KUNAN POSHPORA, KASHMIR, INDIA – Located in the remote, northern district of Kupwara, Kunan Poshpora looks like any other village in Indian-administered Kashmir. But on Feb. 23, 1991, something happened here that would change this village forever.
That night, residents say that Indian troops laid siege to their village. The army assembled the men at several locations in the town and then entered their homes.
“There were too many of them,” says Saleema, a middle-aged woman whose last name was withheld to protect her safety. “Our lawn was filled with the army. They broke lamps, drank alcohol.”
She says she tried to escape but turned back to rescue one of her children.
“I tried to flee, but one of my children was left in the house,” she says. “I came back [to] get him, and they caught me. I tried to flee again but couldn’t.” She says the soldiers terrorized her and the other women in their homes for nearly 12 hours.
“We were violated,” she says. “The army entered our houses at 10 in the evening and left at 9 in the morning. First, they took out the men, and only God knows what they did to us then.” She says that no one in the village was spared. “There were screams everywhere – from almost every house in the village,” she says.
Despite the high number of women who were raped, she says that many declined to report the incidents because of the stigma suffered by the women who did.
“My sister who was unmarried was here,” she says. “She was raped, too. I didn’t disclose her name, thinking, who will marry her then?” Because of this stigma, Saleema is reluctant to go into many more details about the night. “Only God knows what happened to us that night,” she says. “It is an embarrassment talking about it again and again.”
Twenty years later, the night still haunts the residents.
“It was a tragedy for the entire village,” Saleema says. “We could hear cries from every house. The men were away, unawares.”
Villagers say that army soldiers stormed the village two decades ago, torturing the men and raping the women. The army denied the allegations, and the government determined that evidence was insufficient to prove the transgressions occurred. But international organizations criticize the lack of prompt, thorough and independent investigations into the villagers’ claims. Sociologists note severe socio-cultural effects on villagers, who say that the night destroyed their prospects for education, marriage and relations with other villages. The State Human Rights Commission directed the government to reopen the case toward the end of last year, but villagers are skeptical that justice will be served more than 20 years later.
Locals say they reported about 30 cases of rape to the police during the days following the event. But they say that the actual number of victims was much higher, as many women chose not to disclose it because of the stigma it would bring.
Human Rights Law Network, a collective of lawyers and social activists dedicated to using the legal system to advance human rights in India and the subcontinent, and Act Now for Harmony and Democracy, an Indian socio-cultural organization, heard the testimonies of various human rights violations in Kashmir in 2010. Their report deemed the incident in Kunan Poshpora “the worst of the human rights violations.”
The men of Kunan Poshpora say that the soldiers took them out of their homes to different places in the village. They say that they beat and tortured them throughout the night.
Abel Dar, an elderly resident, pulls up his shirt sleeve to show the scars on his arm from the night.
“All men were taken out of their homes, except little boys,” he says. “We were all mercilessly beaten. They asked no questions – just beat us all night.” But Dar says that what he found at his home when he returned the next day was much worse. His elderly mother, wife, two sisters-in-law, daughter-in-law, aunts and cousins had all been raped. His mother was in her 80s, and his daughter-in-law was just 18.
“My daughter-in-law was very beautiful,” he says. “They took her along and released her next day around 1 p.m. My wife had to be operated upon after that incident. I had to spend a lot on her treatment.”
His daughter-in-law, a newlywed, was the last of the women in the family to be released.
“It was the 11th day of my marriage,” says Dar’s daughter-in-law, who requested anonymity to protect her family. “I was still a bride.” She says the soldiers broke in during the night.
“We were in our rooms,” she says. “They broke doors and windows. They broke the door of the cattle shed to get into our house. We, the three women of the house, huddled in a single room.” She says they had already taken the men away earlier in the evening.
“The men were taken out in the evening, and we had locked the doors then,” she says. “Then, there was chaos. There was no light, and we could only hear cries.” They took her from her home.
“They took me along to another village, and I was raped again and again. They left me three villages away at around 1 p.m. the next day.”
Another victim, Saja, whose last name was also withheld, says her daughter needed surgery after the siege.
“My daughter was stepped over in the dark by the security forces,” she says. “Her legs were broken, and then she was kept in cold in the snow. I had to sell my land to get her operated upon.”
Dozens of villages reported incidents of rape. The army denied the allegations, but the villagers’ protests forced local police to address their complaints. A top district official at the time, S.M. Yasin, wrote in his report to the government that the armed forces had “behaved like beasts.”
But even such admissions from government officials failed to secure justice for the victims. The army asked the Press Council of India, which aims to preserve the freedom of the press, to investigate the incident. The council’s investigation deemed the villagers' allegations “baseless” and the medical evidence “worthless.”
But a report by Asia Watch, a division of Human Rights Watch, questions the investigation, stating that it served more to deflect domestic and international criticism than uncover the truth.
“The alacrity with which Indian military and government authorities in Kashmir discredited the allegations of rape and their failure to follow through with procedures that would provide critical evidence for any prosecution – in particular prompt independent medical examinations of the alleged rape victims – undermined the integrity of the investigation and indicates that the Indian authorities have been far more interested in shielding government forces from charges of abuse,” the report states.
Multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions recognize sexual violence in conflict as a matter of international peace and security. They also call on member states for effective steps to prevent and respond to acts of sexual violence.
Last month, an Amnesty International statement declared that members of the Indian army must stand trial when facing charges of serious human rights violations instead of hiding behind the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Amnesty International further appealed to the government to repeal the act, which exempts security personnel from being prosecuted for human rights violations unless approved by the central government.
Bashir Ahmad Dabla, a sociology professor at the University of Kashmir, says there is bound to be abuses where there is heavy militarization and legislation that removes accountability.
“When the military is put above the law with acts like Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, AFSPA, there are bound to be cases of molestation, harassment, rape, sexual abuse,” he says. “It has happened in all parts of the world: Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan.”
The act was extended to Jammu and Kashmir state in 1990.
Dabla says the abuses in Kunan Poshpora left deep psychological and socio-cultural wounds.
“The rapes of the women at Kunan Poshpora played havoc on the collective psyche of people,” he says. “There were many cases of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicides and other psychological disease.”
From education to marriage to health, residents of Kunan Poshpora say that night changed everything – not only for the affected women, but also for the entire village. They say this is because of the social stigma attached to rape, which is considered a blot on their honor.
“The incident affected the education, relationships and every other aspect of our lives,” Dar says. “Our children were taunted in schools and colleges, making them leave their education. We could only marry within the village. No marriage has taken place outside the village. Our social relations with other villages also changed.”
Hajra, a woman whose last name was also withheld to protect her safety, says that she and her daughter were raped during the attack. In addition to the trauma it caused them, the sexual violence also destroyed her three sons’ desires to gain an education.
“Who can tolerate if someone says anything about your mother or sister in school?” she asks. “They stopped going.”
Saleema’s children reported the same discouragement from gaining an education.
“Not only did we suffer, our children also became victims,” she says. “They couldn’t get education, as they were taunted in schools. They would come home running, saying they won’t go to school. With no education, they are unemployed now.”
Ghulam Mohammad Dar, who is not related to Abel Dar, was 7 at the time of the incident. Many of his female relatives were raped, including his grandmother, who jumped out a window and hid in the grass but was caught and raped anyway.
He says he dropped out of college because of the unwanted attention from the event that had made his village infamous. It was too traumatizing to relive the event every time someone asked about it.
“We were taunted in schools and colleges,” he says. “On the first day of college, I was asked to give introduction. When they heard I was from Kunan Poshpora, they asked me can I tell what happened and what was it all about. That was it. I didn’t go back to college.”
He says that many other girls and boys from the village also dropped out of school because of this stigma. “It is better to die than listen to the taunts,” he says.
He says that the decline in education has led to an increase in unemployment and poverty. He says marriage was also affected. “The victims are still reluctant to talk as it brings a bad name,” he says. “Since that incident, we marry within the village only.”
He says it also affected pregnancies. His cousin was nine months pregnant when she was gang raped that night. The baby was born with a fractured arm.
“There are so many women among them who never had children,” he says. “There were some who could never get married.”
In October 2011, the State Human Rights Commission directed the government to reopen the case after hearing testimonies from villagers. It recommended the formation of a special investigation team, monetary compensation of around 200,000 rupees ($4,000) for victims and prosecution of the head prosecutor who had ordered the case closed.
The state government is not bound to follow the commission’s directive. It has been four months, and the government has not made any announcements regarding the case.
But Shamim Firdous, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir, says the government is working on it. “The government has already taken up the matter and is very particular to solve the issue,” she says.
Firdous, who also serves as chairwoman of the State Commission for Women, says that the women’s commission has already recommended an investigation into the incident to the state government. But she says it’s difficult when victims don’t want to come forward.
“Not all women have come out, and we wanted them to do so and also grant them compensation,” she says.
But villagers say they aren’t interested in money. Rather, they just want accountability.
“We won’t sell our honor for those 2 lakhs,” Abel Dar says. “The perpetrators should be punished according to the Indian law, and we want to see those men punished with our eyes. The law applies on them as well.”
Saleema says they want justice – for the guilty to be punished. “They are saying they will give us the money, but we don’t want that,” she says.
Hajra agrees that justice has not been served. “Twenty years of giving statements have given us nothing,” Hajra says, almost shouting with anger. “What have we gained out of it? I was telling the men not to talk to anyone anymore.”
Hajra laments the compromises and suffering the victims have had to make. She says she had to marry her daughter to a poor man because of the stigma of being a rape survivor. “I married my daughter, but to whom?” she asks. “The family doesn’t even have enough food. What could I have done? Is this justice?”
Instead of ensuring justice, the villagers accuse the government of discriminating against them since the incident. “They are punishing us since we decided to raise our voice,” Ghulam Mohammad Dar says.
Saleema and her fellow villagers say raising their voices does no good, expressing resentment toward talking to the media and other agencies.
“We have been giving statements for the last 20, 22 years,” Saleema says. “But nothing happens. I am asking you why nothing comes out of it?” (GPI)