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The Sunday Times Magazine – State of Despair

Kashmir’s young men are disappearing, victims of the 10 year civil war between India and Pakistani-backed militants. And parents who try to find them wind up dead. Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark Photographs by Harriet Logan.

Hours of cooking had stained Gulshan’s hands a deep shade of scarlet, but she looked with satisfaction at the wedding feast laid out in honour of Anjum, her younger sister. Outside it was dusk and on any other day the 300 guests, squeezed into the small house in a suburb of Srinagar, would be locked inside their own homes. There was no longer a curfew in Kashmir, but everyone was frightened of the dark.

By 8pm it was pitch-black and the meal had been devoured. Nervous guests drank a final round of sweet-scented kawa (tea) and left, filing past Anjum and her new husband, Farooq Ahmed, placing garlands of marigolds and paper money around their necks. The very last to go were the three men who had organised the party, who had talked the loudest, danced and been the most lavish with their presents. Their wives had already left for home when Ghulam Matto, Gulshan’s husband, his cousin Javid Shah, and their friend Nazir Gilkar all squeezed onto a green Bajaj motor scooter and roared off into the night like B-movie daredevils.

When Gulshan arrived home she put her four-year-old son to bed still wearing the sparkling eye shadow all the children had smeared on their faces. It was a comfortable place; the couple lived well from their business selling pashmina shawls. Gulshan boiled a pan of salt tea for Ghulam, as she had done every night of their 12-year marriage. That night he didn’t come back.

Shafgupta, Javid’s wife, who lived only a few streets away in the old quarter of Kashmir’s summer capital, was next to reach home. Before she settled down with her two toddlers, she made sure the brazier in her husband’s silver workshop was extinguished. An hour went by and Javid was still not home. Nor was Nazir, who had married only the previous summer.

Two hours later, after a flurry of phone calls, fragments of a story had emerged. A “security checkpoint”, men being “lifted”. A line of vehicles stopped by a unit of the Special Task Force (STF), India’s paramilitary police, outside the city’s Soura Medical Institute. A green Bajaj motor scooter carrying three men had been pulled over. Someone said the checkpoint was manned by Abdul Rashid Khan, a tall, rakish STF officer notorious in the neighbourhood for his sky-blue eyes and the four inquiries lodged against him for abduction, torture and murder.

By 10.30pm there was still nothing definite. The three wives flagged down a rickshaw to take them to the police station opposite the medical institute. Through the heavy iron gates they could see the green scooter, but the officers inside refused to answer questions.

At dawn the families returned to Soura, and this time an angry crowd demanded information. A uniformed officer said there had been no checkpoint the night before and now there was no sign of the scooter. The desperate women placed an advertisement, and photographs of the three missing men were printed the next day in the Daily Aftab, amid other ominous news from the Kashmir valley: a double-murder, a blurred black-and-white picture of two bodies found in a village in Baramulla District, 70 miles away; a brief story of a body in a rice sack that had been fished from Dal Lake.

What else could Gulshan, Shafgupta and Ruquya do but wait? The security forces were on high alert after the border conflict between India and Pakistan. Anyone on the streets of Srinagar at dawn or after dark ran the risk of being picked up and accused of links to Pakistan, or to the militants who had been fighting for independence for Kashmir since 1989 in a war that has so far killed 50,000, and led to the disappearance of at least 2000. Their husbands had no such links.

That night, as always, Srinagar was lit up by the sodium glare of a giant light mounted on the ramparts of the historic Hari Parbat Fort, from where Indian soldiers kept a constant watch. The city was silent but for the rumble of an armoured patrol: six uniformed men in flak jackets and black hoods riding the roof of their lorry like cowboys, beating a tattoo with heavy canes on the doors as they banked around a corner. Indian military mottoes were painted everywhere: “Duty unto death; You sow what you reap; Respect us and you will be safe.” In the old quarter, Gulshan, Shafgupta and Ruquya sat before the remains of their marriages: a green pocket-sized identity card, a traders’ association permit, a holiday snap of young couples swaddled in scarves and hats in the snow of the Gulmarg peaks.

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