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Civilians Find Little Refuge in Kashmir

The region's war has created many ways to die. Residents say Indian security forces are to blame.

March 29, 2004|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

CHATTIBANDI, India — The snow was waist-deep around the Kashmiri guerrillas' mountain hide-out, so in the valley below, Indian soldiers rounded up villagers to clear a path for their midnight hunt.

Troops pounded at Abdul Rehman Bani's tin door about 10 that February night, startling him out of his sleep. From the frigid darkness, the Indian soldiers addressed the 75-year-old man as baba, or father, a token of respect followed by an order to bring his three sons outside. They left with the two oldest, both farmers, Bani said.

"They forced my sons to go with them and told me, 'Baba, don't worry. They will be back later tonight,' " he said.

Two days later, his hands numb with frostbite, Bani's son Mohammed Yousaf, 35, came down the mountain with the corpse of his brother Mohammed Yaqoob, 24. He was one of five villagers killed in heavy gunfire as Indian troops advanced on a guerrilla lair, behind a press gang of men armed only with spades.

"They were used as human shields," the elder Bani said. "There is no doubt about that."

Kashmiri leaders and activists blame the villagers' deaths, and dozens of others in recent months, on Indian security forces and say human rights abuses threaten efforts to end India and Pakistan's 56-year conflict over Kashmir.

After a 14-year guerrilla insurgency and at least 40,000 deaths, support for independence or union with neighboring Pakistan still runs deep among Kashmir's Muslim majority. The war's victims have come from all religious groups -- Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Sikh. But the mainly Muslim Kashmir Valley has suffered the brunt of the violence.

The once-sovereign state of Jammu and Kashmir is claimed by Pakistan and India, which controls most of the territory. India accuses Pakistan of backing militant fighters. Pakistan says Kashmiris should decide their status in a referendum.

Although millions of spectators in the two countries celebrate warming relations by watching a series of cricket matches pitting Indians against Pakistanis, an average of five people are dying daily in the insurgency that still torments Kashmir.

The war already has killed more than 400 people this year, at least a quarter of them civilians. Almost two-thirds of the dead are listed as militants, but activists say some of those were also innocent civilians. The security forces have suffered the lowest number of deaths, roughly 12% of the total this year.

Authorities have opened investigations into 37 alleged human rights violations -- such as disappearances, firing on unarmed protesters and deaths in custody -- since November 2002, when a new state government took power and promised to end human rights abuses.

At least 121 people have disappeared during that period, many of whom were last seen in the custody of security forces or unidentified gunmen, according to the Assn. of Parents of Disappeared Persons.

Mufti Mohammed Syed, the chief minister of India's Jammu and Kashmir state, says the police and military rarely commit abuses in the territory and that violators are brought to justice.

But only one member of the security forces has been punished since Syed took office, according to the nongovernmental Public Commission on Human Rights. The police officer was suspended after an inquiry concluded that a 45-year-old mason who died in custody did not hang himself, as police claimed.

The charges of human rights abuses dominated the second round of landmark talks Saturday between moderate Kashmiri separatist leaders and Indian Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani. He repeated a previous promise to release political prisoners and address Kashmiris' complaints against the security forces.

In villages such as Chattibandi, people say high-level talks have had little effect. In 1995, Bani's first-born son, Ghulam Nuraani, then 32, was killed after Indian soldiers forced him to work as a porter during a mission against militants, the patriarch said.

The army, police and Syed's government announced three inquiries into the five villagers' deaths last month, and the chief minister said he was confident that anyone found guilty of abuses would be punished.

A senior Indian police source said the soldiers did nothing wrong by using civilians in a military operation -- in which six soldiers also died -- and said the men participated willingly for pay. Several villagers said the military initially tried to cover up the civilian deaths by claiming they were militants. The army has not provided evidence that guerrillas were captured or killed in the operation.

Around 1,000 Indian soldiers are camped in Chattibandi, a village 30 miles north of Srinagar, the state's summer capital. Like much of Kashmir, its simple beauty, and relentless pain, are staggering.

Chattibandi's children carry schoolwork written in chalk on small slates past shepherds watching flocks in terraced fields that blossom brilliant yellow with mustard flowers.

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