My Speech on the occasion of Kashmir Black Day at the Pakistani Consulate in NY in 2022


Good evening and As-Salaam-Alaikum. Thank you for inviting me to participate in this special event.

For once, I have actually prepared a speech 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 when I talk about them. In 2019, when I met Rep Sheila Jackson Lee, I broke
down while telling her about the Machil Fake Encounter. In 2008, I wrote this for a local
Kashmiri 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 Genocide. We grew up with images of piles
of bodies found in camps that had been liberated. Much later, I always wondered how
the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda could have happened after the entire world
had said “never again.” Of course, nobody can ever really imagine the tragedy of
millions dying and often in relatively short time frames. And usually too much
deliberation goes into the mere management of crises to effectively prevent mass
killings anywhere and then to 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 thought 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 around me, I realized that genocide is also a process
that can happen in slow motion, 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 in the Valley at
an accelerated pace. Therefore, I am now using the term genocide for Kashmir without
a moment’s hesitation. But again like with all genocides anywhere, it is very difficult to
fully envision numbers of the dead and disappeared in their totality. In Kashmir also,
while the statistics in the many reports prepared by Kashmiri civil society groups may
induce a sense of shock, it never quite hits anyone at the core. I have resolved that
tragedy is individual, and while statistics may be meaningful in history books, stories of
individual victims must be remembered and be told again and again for anybody to
really understand the cruelty of the 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. And even after being publicized locally, 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 ever were 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 hefty cash rewards and promotions. None was ever
put before a civilian court or prosecuted for murder anywhere. But it was the beginning
of Kashmiris becoming more vocal about crimes committed to them and openly
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 were protesting completely peacefully without a single stone in
their hand. The most prominent protester 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 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 were 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 the beginning of the Kashmir Intifada
which stretched all the way past 2016 following funerals of local rebels. It was also the
political awakening of an entire new generation of Kashmiris which was 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
leaked. After the initial forensic investigation confirmed rape and murder of both the
girls, special forces policemen attached to the camp were arrested. A team of crisis
managers was then 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 the agencies claimed that neither of the girls was raped and that they
had drowned on their way home 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 at the camp were Hindus and
Hindus did not rape. After all, he had once written a piece about how the gang rape of
Kunan Poshpara 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 that dozens of youths were gravely injured and
several died. It was the first time that hospitals were asked to connect the bodies of
dead protesters to life support machines so police did not have to report them as dead
all at the same time. 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 Whamid Farooq, a 13 year old boy who
was playing cricket near his and my 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 after school when a BSF jeep stopped, 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 headquarters, it was captured on camera
and the jeep was identified. While the soldier was transferred for “using excessive force
during crowd management,” he was never 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 inquiring about 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 the LoC 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 the 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. A few days earlier, the major commanding the camp had
received 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 had happened, the case was not tried before a civilian court because of
the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. All of the culprits were released on bail from a
military jail after Modi assumed power. For me this was an earth-shattering event. I had
lived in the upper reaches of Rafiabad for a year to work with timber smugglers and
knew two of the three boys and their families very well. I never stopped pursuing the
prosecution of the killers wherever and whenever I could until I was forced to leave
Kashmir.

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 the triggers for the 2010 uprising where more than 140 boys died while protesting
for justice and against the Indian occupation. It was also when we lived through a 4-
month-long continuous curfew that was so severe that anybody attempting to break
through it was shot on sight. Every evening during that time we did nothing but count
the dead.
Following 2010, protests became routine, 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 was also the time when many local young boys began joining rebel
groups because of the treatment they had received while in custody. Much of this was
inspired by Burhan Wani and his group 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. All of them are dead now. When
Manan Wani was killed, we cried for days. He was our philosopher rebel who had told
the youth that they did not need to pick up a gun but could also pick up a pen as long as
they resisted in some way. He like Burhan had never even fired his gun before being
killed.
Why all this detail, you may ask? Because I think it is so important to go beyond
statistics and remember individual victims who have been killed under the most brutal
circumstances and stand to be forgotten while we mostly focus on their leaders. They
died for the cause of liberation and have to be remembered by us all. They 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. As Milan Kundera wrote
in The Unbearable Lightness of Being “The struggle of man against power is often the
struggle of memory against forgetting.”
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.
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. “
Thank you for listening.

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