 1989, and human rights groups allege an additional four to eight thousand people have been apprehended by Indian security forces and simply disappeared. They say as a result thousands of families have lost their sons, brothers and fathers who supported them and are left in poverty and despair - unsure whether to mourn for the dead or wait for their loved ones to return. VOA’s Prerna Kumar has this report on the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Kashmir.

On a balmy summer afternoon in 1994, Shaheena and her brother Shajaad went shopping in Srinagar, summer capital of Indian Kashmir. Little did Shaheena realize she would never see her brother again. Twenty-four-year-old Shajaad, a clerk in Srinagar’s high court, was about to be married. As Shaheena helped him pick out jewelry for his bride-to-be, officers from the Indian army’s Border Security Force, or BSF, grabbed him and a few other local boys, pushed them into a jeep and drove away.

“Shajaad tried to free himself but failed,” says Shaheena. “I followed the BSF car in an auto rickshaw. They picked him up right in front of my eyes, but when I reached there, they said they did not pick up Shajaad. I am a well-educated person. I know this happened. I have been saying this for nine years now, but we have not found him.”

That was the last Shaheena saw of her brother. Her decade long search to find him has come at a cost. Her mother died in bitter depression four years after his disappearance. Shaheena had to sell her Srinagar house to pay for court cases she filed against the Indian army. And Shajaad’s fiancée is still unmarried...waiting for him to come back. But Shajaad seems to have vanished without a trace.

The Indian government says in an effort to free Indian Kashmir of militants, security forces must routinely pick up individuals for interrogation if they are thought to be terrorists or providing support to them. Under India’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, security forces have the right to arrest people and explain why later.

But Shaheena and other Srinagar residents say these forces misuse their power and randomly grab civilians who have no connection to militants. In 1994 they formed a group called the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, or APDP, to protest the arbitrary arrests. APDP’s spokesman and human rights activist Pervez Imroz says more than eight thousand people have disappeared in this way since 1989. Of these, only two have ever been accounted for. He wants the government to explain the disappearances and punish those responsible.

“We have lot of documented cases where the relatives have claimed that they have been arrested by security forces,” he says, “and later and they don’t know what happened to them. And also in the investigation we are conducting, we have found that unidentified dead bodies have been either thrown in the river or they have been burnt in the forests.”

The Kashmiri government in general has resisted addressing the issue. Last year for the first time in more than a decade, a top government official, Chief Minister of Indian Kashmir, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, admitted that some four thousand people are indeed missing. But the government has yet to provide their names or information about what happened to them.

Muzaffar Beg, a prominent minister in Mr. Sayeed’s government, denies the security forces were involved in the disappearances. He insists the missing people may have gone to join militants in neighboring Pakistan: “It may very well be that in most cases these people have crossed over to get training or to get arms from across the line of control. There are other cases in which people have been picked up either by militants or people in uniform.”

Magda Wendorff of Amnesty International, however, agrees with the APDP. She says her organization has found that over the past decade the missing range in age from nine to 75. They include lawyers and human rights activists who have nothing to do with militancy.

“Not only the whereabouts of hundreds of people who have disappeared over the past decade remain unknown,” she says, “but we continue to receive all the time huge numbers of reports. For example, a recent case of a 16-year-old boy: he was mentally retarded and he was picked up only because he did not understand that security forces wanted him to stop.”

Pervez Imroz of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons says so far 200,000 families who have lost a loved one blame the state government for their disappearance and demand it take action. But Mr. Beg says security forces confront armed militants in Kashmir every day. So it’s not possible to stop all human rights violations. He insists his government is committed to putting an end to the disappearances and punishing those responsible.

“There are some cases of human rights violations which are not deliberate,” Mr. Beg says, “but accidental. For example, there’s cross firing. A civilian can get killed. That is a violation of human rights. But certainly it’s unavoidable. This is inherent in a combat situation. But wherever there are cases of deliberate human rights violations; that is, a person is picked up and there is sufficient evidence that he was picked up by the security forces, we have made sure that there are inquiries by the concerned agencies. Where the agency has not ordered a formal inquiry, we have ordered a judicial inquiry.”

In the meantime, disillusioned families have filed more than 300 cases involving disappearances in the Kashmiri high court. They are all pending and Magda Wendorff says there’s little chance they will be resolved. She says civilian courts in Kashmir do not have the power to try army officers unless authorized by the central government in New Delhi. This further delays prosecution of the guilty.

“The area of impunity and the failure of the Indian government to implement both national and international laws and standards in order to stop disappearances is the main obstruction in bringing those perpetrators to justice,” Ms. Wendorff says. “We are submitting hundreds and hundreds of cases to the U.N. working group on enforced and involuntary disappearances, and we try to challenge the Indian government to give us more details. However, I have to admit even though the present government promised to hold official inquiries into disappearances, they don’t really do enough.”

Mr. Beg says the government has set up rehabilitation centers to provide aid to the families of the disappeared. School fees are waived for their children and they receive free clothes, food and medicine. But that kind of aid has not reached 16-year-old Bilquees Manzoor. Her father, a pharmacist who supported the family, was seized by security forces last year from their Srinagar home. Her three brothers and sisters were forced to drop out of school and she, too, is struggling for an education.

“We had to face many problems,” Ms. Manzoor says. “I have stopped going to school because I don’t have the money for the bus ride. I asked my mother for the fare, but I swear she did not even have five rupees to spare.”

As Kashmiris like Bilquees and Shaheena struggle to survive, they are also desperate for answers or even a small clue that could lead them to their loved ones...dead or alive. They say that’s the only way to put an end to this painful phase of their lives and to move on.