Living a Half-Life While Waiting for Those Lost

Parveena Ahangar, 47, and her husband Ghulam Nabi, 50, show photos of their son, Javeid Ahmed Ahangar, who was 16 when he was taken by police in 1990.
Parveena Ahangar, 47, and her husband Ghulam Nabi, 50, show photos of their son, Javeid Ahmed Ahangar, who was 16 when he was taken by police in 1990. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 14, 2007

SRINAGAR, India -- Jana Begum squatted on the floor of her small kitchen with a friend, confiding to her how her life felt like a kind of purgatory, year after year spent waiting for a husband who had vanished shortly after his arrest by Indian security agents five years ago. To this day, Begum said, she doesn't know the charges against her husband, a respected pharmacist and father of five.

At 35, Begum is one of thousands of women who, in turbulent Indian-controlled Kashmir, are called half-widows: women who wait years and sometimes decades for husbands to come home, unsure if they are even alive.

The half-widows are joined in their distress by another group in Kashmir, the mothers of disappeared sons. As many as 10,000 people are missing in the bloody 18-year conflict between Indian army troops and militant separatists -- some homegrown, some allegedly backed by Pakistan. The sun-bleached photos of the missing hang from small shrines in the houses of mothers and wives, whose livelihoods and social status are inextricably linked to sons and husbands.

"My heart speaks to me that he is still alive," said Begum, whose name is the same as an honorific sometimes conferred on women here. "If he is dead, my heart can't accept it. I've been waiting and lonely for so long."

In many ways, the plight of the half-widows and the mothers of missing sons is a metaphor for Kashmir, a region trapped between war and peace as talks between India and Pakistan inch along. Like Begum, everybody here seems unsure about what to do next. Other than wait.

This scenic valley has long been the battleground between Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, with each country claiming Kashmir soon after India's partition in 1947. The countries have waged two wars over Kashmir, whose population is mostly Muslim; fighting has left tens of thousands dead and raised fears that the stubborn conflict could escalate into a full-scale nuclear war. Both countries tested nuclear devices in 1998.

There has been a decrease in violence recently, but for the people living in Indian-controlled Kashmir, the peace talks between Islamabad and New Delhi have yielded few concrete results. For people such as Parveena Ahangar, the political machinations can be boiled down to one thought that loops endlessly in her mind: Where is my son?

"A mother raises a child with all hopes that the child will study and get educated. When the mother is old, she hopes her son can hold her hand," Ahangar said, through tears. "But my case is different. I have no one to hold my hand. I will know there is really a peace process when I see my son."

Her child, Javeid Ahmed Ahangar, was 16 when he was taken by national security officers while visiting his cousin on Aug. 18, 1990, and accused of being a militant.

Once a housewife, Ahangar has become an international leader for mothers of missing children throughout Asia. She started a group called the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, which holds monthly rallies in the Kashmir Valley.

"I thought once we united we would be powerful," Ahangar said over Kashmiri tea in her home, where mothers from remote villages had traveled to turn in their paperwork on their sons, documenting the disappeared. "I have roamed the lanes of Kashmir day after day, talked to human rights groups, the police, the courts. But nothing has seemed to help us get an answer."

The problem persists because, under law, the Indian army is given carte blanche to quell any suspected militancy and hunt down possible insurgents, Ahangar and Kashmiri leaders said.


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