Conflict

In Photos | Ailing parents of a disappeared person, their withering wait and unpaid medical bills

Recently when four Kashmiris returned home after 23 years of wrongful imprisonment, an old and ailing Kashmiri couple became hopeful of the elusive return of their son—who, 30 years ago, left home, and never returned. In their pining and wait, the old couple is slowly fading into oblivion.

At a stone’s throw from Habba Kadal’s bustling square, streets and twin bridges — that conveniently conceal the strife-ridden struggle of families in rundown residences — an old couple is making one last-ditch effort for a reunion with their long gone son: “We’ve been asking police to capture and kill our son in front of us…”

Even before one could sink in the remark, the old couple continues: “That way, we can at least see him again!”

Mushtaq Ahmad Regee’s photograph placed on a shelf inside a room of his ancestral home. (FPK Photo/Bilal Ahmad)

The couple lives in Saraibala area, where their residence retains a medieval charm. They’re hopeful of a reunion with their son. And for that, they’ve kept his belongings safe in a suitcase.

His fading photos and scented clothes are now souvenirs for the old couple, and the reason for their struggling survival.

They last saw him on March 21, 1989.

Jalla Begum cries in agony while clinging on to the photograph of her disappeared son. (FPK Photo/Bilal Ahmad)

That day, their son, Mushtaq Ahmad Regee, a fresh-faced butcher, routinely left home for his shop, located one kilometer away from his residence.

It was a usual overwrought day in Srinagar, as the signs of the armed uprising, pressing New Delhi to implement its promised plebiscite, had surfaced in the valley. The equations were fast changing on the ground, so were the dynamics and neighbourhoods.

At dusk that day, Mushtaq’s mother walked up to her room window, opening into a lane outside. She stood there, anxiously gazing at the restive footfall on a street — which was fast losing its bustling nature. She didn’t see her son traversing that street again.

‘After the heart surgery, I am on medication; I wish I could see my son again before my death,’ says Mushtaq’s father, Ghulam Hassan Regee. (FPK Photo/Bilal Ahmad)

Thirty years later, Jalla Begum, the once firebrand woman, has now become a frail, septuagenarian mother. She often spends her time, gazing the same street footfall outside her window. In this time-fix and freeze frame, she keeps wondering about the possible fate of her son.

“That day when he didn’t turn up, we thought he might’ve gone to his friend’s place,” Jalla recalls. Then Kashmir had a different idea of living.

Sons, at times, would visit their relatives and friends without informing their parents. But 1989—the momentous year of shifted gears and upheaval in the valley—was about to change that idea of life, which the likes of Jalla had grown up with.

‘We have cried so much all these years that our eyes have now become dry,’ says Jalla Begum. (FPK Photo/Bilal Ahmad)

Boys had started disappearing. Some were showing up months later, with guns and training. But many others never saw the light of the day again.

Jalla’s darling son was among those boys.

“We waited for him for a year,” Jalla continues to narrate her ordeal, as her husband, Ghulam Hassan Regee, lays pale and haggard adjacent to her. “But when he didn’t return, we went to the police station to file a missing report. But police never registered an FIR.”

‘I keep reassembling the clothes of my son once a week. It makes me feel as if he is still living with us,’ says Jalla Begum. (FPK Photo/Bilal Ahmad)

But Jalla being a mother was not ready to give up on her son so easily.

Along with her husband, she dusted miles—travelling length and breadth of the valley—in order to trace her Mushtaq, who was nowhere to be seen.

Those days, some people, denounced as the war beneficiaries by locals, presented themselves as persons of contact. They were making hay while Kashmir was burning.

‘I often dream of my son working on his butcher shop. But when I wake up, startled, he is no longer there,’ says Ghulam Hassan Regee. (FPK Photo/Bilal Ahmad)

For money, those men would either trade information or promise to help the war-torn families about their disappeared persons.

Jalla Begum bumped into one such man, who presented himself as a cop. That person promised the anxious mother to help her register an FIR about her son’s disappearance.

“I had kept a gold chain for my daughter’s marriage,” Jalla recalls. “I gave that chain to him along with some money. But he duped me!”

Ailing Jalla Begum cleaning her kitchen after lunch. (FPK Photo/Bilal Ahmad)

Her woes, however, never ended with that. Soon, Jalla had to face an additional assault.

The armed forces, she said, would raid her residence, frequently, on pretext of claiming that her son ‘was a militant’.

“That would further leave us torn apart,” the mother says. “My son was a simple shopkeeper, who was struggling for his family. They first subjected him to an enforced disappearance and then tried to justify their act by labelling him as a militant.”

The first report about Mushtaq Ahmad Regee published on October 5, 2009 in Greater Kashmir – the local daily newspaper of Kashmir. (FPK Photo/Bilal Ahmad)

Eventually, Mushtaq’s name figured among the 8000-odd reported cases of enforced disappearances in Kashmir. Being among the earliest disappeared persons in the valley, his case set off the disturbing trend in the region. Later as strife dragged on, many young men disappeared from the scene.

The families of the disappeared persons in Kashmir, who are clueless about their kins’ existence, have visited different graveyards, torture centers, and every prison in the state.

Jalla Begum still clings to the hope of a knock on the door by her son. ‘I have been waiting for my son for the past 30 years, he is alive and will return someday,’ the ailing mother hopes. (FPK Photo/Bilal Ahmad)

These families were eventually brought together by Parveena Ahanger, a 55-year-old woman from Batamaloo Srinagar whose own teenage son disappeared in 1990.

Ahanger heads the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and asserts her group’s resolve to continue to protest and appeal to the international community, until they’re informed about their disappeared loved ones.

‘I have lost vision in my right eye after the heart surgery. I am half blind now and not able to take care of my wife properly. Allah is our only hope,’ says Ghulam Hassan Regee. (FPK Photo/Bilal Ahmad)

At Habba Kadal, however, the years of agonized struggle to seek the whereabouts of their loved one has greatly weighed and weathered down the ailing parents.

Their plight and struggle is a small window into the lives of those whose loved ones were subjected to enforced disappearances in Kashmir.

‘I am lost and completely broken in search for my son, my eyesight is getting weaker and my bones are becoming fragile,’ says Jalla Begum. (FPK Photo/Bilal Ahmad)

“I went to everyone, from the army to the civilian authorities since 1989,” the ailing mother says. “All I ever got is a new version about my son, who was only 22 at the time of his disappearance.”

In his wait, Mushtaq’s parents are withering and fading.

Jalla Begum spends most of her time in front of the only window of their living room with a hope of seeing her son again. (FPK Photo/Bilal Ahmad)

The old and ailing couple is finding it hard to pay their monthly medical bills now. They believe that an FIR into their son’s disappearance could’ve helped them to apply for some relief.

But sadly, the elusive justice has only left them to fend for themselves.

 

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