Sunday, February 04, 2007

Kashmir, 6:24pm

We were sitting, three Kashmiri men and I, in a small tea shop on the Dal Lake, as the sun began setting behind the hills and a damp chill crept into the air that would last well into the next day. I had arrived only that morning, flying over the snow-dusted Himalayas from Bombay by way of New Delhi, to find the brisk air of Srinagar awaiting me after the sometimes choking pollution of Bombay.

The brisk air. And soldiers, everywhere soldiers. Standing in threes and fours at intersections, lackadaisically carrying their weapons as they walked down the street, peering out at the vaguely Persian-looking Kashmiri populace from behind sandbags and barbed-wire. The hotels along Boulevard, once full of tourists in what had been one of India’s tourist hubs, had vacancy after vacancy, the houseboats on the lake that used to attract honeymooning couples bobbed empty on the small waves caused by the mountain winds. The conflict here, which pitted a small but determined group of Islamic militants largely supported by Pakistan against the Indian army, with the vast majority of peaceful Kashmiris - many favoring independence from India - caught in the middle, has killed some 90,000 people in the last 17 years. With both the army and the militants committing awful human rights violations (with those of the army on a far more massive scale), Srinagar has the melancholy feel of a city left to its own devices amidst some terrible brutality. The Indian intellectuals in Delhi and Bombay for the most part aren’t interested in the problem, preferring instead to focus on safer subjects, such as Iraq. It was left to these men, as dusk gathered, to try and count the cost, and wonder why the world isn’t interested.

“There was a garden in a park that the local people in the municipality wanted to make into a graveyard to show the world what is happening here,” said one man, chain-smoking cigarettes. “To show how many people are dying, you see. When one Gujarati laborer was shot by police during a demonstration - he was caught in the crossfire - the people were happy, happy so that they could invest a body in the graveyard and have some kind of claim on it.”

“Me, I was weeping.”

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