Kashmir's Anonymous Graves Summon Dark Days Of War
6 December 2009
: He left home on a rainy Wednesday morning, walking through the gate of his solid middle-class house and into the narrow streets of Srinagar, Kashmir's largest city. He needed to pick up some medicine for his elderly father. It was the summer of 1996. Ali Mohammad Mir was 40 years old, a gentle-spoken building contractor and a father of three. In a lush Himalayan valley savaged by cycles of guerrilla attacks and government crackdowns, a place where politics and violence almost always went together, he was utterly apolitical. Desperately nonpolitical. His family never saw him again. Here, in this quiet mountain village about 60 miles away, is where Mir may have ended up, in a grave marked only by a mound of dirt, surrounded by the graves of hundreds of other unidentified men. Or perhaps he's in the cluster of unmarked graves in the forests of Parra-Gagarhill, or among the bodies buried in the cow pasture in the village of Kichama. 'He is out there somewhere,' said Mir's son, Zahoor Ahmad Mir. He has spent years researching his father's final hours, and now believes he was killed by a militia tied to the Indian army. 'They killed him and they threw him aside. Now he is buried somewhere. He must be.' Dozens of these anonymous burial fields have been identified by human rights workers over the past 18 months, nameless graveyards where Indian security forces dumped nearly 2,400 nameless corpses. In a region struggling to emerge from two decades of violence that have left 68,000 people dead, the graveyards have deeply shaken Kashmir, digging up memories of the estimated 8,000 people who disappeared at the height of the militancy. At a time when support for separatist violence has waned, and many Kashmiris have become more focused on jobs than politics, the graveyards brought waves of renewed anger against the government. Days of rioting broke out after rights workers released the first list of burial fields. The graves have also become constant reminders that while violence is down, it is far from over. Bodies have been buried as recently as the past few months. 'There is no place in Kashmir where innocent blood has not been spilled,' said Zareef Ahmed Zareef, a Kashmiri poet But who were the dead? Security officials dismiss them as Muslim militants killed in gunbattles, and some, certainly, were fighters. But rights workers say most were innocent civilians who fell into the maw of the security forces. They were young men grabbed for their money or killed to settle personal scores. Some were mistaken for militants by terrified Indian soldiers. Indian security forces are largely shielded from prosecutions by a thicket of emergency laws, and while there have been a small handful of investigations, most of the disappearances may never be explained. Two decades after the insurgency broke out, only a tiny fraction have been accounted for. The bodies themselves give a few clues. According to villagers ordered by police to bury them, they are often of particular sorts: there is blood and shattered bone where they were shot, or they are burned beyond recognition. Many show signs of beatings. At one cemetery, police told villagers they would bring seven bodies for burials. They brought seven heads. 'This is a hidden issue here,' said Pervez Imroz, the Kashmiri lawyer who helped prepare the reports and whose teams are scouring Kashmir for more graveyards. He has repeatedly urged an official probe, to no avail. 'They can't hold this investigation because it will cause a huge embarrassment to the Indian state.' Security officials declined to comment on the graveyards. Outside of Kashmir, in the Indian parliament and media, the graves get barely any attention. Omar Abdullah, the state's top elected official, would only say: 'It's being looked into.' Mir's eldest son doubts that. Zahoor Ahmad Mir's life has been consumed by his father's disappearance. Over the years he has spoken to witnesses, soldiers and thugs. He has filed dozens of legal requests. Slowly, a story took shape. He says his father was grabbed off the street by a Kashmiri militia often used by the Indian military to target civilians. The son has no idea why it happened - perhaps it was a mistake, perhaps an extortion attempt - but the elder Mir was beaten, driven out of the city and finally hanged from a tree behind an army base. Officially, though, none of that happened. Instead, one day he simply ceased to exist. 'I don't care much about justice anymore,' said the son, his connection to his father reduced to a worn plastic bag stuffed with court documents, fading newspaper clippings and tattered photocopies. 'I don't think justice can happen here.' 'I just want my father's body.' Kashmir has long experience with violence. A mountainous region of pine-covered hills, apple orchards and rushing rivers, Kashmir - the only majority Muslim state in largely Hindu India - is divided between India and Pakistan but claimed by both. In 1989, its nightmare began after rigged state elections ignited a separatist insurgency which, in turn, provoked brutal military crackdowns. India began accusing Pakistan of supporting the militants with money, training and weaponry, a charge Pakistan denies. The fighting savaged Kashmir. Tens of thousands of people were killed, many of them civilians. The economy withered. Unemployment soared. But the past few years have seen the beginnings of change. First came Sept. 11, 2001, and pressure on Islamabad to rein in Kashmiri militants on its soil. Then, in 2003, India and Pakistan launched a peace effort that, despite many stumbles, has helped mend relations. Finally, politically minded Kashmiris, wearied by the relentless bloodshed, began shifting focus away from militant violence. Over the past two years, massive protests - with violence usually limited to stone-throwing - have filled the streets of the region's cities, a reflection of both enduring anger with India and exhaustion with the insurgency. The result: Deaths connected to the insurgency dropped from 4,507 in 2001 to 541 last year. Today, Kashmir sways regularly between brutal violence and its own strange version of normalcy. Srinagar now boasts clusters of new McMansions with mirrored windows and cavernous living rooms. It has a Reebok store and coffee bars serving cappuccinos. For the first time in years tourists are commonplace. Across Kashmir, cities and villages no longer slam shut at sunset. And yet. The new Srinagar airport might boast soaring ceilings and cell phone kiosks, but it is also ringed by grim soldiers cradling automatic weapons. The state's opposition leader has a new official residence - until recently a feared military torture center known as Papa-II. And while weeks can pass without major guerrilla attacks, sometimes a half-dozen Kashmiri villages are shaken by gunbattles in one day. Across Kashmir, more than 700,000 members of India's security forces remain on guard. If support for the insurgency has withered, the Indian soldiers are still widely detested. Perhaps nowhere more than in the villages forced to bury the dead. Atta Mohammed knows all about the nameless dead. The 70-year-old Bimyar farmer has buried 235 of them. He knows their bruises and their bullet wounds. He knows if they were burned so badly their mothers would not recognize them. 'I took mud from their mouths and ears. I cleaned the blood from them,' said Atta, a quiet man with rotting teeth and a neatly trimmed white beard. About 12 years ago, police began bringing bodies to be buried in a small empty field. They stopped only when there was no more room. All that time, Mohammed cared for the dead. 'The bodies started coming and coming and coming,' he said. 'Sometimes there were five bodies at once. Sometimes eight bodies.' 'We would ask the authorities: 'Who are they?' he continued, showing a visitor around the cemetery. 'They would just say: 'They are militants.' Then, as he always does when he visits the graveyard, he prays. He stands in the shadow of a mountain range speckled with pines and reaches out his hands in supplication. And his murmuring scatters across the graves. - Associated Press writer Aijaz Hussain contributed to this report.