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Kashmiris Caught in Cross-Fire

July 28, 2002|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOLDHA, India — Like most of Kashmir's victims, Halima Doie lost her life in a fight she didn't want and was powerless to stop.

An illiterate Muslim woman born into the once nomadic Gujjar tribe, she and her family lived, or died, at the mercy of the men with guns.

It didn't matter what side the men were on: Separatist Muslim rebels who roam the rugged canyon in this disputed land were as much a danger to the Doies as their Hindu neighbors.

The Hindus who live nearby, farmers mostly, didn't always have guns. Then police armed them with bolt-action rifles to give them a fighting chance against the rebels' Kalashnikovs, and they formed civilian militias.

All Halima Doie had to defend her honor, and her children, was a small ax.

When the Hindu militia members turned their sights on her, she tried to hide behind a rough-hewn wooden door, but it wasn't strong enough to stop drunken men bent on rape. Resisting only made them more angry, and their punishment was ruthless.

They opened fire with the rifles issued for self-defense, pausing to pull back the bolt and reload each new round into the chamber, until they had killed Doie, her sister-in-law and three of their children.

Fears that a war between India and Pakistan could go nuclear have brought a new sense of urgency to diplomatic efforts to resolve competing claims over divided Kashmir. But after 13 years of insurgency by the guerrillas in Kashmir, who are battling for an independent state or union with mostly Muslim Pakistan, the fight over the Himalayan territory has become one of the world's most entrenched disputes.

By arming thousands of Hindu civilians in village militias, Indian authorities have only deepened the religious divide in a territory once known as a paradise of tolerance.

There is mounting evidence that some of the militias are using their power to intimidate unarmed Muslim civilians, drive them from their homes and, in at least three reported cases, kill those who resist, said Tapan Bose, secretary-general of the South Asia Forum for Human Rights.

In some villages, the militias, known as village defense committees, are commanded by outsiders who belong to the Hindu extremist movement Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, Bose said. He suspects that they are using the defense committees to push a radical political agenda, just as Muslim extremists are using the Kashmir issue to advance their jihad, or holy war.

Police have been giving guns to the civilian militias, usually .303 rifles that are throwbacks to British colonial rule, since 1996. Almost all of the weapons have gone to Hindus. Muslims very rarely join the civilian militias, primarily because they don't want to be seen supporting state authority, Bose said.

"What do we need guns for?" asked Hajra Paswal Doie, the matriarch of the ruined family. "If we take their weapons, we are not secure. The village defense committee members can kill us and then say we were killed 'by our own people.' "

By that, she meant the Muslim guerrillas, who were the first to harm her family, in May 2001.

At least four rebels armed with assault rifles came to the Doies' village of Teeno, a scattering of mud-brick homes built on a steep canyon wall, in search of a suspected informant.

Only they knew what, if any, evidence there was against Ibrahim Doie, Hajra's son.

He was working in the fields, tiny plots with just enough soil amid the mountain rocks and boulders for a few rows of corn, she said. The flash of a memory brought tears streaming down her weathered cheeks.

She paused to dry them with the edge of her head scarf.

"They locked all the women and children in the house and then tied his hands behind his back," she said, and then the words were too hard to say. That was the last she saw of her eldest son, the only defender the family had.

After the rebels targeted Ibrahim Doie, the local Hindu village defense committee went after his widow, Beeran. A group of about 10 armed men, led by two commanders, visited the house almost daily, Hajra Doie said.

"These people used to come to our village, take food and milk--anything we had and then leave," she said. "It was all by force."

Sometimes the militia members tried to justify the visits as a search for the enemy, she said.

"They asked us where the militants are," Hajra Doie said. "We told them: 'How do we know? For us, you are the militants.' "

After constant harassment, her daughter-in-law Beeran consented to an affair with one of the men. On the night of May 8, about a year after the rebels led Beeran Doie's husband away, the Hindu men turned their sights on her sister-in-law, Halima.

*

The only surviving witnesses to what happened that night are Hajra Doie's grandchildren, who are too young and traumatized to recall many details. But one thing is clear, Hajra Doie said: When the men demanded sex, Halima kept refusing and tried to fend them off by bolting the door.

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