In the unrest of early 90s, many Kashmiri men crossed over the LoC with the intention of getting arms training in Pakistan-run camps and returning to the Valley to fight security forces. But some stayed back, married local Pakistani women and settled down. Though, there still lingered in them a desire to return home peacefully one day.
Those hopes were kindled when in 2010 Omar Abdullah-led government announced a rehabilitation policy for the former militants.
The move was aimed to encourage youth who were still living in Pakistan but wanted to return “due to change of heart” and had given up the “idea of picking up guns”. This scheme offered rehabilitation and monetary incentives to these former militants.
The Jammu and Kashmir government in 2016 stated that 489 former militants had returned to Kashmir; some alone, the rest with their families.
The then home minister of the Jammu and Kashmir, Nasir Aslam Wani, told News18 that the policy to encourage return of militants was “a success story”. “There was overwhelming response from the former militants settled in parts of Pakistan and their families for this policy,” Wani said.
The state government was hoping, Wani added, that the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would soon come and welcome these people officially. “In the backchannels it was agreed by India and Pakistan that these people will use Nepal route to return,” Wani added.
But before the number of returned former militants could reach to one thousand – when Union government had decided to formally announce their rehab policy – the 2014 general elections brought a new party to power. “Then we couldn’t do anything. New government approached it in their own way,” Wani said.
Hundreds of former militants who had returned suddenly became personae non gratae ('an unwelcome person'). But greater misfortune befell their Pakistani brides.
Having followed their husbands to their homes in Kashmir, the Pakistani brides found themselves practically stateless overnight.
Some like Sayeda Safiya Bukhari are not sure whether the child she gave birth to in Kashmir is also stateless like them.
Some like Zeba, who were verbally divorced by their husbands, without the support from the state or society, have been left to fend for themselves. "I'm struggling to prove that my children and I exist in this world," the woman, who has become a voice for those who're similarly distressed like her, says.
Some Pakistani brides could not take the suffering anymore. Abdul Majeed Lone, who on his return had to erect a shanty for his family in the Valley, where temperatures often drop below zero, one night found his wife "burning like an effigy" after she set herself on fire.
Tragedy unfolded the other way for Bibi whose Kashmiri husband committed suicide. He was a successful automobile merchant in Pakistan's Muzzafarabad, but killed himself in distress. “I am fed-up with this life,” Bibi said quoting her husband when he was admitted at a hospital. “If I end my life at least they will allow you to travel back.”
News18 reached out to several such Pakistani brides, most of who are living on nothing more than a dream which their husbands once saw – of returning to their homes, to their families, to their lives.
The only way to meet her parents, Taiba found, is at Line of Control (LoC), the de-facto border in Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
They decided to meet on a spring day this year at Teetwal — the last village on the Indian side of Kashmir in Kupwara district, around hundred kilometres away from Taiba’s house. At the edge of Teetwal flows a river on the other side of which, in Pakistan-held Kashmir, lives Tabia’s parents.
Taiba along with her son
It is on the connecting footbridge over the river that in summer people with the necessary clearances are allowed to travel to the other side.
But Taiba couldn’t get the required clearance. She couldn’t set the foot on the bridge. In the afternoon sun, for the first time after her marriage in 2008, she saw her Abba and Ammi — both in their mid-seventies — approaching the bridge, aided by walking sticks.
She begged the military personnel guarding the bridge to allow her to walk halfway to be able to embrace her parents. But she wasn’t allowed to. “No one can go beyond this point without permission,” Taiba was told by the firm soldiers. She repeated the plea several times hoping that tears would help her get past the restrictions. One soldier moved by her plight handed her his pair of binoculars.
The longing to see her aged parents had made Taiba’s life miserable. Over a decade had passed since the 29-year-old arrived in a non-descript village near Handwara, a garrisoned town in north Kashmir.
She had travelled via Nepal from Muzaffarabad, the capital city of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, with her two children and husband, who had crossed the Line of Control over to Pakistan in 1990 for arms training.
Like thousands of other Kashmiris, he was supposed to cross over to the Indian side of Kashmir after training and fight security forces. Instead, he stayed back and settled. In 2008, he married Taiba, who lets News18 use only her first name.
Soon after reaching Kashmir, Taiba started missing her parents and the city she grew up in. But she was denied permission to return. That’s because she didn’t have valid travel papers, since she was not a valid citizen of India nor of Pakistan. This is why she was not allowed to get on the bridge to see her parents.
She kept gazing through the binoculars. “I could see the wrinkled faces of my Abba and Ammi,” Taiba said, “they were shaking, struggling to stand upright.”
Taiba toyed with the idea of jumping into the turbulent river. “People from the other side could rescue me,” Taiba recalls thinking.
Her parents left after over an hour, however, she stood there until the sun slipped behind the mountains of Muzaffarabad. “I kept my gaze fixed on the bridge and reminisced about my childhood,” she said.
Taiba was born in Muzaffarabad, a city tucked in mountains. While growing up in this dazzling valley where rivers Jehlum and Neelam confluence, she would often hear the stories of Srinagar, the other part of Kashmir and of its unparalleled beauty.
“But when I reached here, it turned out to be a cage,” she said. And Taiba is not alone in feeling caged.
Sayeda Safiya Bukhari (39) was also born in Muzaffarabad and married to a former militant, Irfan Hassan Shah (40). They now live in Dangiwacha, an off-track hamlet in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district.
Sayeda Safiya Bukhari (39)
In the summer of 1993, Irfan Hassan Shah along with 12 other boys crossed LoC for arms training. But after his training, instead of going back, he decided to stay for a few months in the city and explore it. Eight from the original group decided to go back with the assault rifles and ammunition. All of them were killed in gun battles with security forces.
In Muzaffarabad, he started doing some odd jobs for a few months and later joined a government degree college in Mirpur and graduated with a bachelor’s degree. He opened a mobile phone shop in Rawalpandi and married Sayeda Safiya Bukhari, who was then a college student. After staying in Rawalpandi for some years, they moved to Muzaffarabad. He was settled as a family man. But Shah missed his family and his native place.
By mid-2000, the situation in Kashmir started improving and in 2008, few militants travelled back to Kashmir via Nepal.
“After some militants went back home in 2008, it gave me hope,” said Shah. He had heard mainstream Indian political leaders promising a rehabilitation policy for those who wanted to return.
In January 2009, Shah took a flight from Islamabad to Nepal with his pregnant wife and two sons who were then aged five and four.
“We took a train for Jammu and it took us total eight days from Muzaffarabad to my native village in Baramulla,” said Shah. For his wife, Bukhari, it was a traumatic journey. She gave birth to a male child in Srinagar’s Lal Ded hospital just on the third day of their arrival.
Soon after her arrival, her husband’s home did not feel like her own.
“Giving birth to a child at a different place was a very scary experience for me. I was missing my parents,” said Bukhari. “Here the language was different, the food was not the same and the weather was completely unusual,” recalls Bukhari.
Soon Shah too started feeling out of place, as if life had moved on in his absence.
“My family was settled now and suddenly when I came with my wife and children, it was an extra responsibility on their shoulders that they didn’t want to accept.” He was struggling to find some work and support his family.
“Everything appeared different. It was not the place I had left,” says Shah. “The friends I had grown up with were married and settled. Some had died and they were settled in the calm of graveyard. I was in the middle of nowhere.”
In 2012, a year after he had started working as a salesman at a hardware selling shop, he was arrested by police and was accused of being part of a terror group which had tried to attack then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s rally in Srinagar. He spent two years in jail, though the case could not be established in the court.
During this time, his wife and children were left helpless.
Shah and his wife thought of going back to Pakistan and start the same life but the situation now was more complex. They had no documents. They found that they were neither the citizens of India and nor of Pakistan. Even their son, who was born in Srinagar, was stateless.
Shah’s wife says she is hardly able to sleep properly since she arrived in Kashmir.
“I keep thinking about the place I grew up in. It is hard to leave behind that world,” says Bukhari, who now remains confined to the old house of her in-laws. “The biggest worry I have is my children. They are young at this time. One is in ninth standard and another is in eighth. As they will grow up, what will they do?” she asks, helpless in her condition.
Zeba, was born and brought up in Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad. She was married to Abdul Rasheed Khan, a native of Langate area of north Kashmir, who had also crossed LoC to undergo militant training.
Zeba has been proactive in bringing together other women like her, demanding that government recognise them as naturalised citizens (Picture: Abu Baker)
A science graduate, Zeba, who is now in her late 30s did not know Khan’s past when they met and got married. Khan was working as a property dealer in Islamabad and she was a house maker. “We were living a beautiful life,” she says.
When the government announced a rehabilitation policy and some former militants came back to Kashmir with their families, Khan decided to return to his native village. But Zeba, who uses only her first name, was reluctant. She was mother of a son and twin daughters and didn’t want to leave the place she had grown up in.
But her husband was adamant. “I agreed to come to Kashmir, booking a return ticket in case I didn’t like Kashmir, I would return,” says Zeba.
When they took a flight from Islamabad to Nepal, they realised that they were not alone. “On the flight were seven families like us who were returning to Kashmir,” says Zeba.
The group of over forty members was fixed with a guide. As they crossed Nepal-India border at Sonauli, they were arrested by police. They were released on bail after 15 days.
Zeba wanted to go back to Pakistan, but how? The situation turned from bad to worse for her when Abdul Rasheed divorced her.
“My husband divorced me verbally. I cannot go to a court and demand my rights, because I am not a citizen of this country.”
Now, she lives independently with her children and manages to earn a meagre income by teaching at a private school.
“I am divorced with no one to turn to for help. Usually, when a woman is divorced she has people — her parents, siblings and relatives — to support her,” says Zeba. “I am struggling to prove that my children and I exist in this world.”
Zeba has been proactive in bringing together other women like her, organising protests, demanding that the government recognise the women, who want to live here as naturalised citizens and allow them to travel to Pakistan and meet their families.
Zeba says that all the women who came to Kashmir like her are in acute depression. “There is not a single lady who is not taking anti-depressants,” she says.
“Hamay yahan laawarisu ki tarah dafnaya jaa raha hai [We are being buried here like orphans],” she says and breaks down.
“Humne shaadiyan ki hain, koi dehshatgardi nahi [We’ve got married, not committed acts of terror].”
But not all are resilient like Zeba.
Abdul Majeed Lone, a resident of Naidkhai area of Bandipora district, was sleeping in a shanty with his three children and wife. In the middle of the night, he heard wild cries.
Abdul Majeed Lone lives with his children in a shanty (Picture: Aakash Hassan)
“I woke up and rushed out. Outside, I found my wife burning like an effigy,” he recalls.
Lone was a former militant who had crossed the LoC and later married in Muzaffarabad in 2002. He was settled there until his family members insisted him to return.
He arrived in Kashmir in 2012 with his wife Saira Banu and three children — son and two daughters.
Khan, who was running a grocery shop in Muzaffarabad, couldn’t find any work here. After a few months, his brothers asked him to find his own place.
“I had only one option — to build a shanty and live in it,” said Khan, who started working as a labourer. “No one gives job to an illiterate person who has a past like mine and is now in his mid-forties,” he said.
Saira Banu and her children couldn’t adjust in the new situation. In the freezing winter of Kashmir, she was living in a tin-shed with her children.
Anguished with her life, Saira sprinkled kerosene on herself. She was taken to Srinagar’s SKIMS hospital where she died a painful death six days later.
“She would only talk one thing till she breathed her last — mujhe paar le jao [Take me to the other side],” recalled Ahsan Kashmiri, another former militant, who was by her bedside.
Saira Banu left three children — a son (15) and two daughters aged 12 and 11.
Sometimes it is the men who’ve found living on unbearable.
Sayed Basheer Ahmad Bukhari returned to his native village Kreeri in 2012 with his family — wife, five girls and a son. After undergoing his arms training, the former militant stayed back and settled in Muzaffarabad where he became a successful automobile dealer.
But when he returned to Kashmir, he found his life going nowhere. One day he told his family that he was trying to find a way for them to return to Pakistan.
“We were prepared to take the journey. But then he suddenly changed his mind and told us that we should wait for some time,” his wife Safina Bibi recalls.
Safina Bibi's (right) husband set himself ablaze in 2013.
After few days, in July 2013, he left his home in morning. Bukhari went to the market of the village and sprinkled kerosene on himself and set himself on fire.
He was rushed to the hospital where he survived for three days.
“I am fed-up with this life,” Bibi said he told her in the hospital. “If I end my life at least they will allow you to travel back.”
Bibi says that when they came to Kashmir it was not only the government that let them down, but the society and her husband’s family that didn’t step up to help them.
“Instead of extending helping hand, problems were created for us. We are being looked as outsiders,” said Bibi.