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Unmarked graves give up their shameful secrets
Sydney Morning Herald - November 12, 2011
"The bodies come in very bad condition," Nizar Ahmed Mir tells the Herald through an interpreter, standing on the steep slopes of the Shaheed cemetery at the end of a narrow dirt road.
"They are bloody, some are in handcuffs, the clothing is torn. Most have been shot in the face, or the face has been damaged, so they cannot be identified. We don't know who they are, we are just told to bury them." Advertisement: Story continues below Nizar lives in the town of Kupwara, in northern Kashmir, on the edge of one of the most restive regions of the valley.
He farms for a living, but besides that, is one of the men the police come to with bodies. He is one of Kashmir's reluctant, but compelled, gravediggers.
Many of the bodies are incomplete, Nizar says, missing hands or limbs. Sometimes police just bring a head, handing it over with the same instruction: "Bury this".
The dead are all men. The police didn't kill them. The army did. The police are the intermediaries and they have as little information as they pass on.
"The police bring the bodies, they say: 'The army gave them to us, they are militants killed in gunfight'. But we don't know who they are. There are no documents and the police don't want questions. "We cannot argue with the police; we do not ask who they were, or how they died. We just bury them, like we are told."
It is true that some of the bodies are those of militant soldiers, killed resisting the Indian military and police presence around the disputed line of control between the Indian- and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.
But every village in Kashmir carries stories of night-time invasions of homes by heavily armed soldiers, of men and boys taken away, never to be seen again, of people shot in the street and their deaths restaged to appear as though they occurred in battle. These are Kashmir's so-called "fake encounters".
Civil rights groups such as Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons estimate there are about 8000 men missing in Kashmir, disappeared over two decades of conflict. It appears now they might finally be found.
The bodies being uncovered in these graves are, almost certainly, those men. And for the first time, an Indian state government has admitted – albeit unwittingly and unwillingly – to Kashmir's worst-kept secret.
A leaked report by the State Human Rights Commission in Indian-controlled Kashmir has conceded "it is beyond doubt that unmarked graves containing unidentified bodies do exist... in North Kashmir. There is every probability that these... graves... contain the bodies of enforced disappearances."
The report said 2730 unidentified bodies had been found in Kashmiri soil and, through cursory efforts at identification, found that 574 of them were not foreign militants as claimed, but local men, killed and buried in secret. It has called for DNA testing of all of the unidentified bodies and said of government resistance to formal identification "it has to be presumed the state wants to remain silent deliberately to hide the human rights violations".
Built on a steep slope of land unusable for anything else, the Shaheed, the Urdu word for martyr, graveyard in Kupwara has only five graves that are marked with headstones. About a dozen more have small stone cairns pushed into the ground, some daubed with a painted number. The number correlates only to the order a person was known to be buried.
While it appears there are about 20 bodies in the ground here, Nizar said there are more than 200 people buried in this narrow, steep wedge of land. Some of the unmarked graves are apparent only because they have collapsed, leaving gaping holes. Of the others, there is no sign, and no record.
The Shaheed cemetery was full in less than three years, and bodies brought to Kupwara now are taken elsewhere.
About a kilometre away is Rigipura graveyard. It is also on a disused hillside, its graves packed in tight rows, a couple with names, more with numbers, but most completely unmarked save for the tell-tale disturbance of the earth.
Near a grove of walnut trees, the Herald is approached by a bricklayer who gives his name as Ghulam. He says that he, too, has been forced to bury bodies by police. "Here," he walks to a bare patch of earth near the fence and points down.
"Here I had to bury a head. Two months before. No body. Just a head. I did not know who it was."
He says all the bodies he has been made to bury have had their faces disfigured. None have been identifiable. "Yes, I believe they are forced disappearances, the fake encounters."
Publicly, at least, the government of Jammu and Kashmir is maintaining the bodies are those of militants killed in combat against the Indian military or as they tried to illegally cross the Line of Control into Pakistan to receive arms training.
The chief of army in Jammu and Kashmir, Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain, declined an interview with the Herald, but the Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, told the state assembly his government would investigate all the unmarked graves and has proposed a truth and reconciliation commission "for the people of the state".
But he warned that investigations would take time, and that the conflict in Kashmir was not black and white.
"We are not here to hide the facts or conceal the truth... but our endeavour is to dig out the facts and bring these before the public. This cannot be done overnight but we have to make a start in this direction."
Mr Abdullah said it was unfair to blame security forces for all of the deaths in Kashmir. "I can say with authority that some of the persons buried in these unmarked graves were killed by the militants," he said.
Mr Abdullah denied there were any mass graves in Kashmir. But his government's own human rights watchdog disagrees, and is damning of security forces.
The human rights commission accuses the police of falsifying claims about how people died, and says it found mass graves in the valley. The commission's report also says there are almost certainly more secret gravesites in the valley.
Since 1988, the violence in Kashmir has claimed more than 43,000 lives.
Jana Begum knows the cost of those lost lives. Five of them belonged to her family. In half a decade, she lost her husband and four sons to Kashmir's violence. Two of her sons were picked up by police in Kupwara. Eighteen days later she was told her sons were buried in the Rigipura cemetery.
Her husband was seized by authorities in a midnight raid and taken into custody. Six months later he emerged, so badly beaten he survived only one day at home.
"He was so unwell, he was unable to eat anything. We were feeding him milk in a spoon, but we could not stop him from dying. He died because of the interrogation," she said.
Another son was shot through an open window in the family home, while another simply vanished while he was studying at an Islamic school in Deoband. His body has never been found.
Jana Begum sits in the bare front room of her house. Speaking barely above a whisper, she points out the bullet holes in the window frames. The same bullets, she says, took her son.
She holds a picture of the family she lost, and says she believes her family was targeted because her husband was an imam and her sons went to religious schools to study the Koran.
"The militants came to our house and demanded that my family join them, but they refused," she said. "But people see the militants enter our home and they think we are working for them. We did not. We were never part of that. Not ever."
The loss of the men in her family has left her destitute. "During festivals like Eid, I go to Srinagar, to beg for money from people. I have no other way, no choice. My whole family is destroyed by these terrible incidents."
Jana Begum has no interest in peace in the valley. She doesn't believe it will come, and she no longer cares.
"The people who did this, they took my sons and my husband," she said. "I have no interest in anything they do now. They cannot give me my family back."