Jihadis Turn Aid Givers In Kashmir
17 October 2005
The Times of India
Muzaffarabad: As Pakistani army helicopters rotate through the skies over quake-hit Kashmir making aid drops to isolated villages, another army of mujahedin , or Islamic warriors, is taking to the hills on foot. But while the troops, mostly from outside Kashmir, drop food and water from their air, the mujahedin claim a special relationship with the territory and its people and can pinpoint aid where it is needed most. They know the mountains like the backs of their hands after more than a decade of fighting Indian rule in the divided Himalayan territory, but now they are waging a new holy war - to help victims of the October 8 earthquake. 'This is a 100-per cent jihad (holy war),' 22-year-old mujahedin Yawa Saleem told AFP at an aid distribution point in the capital of Pakistani-held Kashmir, Muzaffarabad, which was almost completely destroyed by the massive quake. 'Jihad has many meanings - it's not just picking up a gun. It means helping, duty, passion, serving the people who cannot serve themselves,' he said, his dark eyes buried beneath a mop of curly hair and a full black beard. 'If you're serving the people in a natural disaster, that's a jihad.' Saleem, from Kupwara in Indian Kashmir, came to Muzaffarabad, known as the city of Mujahedin, to learn to fight with the Hizbul Mujahedin, the largest Pakistan-based militant group battling Indian rule in divided Kashmir. New Delhi calls the Hizbul Mujahedin 'terrorists' for their frequent guerrilla raids to attack Indian army targets across the Line of Control (LoC), the heavily fortified de facto border that divides Indian- and Pakistani-held Kashmir. But a recent thaw in relations between India and Pakistan, which have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, has meant Hizbul have been keeping a low profile. Saleem almost sounded happy to have a job to do at last. 'We came here from across Kashmir to train and to free our motherland. But if we cannot do that and we're just sitting in our camps, then we must help the people any way we can,' he said. Hours after the massive 7.6-magnitude quake struck, triggering Pakistan's worst natural catastrophe and claiming at least 41,000 lives, Saleem and his comrades headed into the mountains to help where they could. He said they reached Balakot, another large Kashmiri town which was cut off by landslides, and found scenes more horrifying than anything he had seen in his skirmishes with Indian security forces across the LoC. 'We were the first people to reach there after the earthquake,' he said. 'It was the worst thing I've ever seen.' He said he helped local survivors rescue more than a dozen children from the rubble of a collapsed school, but many more could not be saved. 'It was so sad. There were children very badly injured and it really shocked me,' he said. Fighting a guerrilla war was hard, he said, but nothing compared to the horror of the earthquake. 'In a war your enemy is a man, and you can handle him with a bullet or with your tactics and your mind. But with an earthquake there is no enemy and you're helpless to stop it,' he said. Hizbul Mujahedin volunteers have left their guns behind for their new jihad , swapping them for bundles of clothes and food which they are handing out to the injured and destitute across Kashmir. Inamul Haq, an aid coordinator with the Jamaat-e-Islami political party, which is affiliated with the Hizbul Mujahedin, said they were playing a vital role in a massive relief effort that included volunteers - students, businessmen, doctors - from across the country. 'A mountain person can climb into the mountains but someone from (the southern Pakistani city) Karachi cannot do that. So we need our hardest and toughest men to do that work, and this is the mujahedin,' he said. 'These guys are forced to pick up their guns, but if the international community and the Indian government gave them their basic rights there would be no need to fight for their birthright.' Other more extreme militant groups are also operating in this devastated city, such as the Jamat-ud-Dawa, an offshoot of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba , which is listed as a 'terrorist organisation' in the United States. 'This is similar to the jihad we're doing in Indian-occupied Kashmir, where we are trying to get our bretheren the right of self-determination,' said Jamat-ud-Dawa volunteer Ahmed, 32, as he helped quake survivors cross the Neelum River near Muzaffarabad. 'Everybody was initially concentrating on the town (Muzaffarabad) and they just ignored the hundreds of small villages and settlements in the mountains. But we knew how to overpower this difficult terrain,' he said. An old villager who crossed the river with his wife and two daughters had nothing but thanks for the bearded 'holy warriors'. 'What the mujahedin have done, no one else could do and I will always pray for them,' he said.