Being a newspaper reporter in Kashmir is undeniably adventurous. There is hardly a lean day for a reporter hungry for news in this valley of beauty and bloodshed in far northern India, along the disputed border with Pakistan. Death and destruction are our staple fare, our necessary thrill. We inhabit a veritable pasture of news; we can graze at random and unearth fresh horrors.
The Indian government says 20,000 people have died in Kashmir since 1989, when violent conflict broke out between the army and groups of armed militants seeking independence. Others say the number is closer to 70,000. I feel as if I have witnessed more than my share of those deaths, growing more indifferent with each one.
Aug. 23, 1992, was my first day in journalism. I was 20. My first assignment was to go to a police station here in Srinagar, the urban center of the Kashmir Valley, and collect information on six dead bodies lying there, riddled with bullets. I accompanied several photographers to the station. They worked as I stared at the mutilated corpses in their blood-soaked clothes. Their entrails were exposed, their faces, unrecognizable. That evening, I could not eat. I couldn't sleep for days; the corpses haunted my dreams.
At the time, I didn't realize that this was a prelude to an unending tryst with death and mayhem. But as the months passed, and the deadly game between security forces and militant groups continued, the violence began to seem mundane to me, almost normal, a part of my daily reporting routine. There were exceptions of course, days when death was anything but routine.
Oct. 12, 1996, comes to mind: I'm half asleep, sipping my morning tea. The phone rings. It's my police contact. My mind is racing as I begin to scribble notes. How many? Where? When? I call my photographer and then I'm out of my house, riding my bike like a madman. We arrive to find wailing women and unshaven, huddled men. The dead bodies lie scattered, like rag dolls discarded by careless children. I feel my legs growing heavy. I feel incredibly tired. I want to throw down my notebook and sit silently with the mourners. Then I hear the photographer's shutter clicking. The noise forces me to remember that I have a story to do. I examine the bodies. I take out my notebook and start asking my questions. Who? What time? Any witnesses?
For years, there has been nothing to write or think about in the valley except the violence. If I manage to avoid doing a news story on that day's gory details, I inevitably end up writing a feature about orphans or widows of the conflict. When violence rules the day, there is nothing but tears to jerk from the reader's soul.
Nietzsche once compared journalists to crows alighting from a wire one by one to swoop down on a hapless victim. If this is what we are, waiting with our notebooks and cameras for death to strike again, then the killing fields of Kashmir offer a feast, even for the most gluttonous birds of prey. In the evening, no journalist here can think of leaving the office without scanning the police bulletin on the day's toll of army bunkers assaulted, houses destroyed by fire, militants gunned down. If we missed something, our editors would be most unhappy.
As I became more proficient at chronicling this unending cycle of death, I felt more satisfaction at the end of the day, rather than revulsion and sleeplessness. Killings meant bylines, headlines, good play. Every day, my colleagues and I would gather, like vultures on a wire, to await the next tragedy, hoping we would make Page 1.
Finally, the time came when I lost a close school friend in the violence--and felt nothing. I wanted to cry, but the tears had dried up. My friend's was one of perhaps 20 routine deaths I saw that day in the police bulletin. Because I was unmoved, I felt ashamed and afraid of myself.
What has happened to me? Have I sacrificed normal human feelings to the thrill of reporting such violence? I am immune to death. I have lost the ability to mourn. I am numb.
And I watch with horror my own excitement as I launch into the next story: Ten killed, 14 wounded . . . that is my tragedy as a reporter in Kashmir.
Muzamil Jaleel is a reporter for Indian Express newspaper in Srinagar.