The offer was too good to pass up. When Ehsan ul-Haq heard that India-controlled Kashmir was offering a way for militants to return from Pakistan, he gathered his wife and five children and boarded a flight home.
The family flew to Kathmandu, Nepal in 2012 on Pakistani passports – which they burned upon landing. From there they crossed overland into India and traveled some 1,200 miles by bus to reach Kashmir, which has been a flashpoint between India and Pakistan since 1947. In recent days, cross-border shelling by both countries have killed nine civilians.
“It was difficult and risky journey,” recalls Haq, as he sat on the ground in his tiny stationery shop in Srinagar last month. He talked about his passion for cricket, his desire to be reunited with family, and his childhood dream to see Kashmir as an independent country.
His story, and that of other returnees, opens a window into the underlying tensions in Kashmir and the limitations of India's modest rehabilitation program for former fighters. Haq spent 21 years in Pakistan where he was trained to fight the Indian military in Kashmir. But he soon drifted back into civilian life.
"I went to Pakistan because everyone else was going," he says. “I was also angry about the way India was treating us.”
Journey to Pakistan
In 1989, when an armed revolt erupted against Indian rule in Kashmir, Haq – like thousands of other Kashmiri youth – crossed over the line of control into Pakistan, which has fought two wars with India, and numerous skirmishes, over this former princely state.
Many returned to India to fight for the Kashmir cause. Others became increasingly frustrated that Pakistani groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harkatul Mujahideen, gained prominence over them. They felt that the "Kashmir jihad" was going nowhere.
“Pakistan's only aim was to harm India,“ says Haq. “They showed little concern for us.”
Haq left the training camps and started a stationery business before marrying a local woman, Kauser, with whom he has five children. Of the many youth who had crossed with him, he says, most of them were killed fighting the Indian troops, and the rest – between 3,000 and 4,000, he estimates – remain in Pakistan.
The Indian Army does not give official figures, but says there are 41 active Kashmiri militant camps in Pakistan.
In 2010, Jammu and Kashmir, the local government for India-administered Kashmir, offered a partial amnesty for militants willing to return from Pakistan. It was the first offer specifically for rebels based in Pakistan or Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. About 250 people accepted the offer, according to local government statistics. It's a decision that several have grown to regret.
“I made two big mistakes in my life, says Haq. “One was when I ran away from home and crossed over to Pakistan. Second was when I returned Kashmir.”
When Haq come home in 2012, with his Pakistani-born wife and five children, relatives and neighbors showered him with flower petals and candies in an reunion celebration that continued for days. The joy was short lived as he discovered that friends and relatives were unable to support him.
"In Pakistan I used to have big stationery shop. I had five workers and was making good money and my family was happy," he explained. "But in Kashmir we can do nothing. We have been again caged here.”
Life in Kashmir
Despite its restive past – and periodic flare-ups like this weekend's cross-border gunfire – relative calm has prevailed in Kashmir in recent years. The last major protests were in 2010, after three boys were allegedly killed in Indian military custody. The state remains poor, with a huge security presence.
Former fighters say they didn't receive the benefits they were promised. Local officials say that the ex-militants didn't travel via pre-approved routes, so are ineligible for promises such as job training, and education for their children.
There are also strict restrictions on returnees, so as to reassure Indians worried about militancy in Kashmir. The returnees cannot get a driver's license or a bank loan to start a business. They cannot travel out of their village or town without informing the local police.
Wives and children protest
Life is hardest for the wives of returnees who are unable to go back to see families and friends in Pakistan. Indian officials say many militants married local women in Pakistan. In 2011, 16 militants returned with their wives and children, followed by 90 families the following year, and two in 2013.
As Pakistani citizens, the women can't own property or run a business, and there is no path for obtaining Indian citizenship. Some recently held a protest in in Srinagar, expressing anger and regret over their decision to move with their husbands.
Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah told India Today, a news magazine, that the children of returnees were admissible to primary and middle schools, but not colleges. “The biggest problem is dealing with the question of the nationality of the spouses [mostly Pakistan nationals] because clearly they are not Indian.”
“There is still so much injustice here,” says Haq as he attends a customer. “The way we have been treated has only made it more difficult for others to return.”