Having covered the uprising in my native Kashmir for eight years, I sometimes cannot believe I have had the good luck to remain alive.
Two years ago, a stray bullet ricocheted through my office. Another time while I was covering a student demonstration, I stepped out of my car just as a bullet shattered the rear window. More recently, I was kidnapped. Last July I was one of 19 journalists traveling in a chartered bus to a press conference in southern Kashmir. At Anantnag, about 45 miles south of the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar, we were stopped by a dozen Kashmiri youths armed with AK-47s. They ordered the bus driver to follow them, and at gunpoint we were guided to a private home. Once inside, we realized we were guests of the Jammu and Kashmir Ikhwan ("Brotherhood"), a counterinsurgent group funded by Indian security.
Our captors complained that the local press who they said was sympathetic to the separatists' cause had ignored their orders to stop publishing. They told us that all coverage of the insurgency must stop.
Six local newsmen were moved to another part of the house and threatened with execution. The rest of us, all members of the national and international press, remained together. Our captors were so confident that their demands would be met that they allowed me to use the telephone to tell my colleagues in the local press that we had been kidnapped. I called as many people as I could, including newsmen across Kashmir and government officials in Srinagar.
I told the director of information for Kashmir that he was personally responsible for our safety, as government-backed militants were holding us hostage.
Our captors ordered my group to leave the house; they said their quarrel was with the local media, and we knew that they did not want to risk international condemnation by harming journalists with a beyond-Kashmir audience. But we refused. We would go nowhere unless the local newsmen were also freed. Only after 10 horrifying hours, during which time we were repeatedly prodded with the barrels of automatic rifles, did pressure from journalists' organizations and orders from New Delhi persuade the Indian army to come to our aid.
When Indian troops surrounded the building, our captors threatened to open fire if the troops took any action. But once the militants realized they were outnumbered, they gave up.
Our kidnapping was unusual not because of what happened government supported militants seizing members of the press and then walking away unmolested but only because so many captives were involved. The truth is, kidnappings have become commonplace in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir since Muslim rebels began their most recent campaign against Indian rule in 1989.
Over the years, at least 20,000 Kashmiris have perished by official count, and citizens continue to be abducted, tortured, and killed by rebels, the Indian military, and a network of government backed counterinsurgents.
Paradise found Kashmir was once a tourists' paradise. It has been known for centuries as the greenest and most temperate spot in the Himalayas beautiful beyond imagination. Deep blue lakes reflect soaring, snow-capped mountains. Lush forests of fir, pine, and spruce line the banks of rivers born in the high peaks. In past days, Kashmir was the summer refuge of the British raj as well as wealthy Indians escaping the blistering heat of the southern plains. With the advent of the tourist trade, the region only gained in popularity. Lavish brochures described breathtaking scenery and centuries-old shrines.
As recently as 1989, more than half a million Indian and foreign vacationers traveled to Kashmir to drift carefree on houseboats, or to ski, hike, or fish the trout streams. Guides escorted visitors to famous landmarks, including the Mogul gardens of Nishat Bagh, the Mattan temples, Hari Parbath castle, and Pahalgam,the hiker's mecca.
Writer Marie D'Souza compared the region to a diamond whose glitter and sparkle attracts adventurers, scoundrels, fortune seekers, and romantics.
But Kashmir has also been a crossroads for invaders: Afghan, Sikh, and Dogra rulers have all left their imprint. Kashmir is prized for more than just its natural beauty. Wedged between Pakistan, India, China, and Afghanistan, "greater Kashmir" (including both the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan-controlled Azad Kashmir) sits squarely in the middle of a web of disputed borders. The Kashmir valley is the passageway through the Himalayas to the entire subcontinent. From Kashmir flow the Indus,Chenab, and Jhelum rivers, upon which Pakistan depends for water. As India's northernmost territory, the state of Jammu and Kashmir provides a valuable window on the other regional powers, including China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the nearby former Soviet republic of Tajikistan.
This article originally appeared in the "The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists"
By Surinder Singh Oberoi, recently made a Fellow at the Bulletin, University of Chicago. He reports from Kashmir for Agence France Presse.
All photographs by Robert Nickelsberg.
For photo rights, please contact the agency, Gamma Liaison.
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