Kunan-Poshpora, Kupwara, Indian-Occupied Kashmir: I had never had the chance to visit Kunan Poshpora before, in spite of the unfathomable desire which I had to visit the place at least once. Never had I known that it would happen all of a sudden on a random Sunday. It was May 5, 2013, and I was travelling through the small twin hamlets in the frontier district of Kupwara, 105 km north of Srinagar.
The urge I had to visit Kunan Poshpora was not for the raw natural beauty it embraces, nor for the vast open fields or the sky high mountains but for the gory incident that happened here 22 long years ago – the word ‘gory’, however, would be an understatement. The magnitude of the crime committed can be measured by the fact that even after the passage of 22 years, it continues to remain a major story for every journalist.
On the dreadful night of February 23, 1991, a unit of the Indian Army launched a crackdown in Kunan Poshpora. While all the men were driven out from their homes, members of the 68th Brigade of the Fourth Rajputana Rifles gang raped around 100 women ranging between the ages of 12 and 80, as people in the village narrate.
I must have been 4 when the infamous Kunan Poshpora mass rape incident took place. I came to know about it when I was 17. I was 19 when I first read about it, in a newspaper article. In the years that followed, I’d continue to find more information from different sources until, at 26, I was now finally travelling to see the place where it all happened.
The day began with a cloudy morning. The alarm on my mobile phone woke me up earlier than it usually does. Peeping through my bedside window, half asleep, I found a typical overcast sky. I forced myself out of the bed, starting off early for over a 100 km distance towards Kupwara before I joined my companions. On the way, through the apple town of Sopore, I was awestruck by the beauty along the journey. I couldn’t help clicking multitude of photographs all through, even when they were blurred. Every little thing caught my attention, it was fascinating. A tractor in an empty field, cow-carts pulled by a couple of farmers, apple orchards, lofty mountains, the sky.
And then, there were military posts, and their camps, almost every other mile.
By the time I reached Kunan, the awe and fascination had gradually transformed, transformed into grief and pain. A pall of gloom caught hold of me, as I stepped towards the village.
It was as if I could hear the screams and wails coming out from every house I passed by. I found myself in deep agony. It seemed it was all in the air, all that I wanted to know, as I lay silent.
The silence was soon broken by an elderly woman. Wearing a blue pheran decorated with rust tilla work, she took me aback as she presumed perfectly the reason of my arrival. She began almost without me asking anything. But I realised she avoided saying anything about the mass rape incident. In the very brief conversation that we had in the bylanes of Kunan, she told me how during the 1990s, the Indian forces would often harass them by placing arms and ammunition in their houses at gunpoint.
As I rushed to meet the village elders, I wondered if this was the way villagers were randomly branded as ‘terrorists’. Looking around, the village looked no different from any other in the Valley. Kunan was small and congested, with narrow lanes, small houses and wooden fences.
On reaching the house of the village head, a couple of elderly men welcomed us to a neatly kept yet dimly lit room. A number of young men joined in soon after. They got cushions for us to sit, taking every care for us to be at ease. Soon, one of the elderly bearded men began vaguely. Others joined him one by one: ‘We have lost faith in justice. Nothing has helped so far.’
That shouldn’t be difficult to understand, for ‘officially’, the cause of their enduring pain remains ‘untraced’, a ‘concocted bundle of lies’. The village men couldn’t speak about the horror of that night beyond a certain point, women not unlike me surrounding us in the room.
A young man I remember spoke in perfect English. In his words, his voice and his every expression was pain and rage so evident, it left me with a sinking feeling. I kept trying to observe him, however, wondering what he would have gone through – is going through – after the knowledge of the women of his family and village having been assaulted. He lay sitting awkwardly on his knees, as if deliberately causing himself pain, and waving his hands in the air revealing his helplessness. It left me deeply disturbed, the helplessness, yet I tried not to cry as we began to leave the house.
My steps were far heavier now. I had read a lot about Kunan Poshpora but never had I felt the way I was feeling now. Hearing a few stories from a colossal real-life horror, I pondered over what it was to read, what it was to know, and what it must be to witness.
Walking with my thoughts through a stretch of Kunan, I tried smiling at young women curiously staring at us through the windows. They did not respond; they stared. I felt awkward, almost embarrassed, and moved forward. Aghast, I wondered if anyone in Kunan ever smiled.
I smiled again, this time at children. Shockingly, they too would not respond. Nobody in Kunan smiles. Even children hold unanswered questions in their eyes.
Then came the moment when I first saw one of the victims, an old lady. It send a chill down my spine, I froze. She greeted me with tears. Tears fell from her eyes, tearing my heart apart. She was wailing as if the incident had happened the night before. I had not seen anyone crying so hard in front of a stranger, until I met her.
Before visiting Kunan Poshpora, I thought the victims would have now moved on since 22 years had passed. I was wrong; they are in trauma even after 22 years after the crime. The people of Kunan Poshpora have been suffering and living traumatic lives since then.
I swallowed empty gulps as the woman kissed my hand endlessly as if imploring me to fight for her, for justice. Does she always do this when she meets people like me? I suppose she does, hoping for justice. Her innocence left me motionless, helpless. But I wondered if I could do anything myself, if only to help the old woman. I couldn’t speak though.
I couldn’t see more of her, stepping away as if to forget what I had heard and seen. It was a pointless effort though. The conversations, the tales of sorrow continued to echo in my mind all through. Someone asked me later why I was trembling while walking past the village.
By the time I saw another victim, I had turned numb. And then I met others. But the tales of atrocities seemed to grow in the horror they harbored. And every woman bore an untold tale within.
We met another victim and if she survived the horror of that night, she fell to rectal cancer soon afterwards. She was bedridden. With a lot of difficulty, she broke the silence and begun a painful conversation. But then, it wasn’t really a conversation. She kept talking almost to herself. How could I anyway have replied to her, being a woman myself, on how she was outraged by those supposed to ‘secure’?
Her words were intense, full of details of what she had witnessed that night. Her tale made the hardest of hearts in the room shed tears. She fumbled with her words. Shaken, she must have been crying deep inside. Painful however much it was, she continued to narrate.
By the end of the day, I imagined there were dozens of such women in Kunan Poshpora with similar or even more horrific tales to tell. I dragged myself as I left the village, the day having sapped all the energy out of my body. It was drizzling now. I recalled the day I lost Papa, when he left this world. I wondered if this was the saddest day since. I was thirsty like I’d felt never before. It rained.
It poured heavily all through the journey back home. And I knew I wasn’t alone crying.