Remarks at the Kashmir Boot Camp Seminar, University of Lahore, Aug 10, 2020
Good morning and As-Salaam-Alaikum. Thank you for inviting me to participate in this very special seminar. For once, I have actually prepared notes because it is still very hard for me to talk about many of the things I witnessed while living in Kashmir, and I would like to remain focused. The memories never fade enough for me to become more composed. Just last fall when I met Rep Sheila Jackson Lee after a Congressional hearing on human rights violations in Kashmir, I broke down while telling her about the Machil Fake Encounter. Kashmir is the place where I learned how to cry, and I still sometimes don’t know how to stop. In 2008 I wrote this in an opinion piece for a local daily:
“I saw many of the villagers near starvation because they could not break through the giant barricades erected around their entire district as part of a collective punishment for speaking out. All the way home from Baramulla to Srinagar, while seeing new and even higher barricades being erected and more and more people being rounded up on the side of the highway, I wondered not only how I could rescue them all, but what might happen to me if I wrote about what I saw and felt.”
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak about it here.
As a German, it is never easy to talk about the topic of Genocide. We grew up seeing images of piles of bodies found in camps that had been liberated. Of course that was many, many years later when the Holocaust was finally permitted to be taught in school. Then as students we tried to grasp the enormity of millions of people having been slaughtered for their racial and religious identity. Similarly, much later I always wondered how the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda could possibly happen after the entire world had said “never again.” Of course, nobody can ever really imagine the tragedy of millions dying and often in relatively small time frames. Usually too much deliberation goes into the management of crises to actually do anything to effectively prevent mass killings anywhere and also clearly define the meaning of genocide. That is why at first I had problems using the term “genocide” when it comes to the crimes against humanity committed in Kashmir. I had always though it needed to be much more massive in scale and more concentrated in execution to qualify. But then over the years and with killings never stopping, I realized that genocide is also a process that can happen in slow motion or spurts, and often spread over decades or even longer. It can also involve demographic changes not only through mass killings like during the Jammu massacre of 1947 but also through ethnic flooding as is happening now at an accelerated pace. I am now using that term for Kashmir without a moment of hesitation. But, like with all genocides anywhere and much before our time, it is very difficult to fully grasp numbers of the dead and disappeared in their totality. In Kashmir also, while looking at the statistics in the many reports prepared by Kashmiri civil society groups and others may induce a sense of shock, it never quite hits you to the core. Why else could people and policy makers all over the world just ignore such never ending brutalities even today? I have resolved that tragedy is individual, and while statistics may be meaningful in history books, stories of individual victims have to be remembered and must be told again and again for anybody to really understand the cruelty of their murders. With that in mind, I would like to talk about some of the killings I personally witnessed while in Kashmir, and also the circumstances under which they died. Many of them were very highly publicized locally, but still NOTHING ever changed and NOBODY has ever been brought to book.
Starting in early 2006 and into 2007, my first years in Kashmir, there were a series of fake encounters which perhaps for the first time were actually investigated. There was Abdul Rehman Padder, a carpenter from Ganderbal; Showkat Ahmed, a daily laborer from Budgam, Ali Mohammad Padder, a carpenter from Kokernag, Nazir Ahmed Deka and Ghulam Nabi Wani, both bakers from Ganderbal. All of them were exhumed for identification and subsequently declared innocent. Police had picked them up, branded them Pakistani terrorists, and killed them in fake encounters together with the army and the CRPF. All the officers received cash rewards and promotions. None was ever put before a civilian court or put away for murder. But it was the beginning of Kashmiris becoming more vocal about crimes committed to them and demanding justice.
In 2008 the massive crackdown following the uprising caused by the Amarnath Land Row resulted in the death of at least 60 protesters and grave injuries to thousands who had been unarmed and protesting completely peacefully without a single stone in their hand. One of the more prominent protesters killed during the Muzaffarabad Chalo was Sheikh Aziz, a Hurriyat leader, who was shot by security forces no more than 200 feet from me. I still remember our panic over how to save his life. Of course the scene was too chaotic to get him any medical help. Most of the other protesters were young boys and villagers who were shot dead without ever having been a threat to anybody. Of course the Indian media claimed that they had been Pakistani militants having infiltrated into the crowd and shooting protesters themselves to create more chaos and anti-India sentiment. During that time I spent most days taking journalists around in my own car because I had a press curfew pass from a local daily and knew that security forces would not harm a foreigner openly nor beat up the journalists with me. Much of that time we drove severely injured protesters, including women and children, to emergency wards of local hospitals. Among them several Sumo drivers whose cars had been attacked with petrol bombs by Hindutva fanatics on the Jammu Srinagar highway and who had sustained life threatening burns all over their bodies. Many never made it out of the hospitals. The brutality of the crackdown was of course the beginning of the Kashmir Intifada which stretched all the way past 2016 and later following funerals of local rebels. It was also the political awakening of an entire new generation of Kashmiris which is much angrier and more uncompromising than their elders ever were.
In 2009, we woke up to news about the discovery of the bodies of Neelofar and Aasia from Shopian in South Kashmir. Neelofar was 22 and Aasia 17. Both had been raped, killed by security forces and deposited at the banks of a nearly dry riverbed not far from the local SOG camp. All hell broke loose when the news about their rape and murder was broadcast. After the initial forensic investigation confirmed rape and the subsequent murder of both the girls, several policemen attached to the SOG camp were arrested. Shockingly, a team of crisis managers was flown in from Delhi, and soon the entire sordid story was rewritten by security agencies. The girls were exhumed and a revised forensic examination by a doctor selected by IB claimed that neither of the girls was raped and that they had drowned on their way home from an orchard in the “rapids” of the river. When I took a journalist from Delhi to the exact spot where the bodies had been found, he admitted that the water level was so low that not even a small child could have drowned. But he insisted that it could not have been rape because the security forces attached to the SOG camp were Hindus and Hindus did not rape. He believed it might have been domestic violence instead. He of course was one who never believed what had happened at Kunan Poshpora and had written a piece about how it was nothing but a plot by Pakistani propagandists to turn locals against the army and India. The protests that followed the murders of the girls were mostly localized but severe enough in and around Srinagar that dozens of youth were gravely injured and several died. It was also for the first time that hospitals were forced to connect the bodies of dead protesters to life support machines so police could pretend they were still alive and did not have to be reported as having succumbed to their injuries. This practice was perfected in 2010 where the death count was so high that authorities wanted to release the news of killings incrementally.
2010 began with the cold blooded killings of 13 year old Whamid Farooq, a 13 year old boy who was playing cricket near his house when a teargas shell fired from close range broke his skull. Only two weeks later, a 16 year old boy, Zahid Farooq, was standing at the roadside talking to his friends when a BSF jeep stopped and one of the soldiers got out and shot him in the head for no reason except perhaps target practice. Because it happened right outside the CRPF headquarter at Nishat, it was captured on camera and the jeep was identified. While the soldier was transferred and for “using excessive force during crowd management,” he was never accused of murder nor prosecuted for the barbaric act he had committed.
Then in May of that year, the news of the Machil Fake Encounter broke. At first there was an announcement by the army that three Pakistani infiltrators had been killed near Machil in Kupwara district. But because the families of three boys who had disappeared began questioning their whereabouts, the horrible truth soon became evident: Shehzad Ahmad, Riyaz Ahmad, and Mohammed Shafi of Nadihal in Rafiabad, all still in their late teens, had been lured by a local Territorial Army recruit to the army camp at Machil near Kalaroos with the promise of a few days of labor for good pay. After the boys were delivered to the commanding officer of the camp, they were shot in their faces, dressed in militant attire and quickly buried after some photos had been taken. Because the families cried foul, the bodies were exhumed and identified as the local boys who had gone missing. Earlier, the major commanding the camp had received his orders to be rotated out of Kashmir, and wanted to earn one more monetary award and promotion for killing militants before being transferred. While the army did not deny what happened, the case was not tried before a civilian court because of the Armed Special Powers Act. All of the culprits were released on bail shortly from a military jail after Modi assumed power. For me this was an earth shattering event. I had lived in Rafiabad for a year to work with timber smugglers and knew two of the three boys and their families very well. I still have nightmares about what happened to them. From the day it happened until I was made to leave Kashmir, I never stopped pursuing the prosecution of the killers wherever and whenever I could.
This gruesome fake encounter and the subsequent killing of a teenager, Tufail Mattoo, who was on his way home from tuition when a teargas shell almost decapitated him, were of course the triggers for the 2010 uprising where all in all more than 140 boys died while protesting for justice and against the Indian occupation. It was also when we lived through a 4-months-long continuous curfew that was so severe that anybody attempting to break through it was shot at sight. Every evening during that time we did nothing but count the dead. By then social media had begun to be used widely in the Valley, and we all talked to each other that way. Then the agencies had no idea about it and how much we all were coordinating and sharing information on it.
Following 2010, protests became routine and especially after prayers on Fridays. Scores of young boys were arrested on a regular basis and only set free after their families paid huge bribes to the police. Many of the young boys were tortured and humiliated while in custody. This is also the time when many local young boys began joining militant groups because of the treatment they had received. Much of this was inspired by Burhan Wani and his friends who reminded people that armed resistance against a brutal occupation was not only sanctioned by the UN Charter but also one way to fight back after all political initiatives had failed. Most of them are dead now. Many never fired a gun. When Manan Wani was killed, we cried for days.
I will stop here now because I am sure you are exhausted from the details. But I do think it is extremely important to go beyond statistics and remember individual victims who have been killed under the most brutal circumstances and continue to be eliminated every day even now. They died for the cause of liberation and have to be remembered by us all. As I said in the beginning, tragedy is individual, and just as reading the The Diary of Anne Frank finally made me understand the meaning of the collective guilt of Germans, I think the world must be made to remember all these boys and young men who died without any fault of their own, and because India does not consider Kashmiris human beings worth protecting. In Kashmir graves are full of not only unidentified bodies but of those many of us have known and cared about and will always miss.
If I may, I would like to conclude this with part of another piece I had written at that time:
“Yesterday, I was sitting near the river under the darkest of curfews, listening to the wailing voices of funeral singers and distant gun shots, mourning the deaths of boys I have never known and will never be able to befriend, and longing to sit at the lake again in the darkness of night where truth can be so easily hidden from someone’s view. The sky was laden with dark clouds, and rain was falling on the graveyards of the old city where the dead were being buried. Yesterday, it seemed the sky over Kashmir would never clear again, and light and sunshine had now permanently vanished from my portrait of the Valley. It was a picture of a place that people who have always lived here have accepted as reality painting, but that I have yet to become emotionally equipped to hang on my wall.
I thought of the people I have met, the respect I have for those who have been struggling against darkness for so long, the families who have been reduced to tears, and the complete powerlessness one feels in the face of unstoppable human tragedy. I wanted to reach out and say to people to please still believe in the faint illusion of justice, fairness and the triumph of the human spirit. I wanted to assure them that people did not die in vain. I wanted someone to tell me that the sadness and anger I felt would fade, making it possible to see bright light again in a place that so often seems to plunge into permanent darkness. But most of all, I wanted to tell people that I had now become a Kashmiri, regardless of how unbearable it may be at times, and that their reality had very much become my own, even if I might never be able to fully comprehend the full range of its dark colors and hues. “