Kashmir: A Rebel’s Life

Aug 2016

Kashmiri protester being beaten by Indian security forces with a brick and bamboo sticks as they detain him during a protest in Srinagar. March 27, 2009.

Kashmiri protester being beaten by Indian security forces with a brick and bamboo sticks as they detain him during a protest in Srinagar. March 27, 2009

In late 2015, I made my way to the posh F-8 Sector of Islamabad to interview a rebel. Muhammad Khizer (not his real name), arrived in Azad Kashmir, which is administered by Pakistan, from District Kupwara in Indian occupied Kashmir for arms training during the 1990s. Leading his own rebel fighter group, he was actively involved in the freedom struggle until 2001 when crackdowns by the Pakistani state post 9/11 rendered many rebel organizations impotent.

Since 1947, Kashmir has been divided. Azad Jammu and Kashmir is controlled by Pakistan; many Kashmiris would argue it is actually occupied by Pakistan. The end goal of the liberation movement for them is not merger with Pakistan but an independent state. The second region of Kashmir is occupied by India with the highest soldier-to-civilian ratio on earth.

Now a middle-aged man working for a human rights organization in Pakistan’s capital, Khizer once studied economics at Kashmir University. He was teaching at a school in Kupwara when he decided to join the mujahideen to fight the Indian regime.

“In Kashmir, every child knows we are under occupation. This is not something we are taught. It is just a belief we have from birth, it is an inherent understanding in us, that we are not Indians. I had this understanding too, for as long as I can remember. But this didn’t mean I knew I’d become a freedom fighter. I didn’t know that. It was in the late 1980s that the freedom fighter movement reached its peak, and all the youth got involved. I got involved then too.”

Khizer is one of thousands of young boys who crossed over to Pakistani administered Kashmir after 1989. Some stayed in Pakistan. Others returned to wage a resistance struggle against the Indian forces occupying Kashmir, with some articulating it as a jihad. Today, over 30,000 refugees remain on this side of the Line of Control (LoC), the military boundary that divides Indian administered Kashmir from its Pakistani counterpart. Many live in refugee camps scattered across Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan administered Kashmir, while others, like Khizer, work in affluent areas in big cities. They hold Pakistani ID cards like the rest of the residents of Kashmir. The ID cards are issued by the Pakistani government and state that the holder is a citizen of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. They also have reserved seats in the Assembly, and receive monthly monetary compensation by the Pakistani government.

I visited some of these refugees in November 2015. Some of the refugees I spoke with told me that while they are desperate to go back to their homes located in Indian administered Kashmir where many of their families continue to reside, they are afraid to return because they may be charged with militancy and arrested. Others are now comfortably settled in Pakistan with an income from the government and don’t want to uproot again. But a short while ago, the Indian government informally established a rehabilitation policy for Kashmiri families, encouraging those who went for arms training between 1989-2009 to return with their dependents. Because the policy was unofficial, there were no proper legal channels for families to travel back to their homes. Still, some risked the return through precarious routes paying middle-men exorbitant amounts of money just for the chance to go home again.

Sayar Lone, his wife Irum Sayar, and their three-year-old daughter are one such family. They returned to their hometown [in 2012] of Shopian by traveling via Nepal and paying over three lakh rupees (approximately 3000 USD)—an enormous sum—to the agent who helped them cross over. It was the end of a long journey that began 11 years ago when Sayar was a 9th grade student who crossed the LoC into the Pakistani side with five of his friends.

I interviewed Sayar via a Whatsapp call, which disconnected over 25 times during our one-hour conversation. I am told that such disconnection is routine when families try to connect with each other across the LoC. Through the interruptions, Sayar told me his story: how he lived in a Hizbul Mujahideen camp for five years, his marriage to his wife Irum Sayar and their eventual return to Shopian four years ago:

We left for school one morning, and one of our friends told us he had met a mujahid who said he could help us cross over. We were 17-18 year olds… We had no idea what Pakistan had, what people did in Pakistan, what jihad was but everyone wanted to go across. We all wanted to get arms training and come back and fight. My friends and I decided to go too. It took us three months to reach as we only traveled during the night… Of course we were scared, but when we realized that we were too far ahead, that we couldn’t go back, we decided that there was no point of fear. I told myself that whatever happens will happen. Even if I die I didn’t have a choice. Once I made that decision, there was no more fear.

We eventually reached a Hizbul Mujahideen camp, where there were 800-900 other boys, all from Indian Occupied Kashmir. There were two other camps nearby too, one in Mansera and one in Balakot. There were about 2000-3000 other boys like me in these camps. It was 2001 by this time, and the elders in the camps were informed by the Musharraf government that they had to lay low, that there would be no more attacks. There were fences on the Line of Control by now and it wouldn’t be possible to cross over. We were young and didn’t know much… It was the elders’ decision and we just listened to them.

I lived in the camp until 2006, but there was no arms training. We were just instructed to pray five times a day and had a one-hour Quran class in which we were taught about jihad. They told us that India was our enemy, is our enemy, and will always be our enemy. We had to fight against her, even if it meant losing our life. They explained that jihad meant fighting against oppression, against zulm (cruelty). There used to be crackdowns every month in my village before I left. We had seen so much torture, so I began to understand the true meaning of jihad. But there was no ammunition, no activity in the camp and eventually it closed down. People left and got married. That’s what I did too.

I moved to Islamabad and somebody introduced me to my wife’s family who lived in Rawalpindi. We got married in 2007 and had a daughter. I wanted to bring them back to my home and meet my parents. I hadn’t told them anything before leaving but at that time everyone knew that if the boy didn’t return by sunset, he had become a mujahid. When I spoke to them, three years after coming, they began to cry on the phone. They had thought I must have died. They ached for me to come back. I wanted to see them, my father especially because he was sick, but I was happy in Pakistan. I had an ID card. I got Rs. 13,000 from the government every month and I had a job in Metro Shoes in Islamabad. Life was good. But my family kept insisting we come back so we did in 2012. I was initially interrogated by every agency, I was even arrested for 15 days. Everything the government promised, all the compensation, the money for surrendering was never given to us. No one even asked us how we were doing once they were done interrogating me. But I don’t care. I don’t expect anything out of the government. I am only concerned about my wife. We thought she would be able to visit her family whenever she wanted, but it’s been four years and they just don’t let her go.

Irum, a young Pakistani girl, had just completed her F.A. when she married Sayar. She tells me that she had no idea about his past until she crossed over to Shopian in 2012:

I learnt about why he left from other people later on. At that time, I didn’t know anything. All I knew was that a woman’s home is in her susral [in-laws]…larki susral mein hi achi lagti hai [A girl is good if she is with her in-laws.]… So, I thought I must go live there too. My father-in-law was unwell, and my mother-in-law would keep asking us to come so I convinced my husband. I thought I would return for a visit every six months. But, I don’t have the State Subject Document, I don’t have a passport, I am not allowed to visit. There are about 200-300 other such Pakistani women who are in the same position. They say that if they let us go, the Pakistani Army may bother us. They may not let us come back. That doesn’t make any sense. My husband’s home is my home. Of course I will come back. I have now approached the Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti… She has promised to look into my case. I am the first woman who has been able to highlight her case like that so I am very hopeful.

Irum’s father is a heart patient, his condition worsening after she left. His kidneys are on the verge of failing, and his diabetes is out of control. He desperately wants to see his daughter one more time, but laws and legalities stand in the way. Her daughter, now seven, also wants to see her grandparents, her uncles, and aunts. Irum tells me that she has had a hard time adjusting with her in-laws as well. “The culture here is very different. My in-laws don’t treat me like a daughter. I haven’t been able to adjust… How can I when my mind is in two places? I just wish I could see my family again. Can you please write about this so there is more pressure on the government?” I promise her I will.

Today, the couple lives separately from Sayar’s family who asked them to leave the family home. Sayar blames the village lifestyle for the separation.

“I’ve lived in the city, I’ve studied the Quran…village people don’t have the same knowledge. They are illiterate. They let their women go out till late at night. Sisters, wives return home at 11 in the night…their men don’t know where they are. I learnt through my education in the camp that this is wrong. When I tried to curb the behavior of the women in my family they told me to go away, they said they wanted their freedom. They don’t know the right way you see.”

Sayar has been urbanized, Islamized. He no longer fits in. His wife, meanwhile, lurks in between, unable to visit one home, unable to make a place in the other. The two have taken turns being divided from their families. But, there is one difference as Irum points out, “I don’t know what was going through my husband’s head but he chose to leave his family, to give up everything when he crossed over for training. I didn’t choose to leave my family behind so why must I sacrifice, why must I be punished?”

Anam Zakaria is the author of Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians (HarperCollins 2015) and an upcoming book on Pakistan Administered Kashmir.


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One Response to Kashmir: A Rebel’s Life

  1. Kashmir Jobs on Nov 2016 at 3:07 AM

    Now a middle-aged man working for a human rights organization in Pakistan’s capital, Khizer once studied economics at Kashmir University. He was teaching at a school in Kupwara when he decided to join the mujahideen to fight the Indian regime.

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