Trekking in Kashmir: Where nuclear powers once clashed

Kashmir – torn by nuclear rivals India and Pakistan – hopes new trekking business will divert timber smugglers and help reivive the economy.

By , Staff writer

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    This is the in-depth "focus" article that appears in the Oct. 3 issue of the the weekly Christian Science Monitor magazine. Reporter Ben Arnoldy travels the near vertical slopes of Kashmir with former timber smugglers who now look for a new economic livelihood guiding trekking tours where nuclear rivals India and Pakistan once clashed.
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On that first day, we climbed up and up into Kashmir's forests and mountains, home to nomadic shepherds, timber thieves, and Indian soldiers defending the Line of Control from Pakistani militants.

I was the first Westerner some had ever seen on the Himalayan footpaths crisscrossing the world's most militarized zone. Rimmed by peaks flowing into Pakistan and China, the Kashmir Valley looks pristine. But for decades it was a paradise lost to fighting between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan and a Kashmiri Muslim struggle for independence from New Delhi.

The armed conflicts have mostly ended in Kashmir. But absent a political resolution, spring never followed winter: no thaw in relations between Kashmiris and Indians and few shoots of economic revival.

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The expedition I took represents one group's efforts to bring back foreign trekkers and economic life to rural Kashmir. My companions were 10 Kashmiri men, among them former tree smugglers training to become guides on the very footpaths they once trod secretly by moonlight.

Our four-day vertical foray allowed me to trace some of the social problems like timber smuggling that are festering here. Villagers cut the trees because of widespread rural unemployment and deep corruption, both results of Kashmir's unresolved status. Without trees, the snow would melt early, the greenery would recede, and shepherds and tour guides alike would be finished.

The organization, Trekking for Trees, is trying to move Kashmiris off the path of destroying their own natural heritage before it's too late. Doing something seemingly so simple, however, has made many powerful people nervous, including the Indian security forces who control even the remotest corners of the countryside.

In the background of any initiative here looms "The Kashmir Problem." The Kashmir Valley can feel like a prison: restless, brooding, waiting on unlikely appeals. At times, the trek felt like parole from all that. The guides practiced for a day when foreign tourists would visit. But the guards were never far away, watchful. And the men carried memories heavier than their packs.

That Night, our first obstacle was finding a flat place on the mountainside to pitch our tent.

Noor Mohammad Bhat, a weathered cattle herder, offered the mud-and-timber roof of his hut.

I was tired from our walk in the woods and had been quietly ruing my lack of physical endurance. But Mr. Bhat quickly reframed my thoughts for the trek around a different sort of endurance – the emotional, spiritual, cultural strength of a people who have struggled for six decades for some sort of resolution for their homeland.

Bhat, his wife, son, and 10 head of cattle stay here for the summer. When snow comes, they head back down the valley, and the cattle owner pays him $135 total for their care.

After some cups of pink, salty tea known as noon chai, Bhat told us of his sons. His eldest, Ghulam Mohammad, has been in prison for 11 years. As Bhat tells it, his son got wind of a plot by three Ikhwanis to blackmail a village. So he preemptively killed them. (The Ikhwanis are former Kashmiri separatists who were captured by India and flipped to fight as counterinsurgents for the Indian government. Some Ikhwanis turned to banditry after the armed insurgency was crushed in the 1990s.)

Another of Bhat's sons, Nazir Ahmad, turned up dead in 2008 in a ravine we'd walked past earlier in the day. Bhat has his suspicions about who tortured and killed his son, but won't say until police agree to file a report and open an investigation. "I often think that the people should be brought to justice," he says, "but ... I have a son alive in jail and ... so my whole energy is to release him."

The next morning, two women showed up at our camp with bags of chili powder and turmeric.

Someone had forgotten to pack the spices. The discovery the night before caused such a stir that one of my companions called his wife in Novroz Baba, the village where we started. Within two hours she and a friend covered the distance we'd taken five hours of slogging to climb. A horse even carried my pack and I still hit the grass hard every time we stopped.

I felt bad about sticking the horse with my pack, especially after the animal tumbled into the ravine where Bhat's son had been found. But I was reassured when I learned that horses are normally used to smuggle out massive tree trunks.

As we resumed our marches, my guides told me how illegal logging works. The trees can be cut quietly by day: Thieves use axes and handsaws to fell two-foot-thick fir and deodar trunks. At night, they come back with horses. A tree is cut into about seven logs; a horse can carry two logs at a time, making it a four-night job. Prices vary, but here a whole tree can fetch $320. But that's not all profit: One former smuggler on the trail with me regularly paid $70 to bribe the forest officer and $45 to bribe the police.

Still, $50 a day is big money here. The government price for a trekking guide is $11 a day. But that hasn't discouraged Trekking for Trees.

"We make them aware and educate them about the value of the forest. If there will be no trees, there will be no [lasting] snow. And there will be landslides on these mountains," says Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, one of the organization's leaders who is hiking with us.

Trekking for Trees is looking for other alternative livelihoods for villages, such as guesthouses and orchards.

One of the quietest and gentlest guides told me that "through this profession, there is honor and through timber smuggling there is no honor."

On the afternoon of the second day, we reached a wide-open meadow ringed by mountains. Thousands of trees and thousands of sheep dotted the slopes. In a few corners lay stumps and wood chips: Timber thieves had done their dishonorable deed. The trade-off between honor and economic security, as the smuggler-turned-guide described it, will continue to be too great for many Kashmiris until more legitimate development comes.

After setting up camp, I followed three of the city boys in my group to look at the cuttings: Abid Hussain, a sports reporter for the newspaper Greater Kashmir; his buddy Sameer Ahmed; and Muneer Ahmed, a Trekking for Trees driver.

As we sat on a fallen trunk, Muneer told about a two-month forest department internship he did that was supposed to involve catching timber thieves. But he heard tales from officers that the focus was more on shakedowns. In one story, forest officers hung tin cups on trees and returned later to pick up their bribes.

Still, Muneer was disappointed that he wasn't offered a position. Government jobs mean stability and a ticket to marriage, powerful draws regardless of a person's political views.

India quelled armed separatism a decade ago, but never won over the people. The majority in the valley want independence. Concerned that Pakistani militants and cross-border training of Kashmiris could return if security softens, Indian forces stay on – and investors and foreign tourists stay away. To help contain periodic unrest, India has poured in money for government projects and jobs.

A Kashmiri businessman, Iqbal Trumboo, told me later in Srinagar: "This is what the government can offer common Kashmiris to keep quiet – government jobs."

The state has only 11 million people but half a million government employees. Meanwhile, the private sector is paralyzed by the lack of any settlement to Kashmiri aspirations for self-determination, says Mr. Trumboo.

A houseboat owner on Dal Lake in Srinagar says he still dreams of Western tourists returning.

"It's because we overpay, right?" I asked.

A. Rashid Dangola shook his head, recalling guiding Westerners for money, but enjoying himself: "We can understand each other better than we can a person from Delhi or Bombay."

The German founder of Trekking for Trees, Carin Jodha Fischer, tells me later that she is targeting foreign tourists because they spend more and are interested in outdoor activities. She says European governments should stop warning against travel to Kashmir as it has been safe for many years.

And she wants the Indian government to encourage foreign tourists. That requires loosening up Army restrictions on travel into mountain areas near the Line of Control, still closely watched for armed infiltrators from Pakistan. For my trip, she sought special permission ahead of time.

"It is only now through relationship-building with the Army that all the sudden they are becoming supportive. Before, it was just a straight 'no,' " says Ms. Fischer, who notes that tourism dollars will mean jobs, development, and less unrest.

But to what degree does India want foreigners to grow familiar with the current situation?

"They don't want that out-siders should see what's happening in Kashmir," says a state official not authorized to speak. "After the insurgency, every place has been occupied by security forces and people need to seek permission."

That second evening, as we sat around the campfire, Bashir Malik, one of the guides, appeared holding aloft a skinned sheep by its rear foot. The mountain slopes now had one less sheep and the Kashmiris whooped for joy. Muslims in India and Kashmir revere meat even more than American men at a backyard barbecue. Meat-eating differentiates them from Hindus, who lean toward vegetarianism. It's also luxurious because meat is expensive. But the group refused to let me chip in for the shepherd's fee. "You're a guest," said Dr. Rasool

The sheep would be the next day's dinner. This night it was a curry of wild mushroom picked trailside. The men fed the fire with ever bigger logs until a large bonfire rose up. In the wide glow, Mr. Malik took out his cellphone and blasted a wedding song about "henna night" sung in Urdu. The dancing began.

The henna night is the wedding eve in South Asia when relatives tattoo the bride's skin. The song reminded me that for all the differences Kashmiris feel with Indians, many customs overlap. And it also underscored the premium put on marriage here, something the city boys complained was growing unaffordable. To win over a female's family, ever more money is needed and often a government job – which requires joining a system of corruption and collusion.

Malik dragged me into the circle of dancing Kashmiris. I'm not much of a dancer and the rhythms and moves were culturally unfamiliar. But what was the point of inhibition when there was nothing to look down on us but the flying sparks and a million stars?

As I whirled around, I heard Mr. Hussain, the sports reporter, call out to me from behind his upheld phone: "I'm going to put this on YouTube!"

In quieter moments, Hussain shares childhood memories of the main city of Srinagar without electricity and other basics. The 20-something journalist now wears baseball caps backward, speaks English fluently, and loves digital photography. But he's still a son of the soil, he says: "It's only in the last 20 years that urbanization has come. I like the old ways better. More time with family."

His yearning for a simpler era is part of his generation's response to life during the uprising that began in 1989. Like nearly every family, Hussain's did not escape unscathed. One of his brothers, an insurgent fighting the Indian government, was killed in custody in 2000, just days before India initiated a unilateral cease-fire to talk with Kashmiri militants.

The next night, the bonfire grew bigger, but the mood was more somber. Malik played from his phone a song for those who disappeared during the conflict.

In August, the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission revealed it had found 2,730 bodies in 38 unmarked grave sites in Kashmir. It marked the first official acknowledgment of unmarked graves containing civilians killed during the conflict. A 2009 human rights report by a civil society group says 8,000 people remain missing since 1989; government figures say the number is less than 4,000 and that at least 47,000 people have died in the conflict.

In Kashmiri, Malik sang along:

Pray for him.

Call him back from afar.

Show him we have tears in our eyes,

And maybe he will come back.

Rasool downloaded the song to his own phone using Bluetooth. In the summer of 2010, when the Kashmir Valley erupted in anti-India protests and Indian security forces killed 117 civilians, Kashmiri youth used cellphones and social networking websites to spread word and song about demonstrations and deaths. The song that passed from phone to phone last summer was "I Protest," by Kashmiri rapper MC Kash:

I protest, against the things you done!

I protest, for a mother who lost her son!

I protest, I'll throw stones and neva run!

I protest, until my freedom has come!

Earlier that night, we watched Indian Army signal flares from a nearby mountain on the Line of Control. As the rockets drifted down with a red glare, I remembered it was July 4, the anniversary of America's separatist movement.

On the morning of JULY 4, we had gone for a day hike to a small glacier, leaving two men back at camp. When we topped a ridge, we turned around to see tiny uniformed men fan out across the meadow toward our tents.

We learned in the evening that Indian soldiers had searched the campsite and said they would keep the two men's IDs until we all came to their outpost a mile away.

With its wooden gate and watchtowers rising from a grassy knoll, the outpost looked like something out of Colonel Custer's day. We sat down on benches and waited. A couple of soldiers took a group photograph for intelligence records and told us to wait for the commanding officer.

After 30 minutes, Rasool went to ask what was taking so long. As a government doctor, he occasionally accompanies the Army when it conducts medical camps to build goodwill among rural Kashmiris. He was clearly annoyed when he relayed the response: "The officer is in the bathroom."

Finally, the soldiers came back, served everyone a cup of tea and biscuits, and returned our IDs. We could go without meeting the officer. (Rasool had not taken the tea. "I wanted to send a message to the officer that I am not friendly with him," he said as we bounded down the trail.)

On the way back, we bumped into three forest officers on foot. They were armed only with notebooks, so I asked what they would do if they actually met a timber smuggler.

"Over here we never hear any sound of an ax," said the leader, arguing that smuggling isn't a problem.

The conservator of forests in Srinagar, Nisar Ahmad, says that "maybe sometimes" forest officials collude with timber thieves, but "that does not mean the forest department has changed its role from protection of forests."

He says his office in 2010 arrested 17 timber thieves and confiscated 508 horses, 68 vehicles, 20 handcarts, and 36,000 cubic feet of timber. He says forest cover has actually expanded in Kashmir since 2009.

But a retired deputy conservator of forests, Gurcharan Singh, estimates that 70 percent of forest officers work hand-in-glove with smugglers. "And I don't know if that [other] 30 percent is [even] there or not," he adds.

Forest cover statistics are misleading, he charges, because they are derived by satellite over a wide area, not taking into account the actual health and thickness of the forest. About one-third of current forest cover is "highly degraded," he says, and the growing forest stock per hectare has fallen by half over the past 50 years.

"Smuggling is more of a socioeconomic problem," says Mr. Singh. Before the uprising, many Kashmiris worked in handicrafts sold to tourists. These cottage industries have dwindled, and to pacify the independence cries, the government is handing out jobs. "Everybody is interested in a government job because people can make easy money and you don't have to do anything," says Singh.

Back on the trail, less than 10 minutes after meeting the forest officials, we encountered two men on horseback.

Rasool asked them if they were timber smugglers. With a mischievous smile, they rode on into the mountains.

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