In Kashmir, a cease-fire destroys more families

While militant deaths have decreased in the past three months, civilian and security force tolls are nearly double.

Like many Kashmiris, Rafeeqa Begum welcomed India's November announcement of a cease-fire as a sign that, finally, peace would come to her splendid valley.

But now Mrs. Begum sees the cease-fire as a cruel hoax. Already widowed in 1994, when her husband was killed by militants, last month she lost her eldest son, Jalil Ahmad Shah. Mr. Shah, a part-time political activist who ran the family pharmacy, was picked up by soldiers as a suspected militant. One day after his arrest, the Army said it had shot him in an apparent escape.

Left with one son and four daughters, Begum has forbidden any of them to leave the house.

"The militants have consumed my husband. The Army has consumed my son," says Begum, clutching her shrinking family around her. "All is lost in my home."

While India's unilateral cease-fire has brought silence to the so-called Line of Control (LOC) that separates the Indian and Pakistani Armies in Kashmir, it has also had the effect of pushing the war down into the villages and cities, killing civilians in unprecedented numbers. Western diplomats and negotiators still regard the cease-fire as the best-ever chance to permanently settle the status of this Muslim-majority state at the northern outskirts of a Hindu-majority nation. But for the average Kashmiri, who must drive through Army checkpoints, walk past machine-gun toting soldiers, and shop in markets where the occasional grenade attack takes place, these are hardly peaceful times.

"When we first heard of the cease-fire, everyone was happy," says Yaseen Khan, a hotel owner in Srinagar. "But they [the Indian security forces] have done the same thing they were doing before. They pick up people from their homes, and then afterward say, 'we have killed militants.' This is all propaganda and drama."

Technically, India's cease-fire is merely a halt to offensive operations along the LOC. Indian armed forces also have been ordered to ease up operations in civilian areas, unless they are under attack by militants. Within days of India's announced cease-fire, members of the Kashmiri political opposition and even a few militant groups welcomed the move, and Pakistani Chief Executive Gen. Pervez Musharraf announced "maximum restraint" along the LOC. Pakistan has also cracked down on the collection of funds for Kashmiri militants and the open display of weapons.

It was a time intended for cooler heads to prevail, with dialogue between India and Kashmiri opposition groups, and perhaps even with the militants themselves. But after a month of relative peace, militant groups like Lashkar-i-Tayyaba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and Harkut-ul-Mujahideen took the upper hand.

Lashkar, the better funded and better trained group, has made the biggest dents in the peace process, launching suicide attacks on Srinagar Airport, and a high-profile though largely symbolic attack on New Delhi's Red Fort, long a symbol of Indian nationhood. A March 2 Lashkar attack killed 17 local policemen.

Overall, since the cease-fire began, civilian and security force deaths are almost double the toll of the three months before the cease-fire started Nov. 26. Killings of militants have fallen dramatically during this same period.

"We are not against peace," says Umair Raza, spokesman for Lashkar, speaking from his spare office in Islamabad. "If the Indian leader [Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee] is sincere, he has to remove his troops from Indian-held Kashmir, and then we shall talk."

While militant groups have turned up the heat, political opposition leaders have been working hard to bring that heat under control. Leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a political coalition of Islamist, moderate, and Gandhian parties, has been lobbying for permission to travel to Pakistan to convince the militants to turn the unilateral cease-fire into a multilateral one. India has refused to issue visas, arguing that at least one Hurriyat hard-liner, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, openly calls for a continued jihad against India.

"At one point in time, we were seriously considering issuing passports to four or five of these people," says a senior Indian official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But Geelani says ... Kashmir must be merged with Pakistan; that this is a religious and not a political issue; and that jihad must take place. Who can consider giving a visa to this type of person?"

Two weeks ago, Mr. Vajpayee announced a three-month extension to the cease-fire, giving militants, politicians, and Pakistani officials more time to find the door to peace, and wedge it open. "It's a very clever strategy," says Sumit Ganguly, an expert on Indian defense issues at the University of Texas in Austin. "It sows discord among the militant groups. It weans away the Hurriyat from the secessionist movement. It puts Pakistan on the defensive, and it sends the Bush administration the signal of 'Look, we're the good guys in this.' "

But last Wednesday, Indian Home Minister L.K. Advani said the "Hurriyat would not be used as a mediator for talks between India and Pakistan, and, if any talks were to take place, these would be directly between the two countries." Mr. Advani added that the government would talk to anyone in Kashmir, including the Hurriyat, but not in their "self-assumed" role as mediator.

The more hawkish Advani and the dovish Vajpayee have frequently disagreed about Kashmir, but whether Advani's comments mean a final blow to the peace process, or that it is simply moving in a different direction, the effect on citizens in the Kashmiri valley is the same. With Army troops largely withdrawn into their bunkers, streets are left to paramilitary forces and militants, and civilians often get left behind.

Brutality springs from both sides, often with a flavor of revenge. On Feb. 8, for instance, militants raided the Muslim village of Kot Charwal. The motive, witnesses say, was to punish village elders for setting up a Village Defense Committee that cooperated with the Indian Army and defended itself against militant incursions. In all, 15 villagers lost their lives. Harkut-ul-Mujahideen took responsibility for the attack.

In Srinagar, Musadiq Hassan says that "on the streets, there is no cease-fire." The unemployed man quit school after his college burned down during the 1989 militant uprising. "Paramilitary forces can pick someone up ... torture them, and label them as a militant. Everybody is scared."

Former militant Syed Altaf Bhukhari initially welcomed the cease-fire. But the continued spate of suspicious civilian deaths while in police or security-force custody has made Mr. Bhukhari distrust India's intentions. "As militants, we have sacrificed our lives for freedom, toward a final solution," says Bhukhari. "We appreciate the cease-fire, but it must be in the direction of a permanent solution. We have not sacrificed our lives for internal autonomy."

In the village of Hygam, Rafeeqa Begum says her family has sacrificed more than its fair share. After Army soldiers killed her son, villagers blocked traffic to demand the return of Jalil's body for a proper burial. An Army convoy opened fire on the demonstrators, killing four and injuring dozens, including Jalil's sister, Nusrat.

"We fear the security forces the most," says Mrs. Begum. "We feel no safety at all."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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