Fighting in Kashmir gives rise to orphanages
Between 60,000 and 100,000 children in this state of 5.5 million people are thought to be orphans – including fatherless children with mothers too poor to care for them.
Srinagar, India — Gazi Abdullah, a gentle, articulate 11-year-old considers himself fortunate. He describes a life filled with friends, games of cricket, and top scores in math.
But it hasn't always been so. Without a trace of self-pity, he tells how his father was killed in crossfire between separatist militants and the Army when he was two years old.
"After that our home was not in a good condition," he says, alluding to the wretched poverty that he, his mother, and his sister endured for years.
Between 60,000 and 100,000 children in this state of 5.5 million people are thought to be orphans – a term here that refers to children who have lost their fathers and whose mothers are too poor to look after them.
Before 1989, when separatists began their uprising against India, Kashmir had few orphanages. Srinagar had just one, with fewer than 20 children. But today there are half a dozen large institutions in the city – and even more scattered throughout the Kashmir Valley.
"This was never part of our culture before all the violence," says Saifullah Khalid, the principal of the Muslim Welfare Society-run orphanage where Abdullah lives.
"Before, people would never have taken their brother's children to a strange place and left them there," he says, gesturing at the orphanage's bare, unfurnished interior. "They would have adopted them. But with the huge numbers of deaths, this became impossible," he says.
Kashmiris have responded generously to the plight of orphaned children by donating to the orphanages, "especially at Ramadan," says Dr. Khalid. This orphanage, like several others here, receives some funding from the Indian government that allows the organization to give monthly bursaries to several hundred fatherless girls, which allow them to remain at home and in school.
"And we do what we can with these boys," Khalid adds, briefly pressing his hand to his heart, "to give them the love and affection that they miss from their families."
Nighat Shafi Pandit, a well-known Kashmiri activist and chairwoman of the Help Foundation that runs schools for orphans and other poor children in and around Srinagar, says that at the height of the conflict in the mid-1990s, there were days when up to 100 people, mostly men, were killed.
She regrets that the government did not give more support more quickly to the widows these deaths created that could have allowed their children to remain at home.
"We shouldn't have needed orphanages," she says. "Uprooting a child from its home and environs can cause terrible damage."
The bombings, shootings, and disappearances that punctuated daily life in this Himalayan region – once described by the 17th-century Mughul emperor Jahangir as "paradise on earth" – have abated somewhat in recent years.
Last year, violence in Jammu and Kashmir dropped to its lowest level since the insurgency began. There were fewer than 800 politically related deaths in 2007, compared with 4,507 in 2001, according to the Institute for Conflict Management in Delhi.
But some 600,000 Indian troops still remain based in Kashmir, and their presence is deeply resented. In recent months, Kashmir has seen some of the largest protests against Indian rule in years. On Oct. 11, thousands of Muslims took to the streets to protest the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. At least two people were killed.
Last year, the aid group Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) found that in some parts of the valley, 1 in 3 Kashmiris had lost members of their extended families to the conflict and a similar number had contemplated suicide.
With few state resources here for such people, individual altruism is often the only source of help. Kiswar Ahmed, a psychologist from the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, makes yearly visits to Kashmir. She works as a volunteer therapist with orphaned children.
When new children arrive at orphanages, "they are scared," she says. "Scared of strangers, scared of the dark, scared of everything."
She says that Kashmiri children tend to have "a very strong religious faith that grounds them and gives them some security." But she adds that thousands more need professional therapy than receive it.
But some children, such as Gazi, find a way to move beyond the conflict. If he had stayed at home, he would almost certainly have left school and taken a job. But he has a longer term goal: to study hard enough to become an engineer. "Then," he says, "I can look after my mother and sister."