Fathers are regarded as our guardians. From helping out when children need academic help to being there for them when they are struggling emotionally. They are an integral part of our growing years. I consider myself blessed to have a father. This makes me feel sad when I think about the many children in the valley who don’t know whether their fathers are living or dead.
Shaista, Mehwish and Asha crave for their father’s company. Today, they cling on to any shred of hope that could bring the news of their father. Any news.
However, there is assistance available for children without fathers. It comes from the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). Imad Nazir, a worker at the organisation said, “APDP takes the education of these children very seriously. We provide all children of the victims of Enforced Disappearances (ED) with educational support. This includes a school fee, uniform, books and other items required by the children.”
The organisation also provides the children with medical or psychological support, if they need it.
For 15-year-old Shaista Nazir Illahi, her father is a source of strength, even though he isn’t with her. She says, “Every night before I go to sleep, I write in my personal diary and feel like I am talking to him through it. I ask him to come back and take away my loneliness. I don’t know where my dad is, but wherever he is, I want him to know that his absence has made our lives miserable.”
Shaista recounts the night her father was allegedly picked up by the Indian Army when he was driving back home, late after a day at work. Her father – Nazir Ahmed Illahi – was a driver, who according to Shaista was picked up by the army in Srinagar’s Bemina area on a summer night in 2003. He hasn’t returned since then.
As she speaks, her mother’s eyes well up too. Shanaza Bano, a homemaker says, “He was innocent. He had never been a part of the violence in the 1990s or after. He only used to think about his family, about his kids and nothing else. He was aware of his responsibilities and used to treat everyone in the family with love and care.”
These days, Shaista, her mother and her younger sister are looked after by Shanaza’s brothers, who live in Chadoora in Budgam district. While Shaista’s younger sister Mehwish stays in Chadoora for her studies, Shaista continues to live with her mother at their place in Illahi Bagh and studies in a school there.
As she narrates her ordeal, Shaista pauses occasionally to brush away a tear. With every pause, silence descends the room. Suddenly, her sister Mehwish breaks the silence as she enters with a cup of tea. She then sits, propped up against a wall beside her sister and listens quietly.
Shaista continues, “Whenever I go to school and see younger kids walking hand-in-hand with their parents, I begin to picture myself in their place. I imagine my mom and dad taking me to school, asking my teacher how my studies are going. I imagine my dad buying me new clothes for various occasions. But at the end of the day, it is just my imagination – one that is vastly different from my reality. The reality is that I don’t have a father.”
Being the elder daughter, Shaista has matured since the crisis. Her younger sister may still make childish demands from her mother, but Shaista buries her wants deep inside of her, well aware that her mother can’t afford everything she craves. She adds, “After my father’s disappearance, my grandparents and other relatives started taunting my mother in various little ways.”
The horror still continues after the death of the grandparents. Those days are the worst, confesses Mehwish, “My grandparents are dead, but their actions after my father’s disappearance still haunt me.”
Mehwish, like her sister, has also found a way of communicating with her father through her diary that she started when she was 13. “Every night, before going to sleep, I write to my father. I tell him about the family’s financial crisis. I tell him about how mom and I find it hard to buy daily essentials. I tell him about my friends who come to school with their father. I tell him about the festivals, I tell him about the dresses I want to buy on Eid, but he never replies,” she says.
Shaista still hopes to see her father alive. She doesn’t know if he is still is alive but she doesn’t have a grave to visit. Every morning she wakes up and searches every room in the house for him, hoping that he may have come back in the night. “Hope is the only thing that keeps us going. My mother hopes, my little sister hopes and I hope. That’s what keeps us going.”
On August 2, 2005, Asha Rehman (now 12) lost her father.
“I was one or two years old when my father, Abdul Rasheed aka Mania Tancha was picked up by 28 RR Indian Army from our home, to never return,” she says.
Asha Rehman is the youngest in her family and lives with her mother and four siblings. After her father went missing, the family faced a lot of difficulties. The children were so young at the time that Asha’s two elder brothers who hadn’t even passed their class 10 board examinations had to go out to search for work. Asha says, “Mere sab dost apne baba ke saath shopping pe jaate hai, cheeze laate hai aur mujhe dikhate hai. (All my friends go shopping with their father and buy new things and then show them to me.)”
She has now left her studies and goes to a local sewing factory where she learns to darn clothes. Asha adds, “My brothers do a lot for me. They take care of everything. But still, having a father makes a lot of difference.”
Apart from two elder brothers who are labourers, Asha also has two sisters. Shameema Bano, 25, who is married and has a son and Mariam Jan, 18. If Asha’s father was around, she and her siblings would have been studying and pursuing their dreams. But they currently work at young ages just to feed themselves.
Asha has only one question for the governing authorities – “Where is my father?”
Today, the Kashmir valley is one of the most militarised zones in the world. With about 7,00,000 armed and paramilitary forces stationed here, the ratio of civilian to security personnel is about 1:7. The life and liberty of Kashmir’s citizens are currently governed by laws such as the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, Jammu and Kashmir Disturbed Areas Act, and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1990.
Unofficial estimates put the number of disappeared persons between 1989 and 2006 at anywhere between 8000-10,000. A majority of those who’ve disappeared are young men, including minors; others include people of all ages, professions and backgrounds, many of whom have no connection with the armed opposition groups operating in Kashmir.
Although India signed the International Convention for Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances in 2007, it has failed to ratify the Convention and only a fraction of the cases on disappearances have been investigated.
Although the number of disappearances has reduced in the recent past, the struggle for justice in existing cases continues.
A version of this article was published here.
Images provided by author.