‘Paradise on earth’ continues to be a war zone
5 October 2005
Srinagar: Indian-occupied Kashmir’s tourist brochures describe the snow-capped Himalayan region as “paradise on earth”. But as the airplane lands on the runway of Srinagar, the main city of violence-plagued occupied Kashmir, it still looks like a war zone. As passengers disembark in what was one of Asia’s top tourist spots before Muslim guerillas took up arms against New Delhi 16 years ago, soldiers with automatic rifles and sandbag bunkers meet the eye. Driving into the city nestled in the Vale of Kashmir — billed as the Switzerland of the East — the car zig-zags around roadblocks amid apologetic signs proclaiming, “Inconvenience regretted.” While India says violence is dropping against the backdrop of talks with Pakistan, it is clear things are a long way from normal. Still that isn’t deterring some intrepid foreigners and a growing number of Indians from holidaying in Kashmir’s ornately carved houseboats or hiking through spectacular countryside — at least parts the army says are safe. “I was a little worried about a (guerilla) attack before I came. You see the soldiers everywhere and the barbed wire and that reminds you of the danger, but I don’t feel unsafe,” said Renata Demin, a language teacher in Italy. “Just here and now, it doesn’t seem possible anything could happen,” she said, strolling along the promenade beside Dal Lake, Srinagar’s famed expanse of water. No matter that the lake is weed- choked and polluted with sewage, it is still an arresting sight in bright sunshine. Gaudily painted shikaras — Kashmiri-style gondolas — skim across the mirror surface, ferrying people back and forth, and women in humbler unpainted craft engage in a never-ending struggle to clear weeds by hand. So far, around 500,000 tourists have visited occupied Kashmir, up from 375,000 during the same period last year, the Indian government says. Around one per cent were foreign, the rest Indian. That is still below the one million people who flocked to Kashmir in the year before the uprising began in 1989. But it is up sharply from the deadliest days in the mid-1990s fighting when numbers dwindled to around 25,000. In fact for the first time in years, houseboat and hotel owners have reported weeks when they were fully booked. Tourist operators are understandably keen to see peace return to held Kashmir as tourists bring much-needed cash. Life for people in the tourist industry — Kashmir’s economic lifeblood — has been a desperate struggle since the insurgency broke out. “We have been literally dying,” said Abdul Rashid, owner of a houseboat improbably named the Kashmir Hilton, whose faded Oriental carpets and stuffed armchairs evoke a gentler, more refined era. In colonial times, the British seeking to avoid the blistering heat of the plains holidayed on the gently rocking houseboats as they were forbidden by Kashmir’s princely ruler to own land. Tourists can still revel in the luxurious houseboat lifestyles — “bed tea” in the morning, breakfasts with buttered toast topped by Kashmiri honey served at carved dining tables, afternoon tea with delicately cut sandwiches and four-course dinners. “We’re seeing more Indians coming here but we still are only seeing a few foreigners,” Rashid said. Those foreigners — regrettably for tourist operators — were mainly the tightwad backpacking sort, he said. “We’re not getting the people who like to spend money,” Rashid said. Shops and stalls selling Kashmir’s painstakingly embroidered shawls, finely painted papier mache boxes and jewellery stand largely empty. Britain and the United States warn against travel to the region where the battle for self-determination has become one of the world’s deadliest conflicts. It has cost 44,000 lives by official count, at least double that number by the guerillas’ tally. The Indian army and locals say Srinagar is much safer than it was even just a couple of years ago. People now are out on the streets after dusk rather than holed up in their houses, fearful of violence or trigger-happy troops. But the city’s centre still bristles with paramilitary soldiers who frisk passersby and flag down suspicious vehicles. Armoured vehicles patrol streets and checkpoints slow traffic at intersections. Every day, the militants deliver bloody reminders of their presence. Some eight to 10 guerillas, soldiers and civilians, die daily in blasts, clashes and other violence in Kashmir but the figures represent a recent improvement. In June, a grenade blast outside a Srinagar school killed two people and wounded over 60. Also that month, nine soldiers died and 17 were hurt when a car bomb exploded as a bus carrying troops drove past the elaborate Mughal, a favourite visitors’ spot. Late last month, at least 20 people, including two children, were hurt in a grenade explosion near the legislature. No tourists were injured. But “the bombs mean tourists started getting scared”, said Rashid. Rebels are believed to have only targeted foreign tourists once in 1995 when six were kidnapped in the Himalayan foothills. One escaped, another was beheaded and the fate of the other four was never known. The biggest guerilla group, Lashkar-i-Toiba, said last year it favoured the tourist trade to “better the economic position of our brothers.” But the randomness of guerilla attacks means no-one can take safety for granted. However, Kashmir without hordes of tourists has an old- fashioned sleepy charm. There has been no frenetic economic development — investors have shunned the region due to the revolt — and Srinagar’s ramshackle wooden buildings retain their old facades.