The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Caught in crossfire, angry and confused

Srinagar, Sept. 4: Sifting fact from fiction is a tough task in Kashmir, where over a decade of militancy has given rise to myths, platitudes and half-truths.

What is true, however, is the confusion, pain and anguish of a people caught in a vortex of violence, fearing the security forces, the counter-intelligence units as well as the various terror groups and sub-groups.

There is palpable public anger against the Indian government and the Farooq Abdullah administration. There is anger at terrorists, too, but expressed in whispers in the privacy of homes away from the public eye.

Jalal (name changed) is 27 years old. He joined the Hizb-ul Mujahideen in the mid-nineties — the heady days when azaadi seemed round the corner and young men flocked to join the militant bands.

Jalal never went to Pakistan and never met any agent of the Inter-Services Intelligence. He got three months’ arms training in a camp in the Valley, not far from Srinagar. He was given an AK-47 and operated with a group of five comrades. “We were given information on the need-to-know basis and was told to follow the orders of our group leader. I don’t know how much was told to the leader of our group, but as I was the youngest I was not told much except specific targets we should attack,” he recalls.

“Beyond the fact that we were fighting a repressive Indian state, and victory would finally be ours, we were not told anything more,” the former Hizb member says.

Jalal took part in several ambushes, but is not sure if he personally killed anybody. He talks about his first assignment: “We were hiding in an abandoned home of a Pandit family on the outskirts of Srinagar. A Maruti Gypsy followed by two patrol jeeps was on the road. As soon as the first vehicle came into view we fired. Someone also threw a hand grenade. The security personnel fired back and there was an exchange for about 10 minutes. I fired several rounds and slipped away as we had been instructed to do by our leader. None of us were caught.”

Reasonably happy as a member of the Hizb, he sometimes missed his family members who lived in Sopore. He saw them just three times during the five years he was with the militants.

The turning point came in 1998, when he saw fellow Kashmiris being tortured and killed in a camp. “I will never forget those two young men,” he recalls. “It was very cold, in the middle of winter, and two young men who had been beaten and bruised were tied to trees without a stitch of clothing. They were suspected of being police informers. I had not seen the actual torture but what I saw was dreadful. One of them was bleeding from the nose. We were not encouraged to watch. Later, I found both of them strung upside down and was told the next morning they had died.”

The experience left Jalal terribly disillusioned. “How could we kill our own people'” he says. He was now determined to leave the outfit. A few months later he was caught by the police and put behind bars. Though he did not say so, he might have given himself up as he turned more and more to religion.

The young man stayed in jail for a year but no charges were proved against him. He was let off in mid-1999 and has been living quietly as a teacher in a village.

Now he believes only in Allah and prays five times a day. He abhors violence and wants Kashmiris to turn to God. “We have to cleanse ourselves, purify ourselves, only then can our cause be successful,” he says. Surprisingly, he has little faith in the Taliban or the al Qaida. According to him, they are not true jihadis.

Today, there are many Jalals in Kashmir, but they are confused, not knowing where to turn.

The torture in prison camps has made many other former militants bitter, with a burning hatred for Indian agencies. “We can never ever live under New Delhi’s rule. The Centre cares only for the land and not for the people of Kashmir,” says Samina a student of Kashmir University. Her brother was tortured and killed by the security forces.

“We can never forget what the Kashmiri militants have done for us. Without their guns, our dispute would never have caught the attention of the international community. We are also very grateful to Pakistan, though we certainly don’t want to finally join Islamabad,’’ she says.

Kashmiris want to be free of both India and Pakistan.

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