'Orphans' of Kashmir whose mothers can't afford to keep them

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 August, 2008, 12:00am

Altav Khan, a slight 13-year-old with sorrowful, hazel eyes, cannot remember his father. But he knows all about his death; how the young militant from the Hizbul Mujahedeen separatist group was shot by soldiers when Altav was two.

Today, the boy lives at an orphanage in Srinagar, Kashmir's main city, with 350 other children aged six to 18, more than half of whom are victims of Kashmir's 20-year insurrection against India.

Up to 100,000 children in this state of 5.5 million people are thought to be 'orphans' - a term that in Kashmir tends to refer to children who have lost their fathers, and whose mothers are too poor to look after them. Altav has neither parent, he confides in a whisper that is barely audible; his mother died 'of natural causes' shortly after she watched soldiers enter her home and shoot dead her husband.

Before 1989, when separatists began their uprising against India, Kashmir had few orphanages. Srinagar had just one, with fewer than 20 children. Today there are half a dozen large institutions in the city - and a number more scattered throughout the Kashmir Valley.

'This was never part of our culture before all the violence,' says Saifullah Khalid, principal of the Muslim Welfare Society-run orphanage where Altav lives, gesturing at the building's cold, bare floors and walls.

'Before, people would never have taken their brother's children to a strange place and left them. They would have adopted them. But with the huge numbers of deaths, this became impossible,' Dr Khalid says.

Nighat Shafi Pandit, a well-known Kashmiri activist and chairwoman of the Help Foundation that runs schools for orphans and other poor children in and around Srinagar, says that at the height of the conflict in the mid-1990s, there were days when up to 100 people, mostly men, were killed.

She regrets that the government did not give more support more quickly to the many widows these deaths created, thereby allowing their children to remain at home.

'We shouldn't have needed orphanages,' she says. 'Uprooting a child from its home can cause terrible damage.'

The bombings, shootings and disappearances that punctuated daily life in the Himalayan region described by the 17th-century Mughal emperor Jahangir as 'paradise on Earth' have abated somewhat in recent years.

About 600,000 Indian troops remain based in Kashmir. In Srinagar they stand guard at every big intersection, and their presence is deeply resented by local people.

Last year, however, violence in Kashmir dropped to its lowest level since the insurgency began. There were fewer than 800 politically related deaths in 2007, compared with 4,507 in 2001, the Institute for Conflict Management in Delhi says.

But everywhere in the region are the invisible scars of the conflict that has killed 50,000 people.

Last year, aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres found that in some parts of the valley, one-third of Kashmiris had lost members of their extended families to the conflict and a similar proportion had contemplated suicide.

There are few resources for such people, adults or children.

Kiswar Ahmed, a psychologist from the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, has made yearly visits to Kashmir since the insurgency began, to work as a volunteer therapist with orphaned children.

When new children arrive at orphanages here, 'They are scared,' Dr Ahmed says, 'scared of strangers, scared of the dark, scared of everything.

'I have worked with six-year-olds who are deeply depressed.'

She says Kashmiri children tend to have 'a very strong religious faith that grounds them and gives them some security'. But she adds that thousands more need professional therapy than receive it.

Days ago, Dr Ahmed worked with a 13-year-old boy from a remote rural area who had recently arrived at an orphanage in Srinagar.

'He was shivering, literally, with fear, and I later learned that he had been approached by some people who had tried to recruit him to their cause - militants, I suppose,' she says.

People like Dr Ahmed are concerned about the impact this troubled generation will have on Kashmiri society in the long term.

In orphanages, many children seem to have been heavily politicised by their experiences.

None will ever admit that their fathers were killed by militants; such people have been shunned as informants. Instead, all say that their fathers - militant or not - were killed by the army.

Eleven-year-old orphan Gazi Abdullah is roused to astonishingly articulate anger about the state government's recent decision to transfer land to a Hindu shrine - a move that recently sparked Kashmir's most violent protests in years.

He is angry, too, about the death of his teacher father, who was killed in crossfire when he was a baby.

But the boy has more pressing concerns than politics - to work hard enough at school that he can become an engineer. Then he can look after his mother and his sister, who, like many female Kashmiri orphans, has stayed at home.