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Orphanages Proliferate in Carnage of Kashmir

Years of violence and the erosion of Islamic values in the disputed area leave many youngsters without a family.

May 18, 2003|Mujtaba Ali Ahmad | Associated Press Writer

SRINAGAR, India — Swirling scarves through the air, the juggler draws a laugh from the 5-year-old boy, who is wrapped in a blanket in a drafty red-brick orphanage on a Kashmir mountaintop.

"It is so freaky how he makes colorful circles with those strips of cloth," a beaming Aijaz Ahmad Rather said.

Aijaz has rarely smiled since his father, a separatist militant, was killed in a gun battle with Indian security forces three years ago. Left destitute, his mother couldn't care for him and so sent him to the Garden Palace orphanage.

Thirteen years of violence in Jammu and Kashmir, India's only state with a Muslim majority, have taken a toll on the Himalayan region's families. Some 80,000 children have been orphaned or abandoned, the Jammu and Kashmir Orphans Trust estimated after a survey last year.

Most of the children, ages 3 to 15, have lost parents in cross-fires, land-mine explosions and gun battles during the insurgency by separatist Muslim rebels, who have fought since 1989 for Kashmir's independence or merger with Islamic Pakistan.

Before the rebellion, Kashmir had one orphanage, the Garden Palace, where Aijaz is the youngest of 52 residents. Now there are more than a dozen, and five more are being built.

"It is not just the militancy that has led to the proliferation of orphanages, although it is the biggest contributing factor," said Abdul Rashid Hanjoora, general secretary of the Orphans Trust.

Khaksar Mohammad Maqbool, a Muslim cleric, said traditional Islamic values have eroded since the 1980s in the portion of Kashmir that is in India.

"In the old days, when a family member died, his dependents would be taken care of by the relatives, who lived as one big family," Maqbool said. "Not only has old kinship disappeared, but so has compassion."

Private organizations provide shelter, food, education and health care for about 1,500 orphans in spite of limited funds.

"We can't reach out to all. But whatever we do, it is still a tough task to deliver, with little money and no government support," said Hanjoora at the Orphans Trust.

He believes that the lack of money available for orphanages is an indication that Kashmiris -- traditionally hospitable and compassionate in a tightly knit society -- have become more impersonal and less caring.

Maqbool agreed.

"With the collapse of the sociopolitical creed after armed rebellion broke out, people have been left spiritually naked," he said.

But he added that the deaths of more than 61,000 people, mostly Muslims, to violence have overtaxed Kashmiris' ability to deal with orphans.

Hameed-Ullah, 35, director of the Garden Palace orphanage, said institutions are helping save children's lives as well as preventing them from becoming street beggars or household servants and missing out on education, which is highly valued in Kashmiri society.

Both Hameed-Ullah and Maqbool believe, however, that Islam requires individuals to take responsibility for orphans. They note that the Koran, which lays down most rules for an Islamic society, exhorts Muslims to be good to orphans and doesn't mention orphanages.

"Islam does not want Muslims to make impersonal acts of charity," Maqbool said.

Akhtar Wali, 12, considers the Garden Palace his home.

It's where he has learned about love and affection from Hameed-Ullah and the other children.

"I don't remember anything about my parents," Akhtar said. "The caretaker treats all of us as his own children. The others are my brothers."

Orphaned at age 2, Akhtar dreams of becoming a doctor with the help of the education he is getting with the orphanage's support.

Hameed-Ullah said it would be better if more Kashmiris got involved.

"We are at [a] crossroads of history, and we have to decide whether we are content writing a check or do we feel an emotion for others' misfortune?" he said.

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