By Amin Eddebbarh
I came in knowing little. I was informed by my NGO, Kashmircorps, that a military presence had become more immediate in Srinagar. Unaware of the precarious relationship between the occupying government of India and the natives, my work in the region was directed by the organization in which I volunteered. In my experiences the various attributes to Kashmir and its plight became more apparent to me.
My plane dropped into the breathtaking, fertile Kashmir Valley guarded by majestic green mountains. As I approached the airport, I noticed that all of the buildings are camouflaged. We deplaned directly onto the tarmac, which laid in a golden meadow dotted with wildflowers. The airport was very small, and baggage claim was a zoo. The hundred and fifty passengers from the flight crammed into a baggage claim terminal the size of a large classroom, all jousting for a better view of the lone baggage carousel.
It was not until the drive out of the airport, around several barricades and through multiple checkpoints, that I came to discover that Srinagar Airport was in fact an Indian Air Force base. I saw that there was not a single street corner without an Indian soldier standing post. I was there to research the main health issues affecting the population as well as get an understanding of the workings of the health system within Srinagar. The political tension between the majority Muslim population and the Indian military would prove to dominate my time there.
Despite the overwhelming military presence, the beautiful natural environment can often cause you to forget that the region is under such political turmoil. The NGO hosted a health fair, my first major encounter with the people of Kashmir. Basic procedures were offered by the two doctors, one dentist and four interns to over 200 people who come from the under served community.
What was supposed to be a day long event turned out to be only a few hours. I originally thought the sound of rumbling was from people banging on the door in a rush for treatment. The rumbling was just a nameless noise to me in the distance while I sat distracted by the vibrant colors of the landscape. But the nervous expression on the faces of patients and the loud clamor proved otherwise. Bomb blasts in the nearby mountains made the doctors uneasy, and they abruptly left to seek safety. Services to the people ceased. The patients seemed to know that the fair was going to be cut short, but they still rushed in to be seen by a doctor. The door to the exam room was like a flood gate, a handful of people forced their way through every time it opened.
The next day the bellicose environment was apparent in the Lal Dal Maternity Hospital. Words cannot really describe the conditions in a place where the next generation of Kashmiris would be born.
Some travel more than a hundred miles to this hospital, the only maternity hospital serving the region. There were two and sometimes three patients to a bed. The overburdened hospital, when operating under acceptable conditions, had a nurse to patient ratio of 1 to 6; in the ward we were in, the ratio was 1 to 32.
As my eyes scanned the room, I noticed stains on the walls. What looked to be spatters of old blood from some procedure years ago painted the walls. Many of the beds were lined with old sheets, sometimes stained with pus. The doctors remarked that they do not have the facilities nor the financial resources to consistently maintain necessary cleanliness standards. To see one woman lying in pain from infection due to a Caesarean section and another woman and her newborn lying opposite her emphasized the irony of this region.
An associate professor of the government medical school told us that at times doctors work for 30 hours straight. It is said that being a doctor is an honorable profession, and I truly have the utmost respect and admiration for the doctors who work at that hospital. There are no monitors or any type of equipment of the sort. There is only one ultrasound machine. There is one x-ray machine, which was covered in dust and clearly outdated everyone in the hospital. Due to shortages of supplies and equipment, a lot of times doctors have to be creative and settle for makeshift solutions. Their talents were exemplified when they mended two small x-ray sheets together since they did not have one large enough to display a chest x-ray. The doctors round the hospital with basically no equipment, essentially being able to rely only on their stethoscopes and whatever experience they may have.
That first visit ended up being the only trip I was able to make to the hospital for two weeks. The relatively peaceful period was disturbed by a land ruling made by the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, a committee that oversees the Hindu pilgrimage to the shrine located a few hours outside of Srinagar. Nearly 400,000 Hindus visit the shrine every pilgrimage, a number that had begun to overwhelm the temporary tents setup to house them. The board ruled it was necessary to build permanent structures such as hotels and restaurants to serve the pilgrims. They executed a land transfer of 100 acres of forest land with the help of the Indian government.
One of the few things preserving the formerly sovereign nation is a law stating that land within Kashmir may only be purchased by people of Kashmiri descent who were born in Kashmir. This ruling, however, was seen by the greater population as an illegal attempt to establish a Hindu settlement and change the demographics of the region. Leaders in the Separatist Party, who wish for a free and independent Kashmir, were able to exploit these sentiments and rally nearly the entire population to take to the streets in protest of the land transfer.
For more than a week, we were unable to leave the enclave where we stayed. While the Indian army imposed curfews in the city, the protesters enforced their own laws in the hills. In the daytime all stores were closed and all commerce stopped; impromptu checkpoints were setup along the roads with burning tires. Taxi drivers would not dare to try to pass.
Four days into the curfews we could hear the protesters getting louder in the hills, and we were no longer permitted by the NGO to leave the guest house. In protests of this magnitude, anyone found outside of their home would be petitioned to join in the protests. Attempts to refuse an invitation to protest would be met with anger, and sometimes even stoning.
A week into the protests, the Indian army imposed a new curfew; those found outside their homes at night would be shot at first and asked questions second. A day later, amid rumors that a Separatist leader had been killed in the protest and worries that the airport could soon be shutdown, the NGO decided to evacuate us. We left for the airport the next morning at the crack of dawn. We sat in a line of cars that seemed to stretch for miles outside of the airport for hours, but we were able to pull some strings, and by the middle of the day we were on a plane to Delhi, wondering if we would ever see the magnificent green valley again.
Despite my feeling that a land reversal had to be imminent due to the obvious illegal nature of the ruling and the instability it had brought, I was still surprised when I heard the news that the protests were successful. While I disagreed with the recruitment tactics that were employed, I admired the protesters” unity and determination. The street we lived on had Shi”i mosques on one side and Sunni on the other, but when people left the mosques they joined in the street and protested the oppression together. Despite their dire financial circumstances, the Kashmiris put faith in their cause and patiently closed their businesses and were on strike from work.
Amidst all of the chaos and turmoil, the Indian government revoked the land transfer just days after we left. Life in Srinagar quickly returned back to normal and, believe it or not, we were back in Srinagar to finish our work less than ten days after being evacuated. Being in Delhi for those couple of days before our return to Kashmir allowed me to appreciate Kashmir in a way I was unable to do in my first stint. I could not thank God enough for the weather in Srinagar after a couple of sweat drenched nights in Delhi. More so though I was able to appreciate the beauty and serenity of the landscape, a great contrast to the crowded, polluted streets of Delhi and the endless cacophony that accompanies them. I remember remarking to some of my fellow interns about how much more peaceful Srinagar was than Delhi, nearly completely amnesiac of being unable to leave the guest house premises due to the danger of being stoned or shot at just a week ago. Such was the schizophrenic nature of what I have come to know as Kashmir, pristine yet polluted, calm yet with a hot temper.
Most of all though, I was able to appreciate the kindness and sincerity of the people. I appreciated standing out like a sore thumb for my foreign appearance, but feeling like I was accepted and at home in Kashmir rather than being a stranger in a strange land in Delhi.
While the land transfer temporarily put out the flames in Srinagar, it has ignited a reactionary protest in the predominantly Hindu region of Jammu to the south of Srinagar. The public saw the protests in Srinagar and the reversed ruling as an attack against Hindu pilgrims. They took to the streets in protest and Hindu extremists imposed a major blockade of the only roadway connecting Srinagar to the rest of India, preventing food and medical supplies from entering the valley and agricultural products from being exported.
This prompted the people of Srinagar to return to protesting, accusing the government of turning a blind eye to the blockade, while the government claimed that the blockade is not an issue and that means of transporting goods into greater India through the roadway were available. While the world media largely turned a blind eye, more than 30 people had been killed in clashes between protesters and Indian security forces by the middle of August.
The United States’ void in knowledge on Kashmir is much similar to my ignorance when I first landed onto a military base ironically placed in a beautiful landscape. Now, however, that void is substituted with a human, living face. While the smells and occasions can not be translated as easily, the urgency that this issue faces can. The religious division and lack of self determination has subjected the Kashmiris to a difficult lifestyle with much burden. Although Kashmircorps works on ground to enhance medical assistance, public health, education, and microfinancing, many issues continue to plague the region. And while the Kashmiris continue to seek assistance, they still have the magnificent ability to exist and to continue onward despite the silence of the world or the loud clamor of guns. The noise of the region, the landscape of it, its location: Kashmir is yet to be freed from between contradicting extremes.