“I had adjusted to the fact that my life could end very soon, in the form of a bullet or torture. I thought this was normal.”
Baseera Rafiqi reflects on the trauma of growing up in the midst of a decades long conflict.
It was a bright evening in October of 1995. My school bus dropped me off in the lane where my mother would usually pickme up each day. This time, my aunt appeared in front of me and asked me to come along. I was always ready to visit her place as it was full of toys and sweets. I followed her, dancing along the path on my teeny tiny feet. That night, I ate some food at my aunt’s house and went to bed without wondering why I was not at my own home.
With the first rays of the morning sun, my father came to take me home; at least that is what I understood. Instead, we ended up in a new place, far, far away. We wouldn't start our journey home for nearly three days. On our way, I kept talking, asking about my mother and sisters and posing any question that came to my mind. My father hushed me after each burst of curiosity.
As we opened the front door to our home, the stench of cigarettes and blood greeted us. Clothes, books, and food were lying on the ground. It was difficult to avoid stepping on things as I made my way to my room, which had become a graveyard of my precious possessions. My white rabbit was no longer white; my Barbie had a missing leg; and my shiny arm bands, clips, and pins were dulled with dirt.
I ran to my father in the other room. “What happened here? Are we going to live here?”
He knelt down to his knees and started to brush off a family photo of ours, his eyes moist. What he knew and I didn’t was that there had been no news of my mother or sisters for four days. This was a time when there were no mobile phones and even landlines were a rare commodity.
My sight settled on a fluffy object and my little hand went to fetch it. It was Rosaline, my favorite toy—a light pink teddy bear with a red heart in its hands. Now, she was smelly, covered in blood stains, and missing an eye, but I insisted on taking her with me. My father didn’t object as he was busy collecting what he could salvage: some documents, wearable clothes, and his briefcase. As a 6-year-old, my biggest concern was losing my toy collection.
Today I think about how my father must have felt seeing his houseand the dreams he shared with my mothershattered.
Although years have passed, the image of my teddy bear in that house and my helpless father refuse to fade away. I still keep Rosaline with me, despite her stains and faded color.
Later, when I was old enough to understand, I was told the whole story.
Militants had barged into residential government quarters of Chanapora-Srinagar, launching a 72-hour-long gunfight. Two militants hid in the building right next to ours where they could take aim. By the time it was over, the two militants and some men from the Indian army were killed. The three-story building next door was razed to the ground and our house sustained many bullets in the crossfire.
During the gunfight, my mother and two younger sisters were evacuated, along with other civilians. While my father was losing hope that he would find his family, my mother and sisters were living in a single room six kilometers from our house, unable to leave or contact family.
The local police who helped the army during the encounter left our house in ruins. They ate all the food in our house and took whatever money, jewelry, and valuables we had.
I don’t know how my father maintained his calm as he faced losing his family and his house in one go. It still gives me goose bumps when I think about it. I was too young at the time to give him any consolation. Thankfully, my mother and siblings were traced after a week. My parents cried when they saw each other. They were alive, which was all they had prayed for over these days.
We collected our bits and pieces and made a new world for ourselves, just like other people of my homeland have been doing for years in this unending conflict.
More than two decades after this experience, I live in a home with every comfort, but the fear is yet to fade away. I developed a fear ofthe dark, loud sounds, and the sight of armed men. People born and brought up in the Kashmir Valley in the ‘90s can relate to these fears.
New words like ‘militants’, ‘bomb’, ‘hide-out’, and ‘army’ seeped into our vocabulary at a very early age. Yet, talking about these things was forbidden. I could see people mourning, fearing, whispering. People were not able to express their feelings even to their families.
My childhood was shadowed by fear of being killed or kidnapped. Every day, the news informed us of people killed inside their homes, farms burned down, women raped at gunpoint.
We faced curfews, crackdowns, and hartals (strikes); freedom was an alien concept. Like others, I had adjusted to the fact that my life could end very soon, in the form of a bullet or torture. I thought this was normal.
As I began to read literature and learn about human rights, I saw how the rest of the world seemed to lived in peace. I started to question my beliefs.
In my mind, I had two images of the world that were continuously tussling with each other. My world was full of pain that was so deep-rooted that I could hardly recall any incident devoid of anxiety and torture. And on the other side, I was reading about and romanticizing a peaceful world. I wondered what it would have been like to experience tranquility in my childhood. I began to dream about a life full of freedom.
It didn’t take me long to realize that we Kashmiris have been suffering in silence for years. We have been subjected to violence, torture, and fear. It is totally unjust and a violation of our basic rights.
By the time I graduated, I had read about nearly all the famous wars and revolutions. Through these stories, I could relate to the people who had been through all this. We shared the same pain. I understood that I needed to do more than read, so I started to write down my ideas. As I polished my writing skills, ideas started to untangle and the pen ran smoothly on paper.
The situation in my region has furnished enough fuel all these years for my pen to continue writing.
Some argue that things have improved, but I argue the reverse. Houses are still gutted; people are killed for no reason; women are raped; children are orphaned. One can’t go outside at night without the fear of being killed. Anyone can disappear into thin air as if he never existed. Pain continues to haunt us every single day.
I pledge to write till my last breath. If the ink dries, I will write with my blood.My writing may not change a thing but at least I will die at ease, knowing that I at leastregistered my voice against atrocities incurred to me, my people, and my homeland.