Kashmir Calm Brings Ray Of Hope For Undertaker

30 March 2008

Srinagar: Mohammad Maqbool Bhat has pieced together thousands of blown-up bodies since a bloody revolt erupted in Indian Kashmir nearly 19 years ago. But with rebel violence falling across Kashmir in recent years, Maqbool, who says he has helped perform autopsies on at least 15,000 corpses in the troubled region, is a relaxed man. 'I got to a stage where I considered people the same as flies. They were dying here, there...everywhere,' says Maqbool, who leads a small team in the mortuary. 'But things have changed, and touchwood, it is peaceful now and I am relaxed,' says the stocky, bespectacled man, pointing to a blood-stained brick-and-cement table used for autopsies. Violence has eased since India and Pakistan, which claim the Kashmir region in full but rule it in parts, started a slow-moving peace process in 2004. But the peace dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad, which have fought two wars over Kashmir, is yet to resolve the 60-year territorial dispute over the Muslim-majority region. And people are still killed in daily shootouts and occasional bomb attacks, though the numbers are much less now. Maqbool thinks the situation is getting better. 'It is unfortunate. Occasionally, bodies with bullet and shrapnel wounds are brought here, but the number is very less. It is negligible,' he told Reuters in an empty mortuary in Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital. About two people on average are killed every day in Kashmir, down from 10 to 15 a day in 2002 and 2003, one of the bloodiest periods, officials say. Maqbool, known as Dr Maqbool, who has no medical qualifications other than a course in nursing, began working in the mortuary 20 years ago. He still has nightmares about cutting open a civilian, militant, soldier or policeman's body way past midnight for doctors to prepare reports on what killed them. Officials estimate more than 43,000 people have been killed since 1989, while human rights groups put the toll at about 60,000 dead or missing. 'Those days were full of tensions for me. I was handling 10 to 20 bodies a day and was on call day and night,' Maqbool said. The stressful job also took a toll on his health and he spent long periods in hospital, but now he is hoping for a lasting peace in the troubled region. 'I am sure our prayers will be answered and there will be a complete end to violence,' said Maqbool. Earlier this month, India asked Pakistan's new leaders to put the past behind them and build a new relationship based on cooperation and enduring peace. But, the Indian army fears rebel incursions from Pakistani Kashmir will increase once the snow starts melting along the mountainous border region. Maqbool hopes the conflict will not spiral out of control. 'I will no longer have to handle the bodies to ascertain whether the victim died of bullets or a bomb explosion,' he said of his dream for peace in the region.