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Chicago Tribune, February 27, 2002
In Kashmir, people vanish

Residents allege Indian agents grab many innocents

By Kim Barker
Tribune staff reporter
Published February 27, 2002

SRINAGAR, India -- Javed Ahmad Ahanger was yanked out of bed in the middle of the night, his mother said. She was offered $31,000 to forget he ever existed.

There are other similar stories: a teenage boy beaten in front of his parents before being taken; a young man who left home to buy chocolate for his siblings and never came back; a 70-year-old farmer; a retired school principal; an engineering professor.

In the Indian-ruled swath of the Kashmir Valley, these boys and men are called the "disappeared," one of the few English words that most people here know.

Since separatist fighting started in Kashmir 13 years ago, Indian officials estimate more than 33,000 soldiers, police and civilians have been killed. Less noticed is that as many as 5,000 people have vanished, human-rights activists say, after being picked up by Indian security forces.

A yearning optimism

"My heart says that he's alive," said Parveena Ahanger, Javed's mother, who can't read or write but helped form the Association for the Parents of Disappeared Persons. "I don't believe he has died. My heart says to me they have taken him somewhere. They are hiding him."

Pakistan and India have fought two wars over Kashmir, a mostly Muslim region that is home to an armed independence movement and is also claimed by Pakistan.

India accuses Pakistan of funding and training Muslim separatists, some of whom have adopted terrorist methods in their fight against Indian rule.

In recent months, the Kashmir conflict has intensified. India and Pakistan massed 1 million troops along their shared border after separatist militants were blamed for an attack on India's parliament building Dec. 13.

Solve Kashmir; peace follows

Both countries agree that unless the Kashmir problem is solved, they will never find peace.

Though Indian authorities say more than 30,000 have died in the Kashmir violence, human-rights activists put the toll at 80,000.

Indian authorities do not acknowledge that people are missing. They say that most of the men and boys have left Kashmir on their own and that many go to Pakistan.

Last summer, police even confiscated a memorial that parents set up for their missing children.

"The point is, most of these boys, these young boys, they go across to Pakistan and don't tell their parents," said K. Rajendra Kumar, the inspector general of police for the Kashmir zone, who supervises about 50,000 officers in the region. "It's propaganda. Could they really just disappear into thin air?"

Security forces don't pick up the wrong people, Kumar said, adding that the parents of these missing people are blind if they think their sons are innocent.

"That's what my mother also feels," Kumar said. "She thinks I'm a very good boy. She doesn't know I drink. She doesn't know I smoke."

But the residents blame security forces for these disappearances. Witnesses report seeing armed officers take away people who never came back. At least one government official admitted publicly in 1997 that hundreds had disappeared.

A 1999 Amnesty International report said most of the missing "appear to be ordinary civilians having no connections with armed opposition groups."

In Srinagar, an Urdu-language newspaper runs a daily feature with a story and the picture of a missing person.

Ahanger keeps a 1-inch stack of these clippings. They hang in a bag on the wall of the room where she once slept with Javed and his younger brother.

For more than 11 years, she has kept this room mostly as it was--the same mint-green walls, brown wool carpets and broken piece of mirror.

Young man's story

Javed, 17, had just started college. On Aug. 18, 1990, he spent the night at a neighbor's house after studying there. Early that morning, the neighbors woke up Ahanger and told her that her boy was gone.

Neighbors said the security forces came looking for a known militant who lived nearby, Ahanger said. The security forces, hearing her son's name, took him instead.

She said she went to the police station, where she was told Javed had been beaten and taken to the military hospital. She visited the hospital three times but was not allowed to see Javed. Ahanger was told no one knew where her son was, that she would have to go to court.

Since then, she has visited every jail she could find. She is still going to court hearings. Once, a lower court found that security forces were responsible for taking her son, but higher courts did not.

Ahanger said that outside one court hearing security force lawyers offered her about $31,000 to drop the case.

"I said, `I refuse to take your money. I need my son. If he is dead, tell me where he is buried. If he is alive, he is not a militant, and you should release him,'" Ahanger said.

In more than 70 cases, the courts have indicted security forces for wrongly taking people, said Pervez Imroz, a lawyer who also helped found the parents' association and who runs the Public Commission on Human Rights in Kashmir. No security officer has ever been punished, Imroz said.

Reports of other bribes

Other relatives of the disappeared have been offered between $2,200 and $3,100 to drop their cases, Imroz said. Most have refused, he said.

Imroz said he believes the missing are dead.

"They have been killed, I think," he said. "They have been arrested, and they have been tortured, killed, thrown in the rivers, because we have many rivers here. Or they have been burned and thrown in the forests."

Many of the parents can't accept this. A core group holds meetings in the same mint-green room where Javed and Ahanger used to sleep.

They try to work together to find out what happened to their sons, to set up a monument so people can have something concrete to help them grieve.

They want something permanent, something in stone, something that cannot be taken away.


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