Holding fort with fortitude: Kashmir’s homeless homemakers

Gousia recalls the day of the military op that partially damaged her house and wrecked each and every commodity in the house. [FPK Photo/Ufaq Fatima.]

Military operations against militants in residential areas of Kashmir often turn a home into a pile of rubble leaving behind an insolent homemaker taking care of a devastated family and fractured lives.

Dream came true for Nasreen when she tied the knot with the love of her life. She was 25 and life seemed blissful and equally promising.

“I was so happy when we got married,” Nasreen, now a 30-year-old conflict-torn woman from Laroo area of district Kulgam, recalls. “Every day with him was worth living. But it was not in my worst nightmares that I’ll lose both my home and my husband five years down the line.”

On the night of October 21, 2018, Nasreen’s home was cordoned off by a battery of counterinsurgents triggering a fierce firefight between them and militants. Nasreen along with her three kids and husband was scared to death.

“We were not even allowed to leave the house,” she recounts the nightmarish episode of her life. “My husband begged the forces to at least let the kids go out safely. It was only after locals protested we were allowed to move out at seven in morning.”

In Kashmir, it is women who nurture their homes with love and care. They build memorabilia from little things in the house. Irrespective of their profession, the social construct of the society is such that every woman is also a homemaker. She’s seen as the primary caregiver of the family.

Military ops in residential areas of Kashmir often turn a home into a pile of rubble — leaving behind many devastated families and fractured lives. These operations have been reduced to a norm where only number of casualties makes news, leaving behind tale of tragedies. However, in these war-torn Kashmiri homes, the women still holds the fort with their firm resolve.

When the military op was over, Nasreen rushed back to her home. Her heart sank to see it in a smouldering state. The home that she built over the years was turned to rubble in just few hours. “Nothing was left to be saved,” she rues. “Not even the memories. Our hard-earned belongings were turned into pile of ashes.”

As per the data compiled by Jammu and Kashmir Coalition Of Civil Society (JKCCS), 48 civilian properties were destroyed in the first six months of year 2020 alone, while as at least 87 military ops took place in 2019, during which destruction of properties was reported throughout.

Nasreen washes utensils in the kitchen area of her new house that is still under construction. [FPK Photo/Ufaq Fatima.]

A day after the military op, Nasreen’s husband, Sheeraz Ahmad, a local labourer, was picked up by some “unidentified gunmen” from the nearby petrol pump. The family tried everything to find him. It was only after three months that body of Sheeraz was found buried in an orchid.

“My next struggle began when my husband disappeared,” Nasreen narrates with moist eyes. “I roamed every place of Kulgam to look for him till we were informed by police that his body has been found.”

Though Nasreen is now building a house again on the same place where her home of dreams was crushed brick by brick, she continues to live with a void.

“With the help of neighbours and relatives we were able to raise some money to build a home again after two years,” she says with a smile.

“My will is broken but I’ve to be strong for my kids. I’ll shed this courage only when I’ll depart from here and this pain will only subside when I’ll again reunite with my husband.”

Naseema gazes out of the window inside the Anganwadi centre where she lives temporarily. [FPK Photo/Ufaq Fatima.]

The day Nasreen was grieving over the destruction of her dream house, another tragedy unfolded.

At the military op site, an unexploded shell went off killing at least six civilians. Among them was a teenager named Talib Maqbool Laway, who was also the resident of Laroo Kulgam.

Talib along with his ailing mother and younger sister lived in an Aganwadi centre which was run by his mother, Naseema. Talib’s father had committed suicide while coming under a huge dept.

“Both my kids were very young when my husband committed suicide,” Naseema recounts in a grief-stricken voice. “He failed to cope up with our miserable financial condition. After his death, I worked very hard to give my kids a stable life. Talib had grown up as an obedient son and a brilliant student. My all dreams were woven around him.”

On the fateful day, Naseema had strictly told her son not to visit the clash spot, but his reply left her speechless.

“He said, ‘Please Bobai (mother) let me go. I want to bid farewell to our martyrs’. He had no idea that he too will be among the martyrs,” she laments.

For Naseema, every day is a new battle since then. With insufficient financial backing and deteriorating health, she’s managing to keep going.

“Years have passed now, but my heart is still restless,” the mother voices her anguish. “I keep myself busy with activities. My pain has no cure now. The cure has been taken away forever. My struggle starts at dawn and ends at dusk. It’s like climbing the mountain every single day.”

Aliya inside her room that remains in shambles, along with the other rooms of the house. [FPK Photo/Ufaq Fatima.]

In another village of south Kashmir, Khud-Hanjipora area of Kulgam, Aaliya has similar tragedy to tell.

In her early twenties, Aaliya’s deadpan face and dark-circled eyes defy her age. The youngest member of the family slowly opens up about her struggle.

Her home was massively damaged in a military op that took place on May 25, 2020, and her family of 10 members had nowhere to go.

Before the doom and destruction, her farmer father, Abdul Rasheed, was working hard to give a stable roof to his family, including his wife, two daughters and six sons.

“We were so happy when we entered our new house,” Aaliya says in a low tone. “I decorated it with love. I was so fond of my room and all little details. Even today when only four walls are standing I still come here during the day. It gives me peace.”

Sitting against the freshly repaired concrete wall of the home, Aaliya recalls the night when the military op began.

“Army led down the cordon in early morning. We were soon asked to leave the house. We were given no time to collect any important stuff. I literally begged the forces with folded hands not to burn our house,” she says adding that both militants and armed forces have guns. “We are caught between the two.”

Now living in a rented space, Aaliya narrates how the incident has shattered her mental peace.

“I put a strong face and tell my ailing mother that things will be alright soon,” she says. “I often get anxiety attacks now, but I try my best to conceal my collapsing mental health from my mother and my siblings.”

Road leading to Nagh Naad which is around 30 kms away from main town Kulgam. [FPK Photo/Ufaq Fatima.]

In Kulgam’s yet another placid place called Naag-Naad, Gousia’s family is living the same ordeal.

The family has been living in a government-provided house from last four years. But on July 17, 2020, militants took shelter in the house and the very next morning they were cordoned by the armed forces. The subsequent military op damaged her house and belongings.

Misery, however, did not stop there.

“After damaging our house, forces harassed my husband, Bilal Ahmad Lone,” she says.

On August 9, 2020, a month after the military op, Bilal, 40, was seen hanging from a tree in his own orchid.

“He would walk on support because of the brutal torture,” Gousia says. “Traumatized by the excesses, he took his life.”

Gousia’s kitchen in complete ruins. [FPK Photo/Ufaq Fatima.]

With sole breadwinner gone, Gousia now struggles every day to feed her three children and her elderly father-in-law.

“We’ve no source of income left now,” the homeless homemaker rebuilding her life from the rubble of her residence says.

“I work hard every day in fields to earn, so that I can feed my family. Life is tough, and not the same anymore. But then somebody has to hold fort for the family.”


The story is a part of an ongoing project.


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