As Peace Hopes Arise, 'Martyrs' Train for Kashmir

July 1999 News


As Peace Hopes Arise, 'Martyrs' Train for Kashmir

11 July 1999
By: Pamela Constable

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan:—Sayed Muskeen Shah just lost his son, a 26-year-old Islamic militant named Muhammad, to the battle that has been raging for the past seven weeks between Pakistani-based fighters and Indian troops in the mountains of Indian-held Kashmir.

But even as Pakistani officials announced tonight that guerrilla forces have agreed to withdraw from the border at the government's request, essentially calling off their latest effort to free Kashmir and thus averting a full-scale war with India, there were no tears in the eyes of this gray-haired refugee, only the steady gleam of conviction.

There was no quaver in his voice, only the strident singsong of an oft-repeated litany: It is the will of Allah. Martyrdom is an honor. We must sacrifice everything for Holy War.

In Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz said that certain groups of Islamic militants have begun to withdraw their forces from the mountains in response to an appeal made by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after he met with President Clinton last weekend in Washington. Clinton agreed to take a "personal interest" in the problem of Kashmir, which is claimed by India and Pakistan.

Aziz said that the military operations chiefs of India and Pakistan had met twice in the past two days at the border and agreed to gradually cease hostilities along the Line of Control that separates Indian from Pakistani Kashmir. Meanwhile, officials said, some insurgent groups have started to "disengage" and "disperse" from two border areas.

"The mujaheddin have taken this heroic decision in the interests of peace," Aziz said, using the word that means freedom fighters. "They have taken a voluntary decision to de-escalate." But he said he did not know which of the 16 insurgent groups were withdrawing, where they would go, or how either India or Pakistan could confirm the actual pullback was taking place. Indian officials claim they have simply defeated the insurgents.

So far, no guerrilla leaders have said publicly they are willing to pull back from the border, although several have said they would consider it. Last week, the leaders of major Islamic militant groups denounced Sharif's request as a betrayal of their 10-year crusade to free southern Kashmir from Indian control and said they would fight "to the last drop of blood."

In Washington, White House spokesman Barry Toiv said he could not confirm whether guerrillas were withdrawing from the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir but said the United States would welcome such a move.

In Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, where thousands of refugees have fled from Indian Kashmir in the past decade, many young men are still being trained and sent back into the armed insurgency across the border.

"It is the aim of our life to struggle for freedom. We will happily continue to sacrifice for it, and we will never accept any agreement that does not include the wishes of the people of Kashmir," declared Shah, 55, who left Indian Kashmir 10 years ago.

On Saturday, he marched behind the flag-draped coffin of his son Muhammad as it was borne through Muzaffarabad along with those of five other militants who died in fighting last week. Several thousand people surged along with the procession while armed militants in camouflage uniforms shouted the ritual query: "What is our path?" The mourners shouted back: "Holy War! Holy War!"

Indian officials have said that many of the intruders occupying icy peaks in the Kargil region of Indian Kashmir are Pakistani soldiers, and that they rely heavily on support from the Pakistani army. Some analysts believe the guerrillas have no choice but to withdraw, now that top Pakistani military officials have expressed agreement with Sharif's new policy.

But the leaders of the major militant groups based here insist their fighters are almost all Kashmiri and that they operate independently of both Pakistani military and civilian control, with covert support from Kashmiris on both sides of the border. Pakistan says it provides the guerrillas only moral and diplomatic support.

"We are the sons of the soil. No one sacrifices blood on anyone's orders. . . . We will continue fighting until the last Indian soldier is gone," said Muhammad Saleem Wani, chief organizer of the Tehrik-e-Jihad insurgents. He said today that his group will "wait and see" what Sharif says about his agreement with Clinton before deciding whether to continue the border battle. On Monday night, the prime minister is scheduled to address the nation on the Kashmir issue.

In interviews over the weekend, Wani and other militant leaders described the Kargil operation as part of a deliberate shift in their long-term strategy. After years of sabotage operations in the populous Kashmir Valley, they were hampered by the massive presence of Indian troops and intensive counterinsurgency operations. So they decided to draw India's military resources elsewhere by occupying the remote border peaks.

"In a guerrilla war, you adopt whatever strategy bears fruit," said Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, head of the Lashkar-e-Taiba Mujaheddin, another insurgent group. "The Indians have now sent five brigades to Kargil and sustained heavy losses, and that has made our movement much easier in other areas of Kashmir. The struggle in the valley is not separate from Kargil, it will intensify because of Kargil."

The Ambor refugee camp, where Sayed Muskeen Shah and his family live, is a seething incubator of Kashmiri militancy. Residents said more than 150 young men from there have died in the guerrilla movement that erupted in 1989 in the valley around the city of Srinagar in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

They also said that in the past several months, dozens of camp residents have crossed the Line of Control and joined the Kargil operation, including the six whose funerals were held here Saturday. Indian troops, artillery and warplanes have been battling to evict between 500 and 1,000 intruders since early May, and both sides claim to have inflicted far more casualties than they have suffered.

The tradition of militancy runs deep among the families of Ambor, and the Shah family's experience illustrates how commitment to a violent and quixotic crusade can deepen into a bitter obsession.

A farmer from the Kashmir Valley, Shah said that for years he participated in the peaceful movement for Kashmiri independence, but finally gave up and joined the militants. In 1990, he said, he was detained by Indian forces, who hung him upside down, beat him with clubs and submerged him in freezing water, trying to extract information about weapons and other militants.

"When the torture became unbearable, I promised to tell them everything if they would let me go home," Shah said. Instead, he took his family and escaped to Muzaffarabad. With his approval, his eldest son, Ahmed, returned to the valley to fight in a militant group. In 1992, Indian troops shot Ahmed dead. He was 20.

Now Shah's second son Muhammad has been killed in Kargil, leaving only his third son, 22-year-old Sayed, alive. But Sayed is also a militant. While attending college here, the young man said, he works as a courier for one of the insurgent groups, often crossing the Line of Control clandestinely with messages. He said he does not regret Muhammad's death.

"I am proud of my brother. By the grace of Allah, he was lucky to achieve martyrdom," Sayed said this afternoon, as a dozen relatives and neighbors squatted in the sweltering gloom of a cinder-block hut.

A few moments later, a young woman entered the room cradling an infant. She was introduced as Muhammad's widow, Sofula. The baby was their 6-month-old son, Mansour. Sayed Muskeen Shah gestured toward his grandson, then toward every child listening in a circle around him.

"We are prepared to offer each of their lives for the glory of Islam and the liberation of Kashmir," he said.

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