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Finding Refuge in Books and Movies
Group Reaches Out to Young Kashmiris Shaped by Conflict

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 12, 2007

SRINAGAR, India -- First, Kashmir's movie theaters became military bunkers. Then, the popular sports stadium was converted into housing for the Indian army. Libraries and intellectual salons stopped holding workshops and discussions; Sufi concerts and sitar lessons were canceled. Young people were told to stay indoors.

It was the early 1990s and the latest violence was underway in the Kashmir Valley, once a scenic tourist destination surrounded by snowcapped mountains and later a place that the world feared could give rise to a nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

It was the children of the conflict who saw their worlds shrink the fastest. Parents didn't want their sons leaving the house, fearing they would be drawn into the war by one side or the other. There were Kashmiri guerrillas looking for young separatist recruits and Indian security forces arresting young military-age men suspected of militancy.

Today, Kashmir is stuck in a low-intensity war, and young people here say they have few spaces to enjoy the kind of thriving social life that their parents recall.

"It was like our culture of play was destroyed," said Adil Abbas, 19, an engineering student who was in fourth grade when his mother was hit with shrapnel in her chest during a gun battle as she shopped for books in a market. She survived, but Abbas said he felt shattered. "Our whole crowd of friends felt like our innocence was stolen and we didn't feel safe going out anymore. We were shaken," he said.

On a recent Sunday, however, Abbas attended a new reading and film circle with his father and younger brother. The group was started by several Kashmiri journalists, artists and academics in their 30s. The hope is that the group will expose young people to works about subjects they will be able to relate to: poverty, war and determination over defeat.

Movies such as "Blood Diamond," set in Sierra Leone during the 1990s civil war, and the writings of Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who introduced Kenyan peasants to a critique of post-colonial life, have been popular.

"We want the youth to have access to good films and a learning circle that will kill boredom and also allow them to enjoy themselves and blow off stress," said Usmaan Ahmad, a 31-year-old American of Kashmiri descent who visits the region often. "That kind of recreational avenue really was decimated during the conflict. The kids of conflict deserve that."

Since 1947, tens of thousands of people have died violently in Kashmir -- a divided, Muslim-majority Himalayan territory that both India and Pakistan claim and have fought two wars over. Many young people say they were traumatized after seeing how war affected both sides. Some saw the bodies of their classmates -- young Kashmiri guerrilla suspects -- left dead on the road. At other times, they saw lifeless young Indian soldiers burned, their limbs missing after grenade blasts.

"So many fathers here have taken the coffins of their sons on their own shoulders, and this really changes the way the young generation sees themselves and their roles," said Amin Bhat, a playwright, who has helped organize the learning circle. He lost his brother in a grenade attack in 2005 and wrote "Identity Card," a play about Kashmiris being asked to show identification at checkpoints. "Many young people's entire identity is wrapped up in the war."

Raashid Maqbool, 25, who comes to the circle, said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after he saw his cousin's corpse after an attack.

"It was like I lost touch with my senses and stopped feeling most things, even though I was young," said Maqbool, a magazine editor with dark eyes. "It's nice to be among friends who understand and can unwind together."

Some of the parents who come to the learning circle say they hope the program can help keep what they see as a disinherited generation away from joining the small but vocal extremist groups in Kashmir's varied separatist movements.

The young members of the circle say they like meeting new people and discussing the movies and books. At a recent screening, Kashmir's newest film critics offered their take on "Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation," the second in a trilogy of film montages showing different types of societies around the world, each struggling to survive.

And if imitation is the best compliment, the circle recently got at least one shout-out. A few students said they disliked the film so much that they were thinking of starting a second circle.

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