Kashmiri mothers hunt for lost sons

Parveena Ahangar leads a group of women searching for 10,000 missing husbands and sons.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Empathetic: Parveena Ahangar (l.), comforts Merajuddin Dar, whose son was picked up by Indian forces in 1997 and has not been seen since.
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A woman with sad eyes and the bearing of a Roman general leads her bereaved followers up the stone steps of the sacred Makhdoom Sahib shrine to seek blessings for Kashmir's missing men.

Near the relics of the saint, they weep and wail for the return of husbands and sons who have vanished during the 18-year insurgency against Indian rule.

A male worshiper objects as a photographer takes pictures – after all, this is a place of devotion. But Parveena Ahangar barks at the worshiper with the moral authority that only a large middle-aged mother can command.

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"We have lost our relatives. We are not here for tourism, sir." She stares him down and barks again. "The world must know how we grieve."

The man slinks away.

Mrs. Ahangar is the champion of families left vulnerable in this conflict. She's also a ferocious oddity in a traditional Muslim culture where a veiled woman's place is in the kitchen. This barely literate housewife has become the globe-trotting face of a campaign to account for what human rights groups claim are 10,000 disappeared men.

Indian security forces, an estimated half a million are in the region, have often responded harshly to the attacks here. Missing men have been snatched from their homes or picked up for just walking near the sites of grenade attacks. Human rights defenders say many have died in Indian jails and have been buried under false names.

Indian authorities dispute the disappearance figure and assert that most of those alleged to be missing slipped into Pakistan for guerrilla training, which has coveted this Muslim-dominated area since partition in 1947.

Whatever the number, the 600 members of the group Ahangar formed in 1994 – the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (www.disappearancesinkashmir.org) – have been forced to the margins of this paternalistic society while the fate of their men remains unknown. Most are unskilled women who were jolted into a breadwinning role for which they were not prepared. Many have been forced to beg or give up children to orphanages – and they lack the emotional closure that a burial can bring.

"The disappearances are like a cancer," Ahangar says. "We have been struggling for 18 years without a cure."

To fight back, she organizes regular protests across the valley and provides families with legal advice. On a given day, one can find villagers from remote areas sitting on the floor of her unheated house, sipping salty Kashmiri tea as they go through documents. Ahangar advises them on how to lodge claims and which Islamic charities can school the children.

By keeping the issue alive and building solidarity, members feel relieved of the sense of powerlessness that keeps them up at night.

"She gives me strength," says Rahet Kowoosa, a widow who cries easily. Every day for the past 16 years she has replayed the evening that her son, Mohammad, was seized by soldiers riding in a truck. They smashed her hands with rifle butts when she tried to block the vehicle. Since then, she has scoured Indian Army camps and jails, and filed court petitions to demand his whereabouts.

"If I could bury him, I would have some satisfaction visiting his grave," she says. Ahangar mops Ms. Kowoosa's tears with a cloth and sobs along.

Among the most frustrated are the so-called Half Widows. Until their husbands are proved dead, these women cannot inherit their property or claim state compensation. Often in-laws throw them out, leaving them to fend for themselves. Islamic law only allows these women to remarry after seven years, but most choose not to in case their husbands return.

Ahangar feels their pain. In August 1990, Indian security forces stormed a relative's house and dragged out her 16-year-old son, Javeed Ahmad. She says they thought he was a militant who had the same name. Thus began her own hunt, so far fruitless.

"I couldn't just sit and do nothing," she says. "My heart had shredded."

By her own admission, Ahangar is an unlikely candidate to challenge Indian authorities. She had a sheltered upbringing as the daughter of a building contractor, married a mechanic at age 12, and immediately set about producing five children. Until her son disappeared, Ahangar largely did housework.

She still remains unworldly. Ahangar cannot read her nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize written by "someone in New Delhi." She is unsure how many countries she has flown to for international human rights meetings. ("Four? Five? Ask my niece.")

But she's savvy in attracting media attention and donations. Ahangar says that public pressure has worked, pointing to a gradual decline in disappearances from 81 in 2003 to none so far this year.

Some government officials have put the total number of unaccounted-for people at around 3,000, but insist that many of those were militants who went into hiding and are not victims of "enforced disappearances."

Authorities consider her group sufficiently embarrassing to periodically break up events and detain her. In recent weeks, Indian security forces have visited the homes of various association members and asked them for photographs and details of the missing so that they can search for them. Rights activists believe the gestures are a direct response to her campaign.

Ahangar's boldness has also raised hackles at the Coalition of Civil Society, an umbrella group that she split from recently over "differences." Representatives there describe a large ego that cannot share the public limelight. At the same time, they praise her organizing skills. "Of course we respect her," says Khurram Parvez, the coalition's program coordinator. "Her presence has motivated other families."

That mobilizing spirit was in force back at the shrine. A young woman shyly approached Ahangar after witnessing the commotion with the irritated man. Her husband was missing. Could Ahangar help?

Ahangar nodded briskly and motioned to a minion to note down details. The other half widows circled the newcomer with hugs. "We'll take care of you," Ahangar said, making an appointment to discuss the case.

Reporting for this story was funded in part by a fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association.

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