Like many men she had heard of, Tahira’s husband too disappeared without any trace
It was the summer of 1990. People talked of war, commotion of bullet marks, and bleeding bodies. That summer Tahira and Tariq fell in love.
Tahira had just finished her high school and joined Mission Hospital in her hometown Baramulla for a diploma in nursing. She didn’t want to be a nurse though. All she wanted was an excuse to go out every day and earn a glimpse of Tariq. A handful of crumpled love notes – red in color, messy and smelling of human blood – was enough to steal Tahira’s heart.
Tariq was 17, a year older than her, and came from a lower caste background, “we were Khan and they were Rather. It was like oil and water,” says Tahira, holding back a smile.
The love story of Tariq and Tahira could easily make for a romantic blockbuster. There is a handsome boy, a beautiful girl, their brimming love and rigid parents. However, what makes it different is the pattern. Here, twist follows a happy ending.
Crackdowns became rampant and killings a routine. A small village in Baramulla, where Tariq and Tahira lived, peace and tranquility surrendered before war. People feared death but the couple dreamed of a life together. After numerous fights, arguments, suicide warnings and hunger protests, they were finally married. Tahira wore a pink suit that her mother adorned with gold coins.
For this teenage couple, marriage was all about living happily. The responsibility of earning money and helping to run a house was never thought of. So when Tariq’s family teased him for his idleness and the extra mouth he got them to feed, he decided to leave. One morning, without informing anyone, the couple left for Delhi to start their lives afresh.
Delhi, far away from the bombs and bloodshed, felt secure. Tariq first worked as helper at a shop. However, when Tahira found a job in a garment factory, he too joined in. He wanted to stay close to his wife, he told everyone, because she was beautiful, childish and too naïve to understand the world. “If only he could see me today, he would realize what time has taught his wife,” Tahira said.
Tahira is certainly a different woman now. She is not the childish and pampered wife of Tariq anymore. She is his half-widow who works at a beauty parlor and feeds her three children. Once naïve, Tahira is now spokesperson for Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), who faces media, collaborates with NGO’s and fights for justice.
Tariq has ‘disappeared’ since December 11 2002, when he left home to sit for a job interview in Delhi. “I will never forgive myself for sending him that day,” said Tahira. “I still remember his sad face. He was scared.”
Tahira wanted him to sit for the interview so that they could return to the city where they spent blissful years of life. Seven years ago, after their second son was born, they had returned to valley. Tahira regretted it and wanted to go back.
On the fateful day, Tariq neatly oiled his hair, donned his favorite jacket and left home hesitantly. As Tahira packed his favorite food and talked about the new job opportunity, Tariq’s eyes stayed glued to his children – his three sons sleeping peacefully on a mattress. Mudasir, the eldest child was 9, Ravees 7 and Sahil 2. It was a cold sunless morning when Tariq left, looking back again and again until disappearing in the fog.
That day, Tariq became a number and got added to the list of disappeared people in the valley. Tahira waited for his promised phone call, or his letters he was so fond of writing. Nothing came. Like many men she had heard of, Tahira’s husband too disappeared without any trace.
The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), estimates the number of disappeared people as 8,000 plus. The victims have left around 2000 half widows behind.
Tahira filed a missing report in Boniyar police station. She was asked to wait which she couldn’t. Every day she left with her three children to search Tariq in military camps, jails and detention centers. One day someone told her about a man named Tariq who was spotted in an Udhampur jail. She rushed there with money, food and his clothes. It turned out to be someone else. “I was going crazy,” she said.
When her savings ran out and Tahira failed to pay the monthly fees, Mudasir and Ravees were thrown out of their school. A neighbor who ran a business in Srinagar informed her about APDP. He had seen families of disappeared people protesting in the city center Lal Chowk. Tahira moved to Srinagar in December 2003, rented a room and joined APDP.
Mudasir was put in Rahat Manzil and Ravees in Miskeen Bagh orphanage. Sahil studied at Baitul Hilal orphanage and lived with his mother. Tahira worked at Asiya Memorial Foundation, an employment generating unit opened after Asiya Jeelani, a young female journalist and human rights activist who was killed in a mine blast. The unit brought destitute women together to share each other’s burden of loneliness, find hope in each other’s struggle, and make a living by knitting, stitching and embroidering clothes.
At least six times Tahira came in front of running vehicles, breaking her bones. A life away from her village, her husband and two sons took a toll on her mental health. The members of APDP got her treated for depression. Even today, she cannot fall asleep without taking a tranquilizer.
Presently Tahira lives in a rented room in Ellahi Bagh, Soura. Half a dozen donated blankets, few utensils, and a cooking gas stove are all that make her new home. The historic floods that swept across the valley on September 8 last year washed away everything that Tahira had accumulated over the years at her rented room in Jawahar Nagar.
g rescued with her children, Tahira watched from a neighbor’s attic as the waters took away the remaining belongings of her husband, “Pictures of our wedding, few letters he had written to me, his favorite audio cassettes, and clothes. Everything gone,” she said.
Though Tahira never considered remarriage, she believes that the society was too late to respond to the needs of half-widows. As the spokesperson for APDP, she knows many half-widows who would have lived better lives if the fatwa for their remarriage had come on time. According to the Fatwa given last year by Islamic scholars, a half-widow can marry if her disappeared husband doesn’t return for seven years. “They took too long to say it,” she says. “Until then most of them had crossed their marriageable age and they had growing up children.”
For young half-widows like Tahira, the journey has been very painful. Fingers are raised on their modesty and conduct. How is it possible to be so young and not to have a man in life? Where from she gets all these clothes? Who is she going to meet? Tahira has heard people raising these questions.
Although she has learned to be strong and mind her own business, but other half-widows from far off villages often share their stories of mistrust and humiliation with her. “I tell them if they run out of money, those people will not come to feed their children,” she says.
The infamous 2004 sex scandal in which many victims were learned to be from conflict hit families also added to the suspicion. Three years ago, when Mudasir passed his high school and returned from orphanage to live close to his family, he realized how far he had been from them. He became bitter, quieter and secluded. A year later Ravees too returned home. Unlike his elder brother, he argued with mother, fought with brothers and harmed himself. One day when Tahira saw him taking hurried puffs from a cigarette, she approached him and caressed him until he broke his silence. “Why did I spend my childhood in an orphanage? Was I an orphan? If I am one and my father has died, why do you still search for him?” he asked her.
With her children around, it is difficult not to miss her husband. Mudasir has Tariq’s face. Sahil, like him, is a cricket fan. When he bites nails and becomes restless watching the game, Tahira sees Tariq in him. The middle one, Ravees, who remains aloof, reminds Tahira of her husband the most. “When I hear him singing, especially the songs his dad sang to me, I break into pieces,” she says.
As her sons grow and begin to make friends and acquaintances, Tahira gets lonelier. When they fight among themselves, she feels weak. When they shout at her, even casually, her heart breaks. “When they were small, I felt very strong,” she says. “But as they begin to have their own lives, I feel my loneliness.”
Life could perhaps untangle itself if Tahira knows what happened to her husband after he left that morning. Until then, everything will remind her of him, of their love, of the few blessed years of life they lived together.
“It is not death where you mourn and overcome grief. When a loved one is disappeared, you don’t want to mourn but hope for his comeback,” she says. “It is impossible to start anew without knowing the truth. I feel it is my duty to trace him and I am guilty of not being able to find him so far.”
Tahira thinks her husband might be buried in one of the unmarked graves spread across Jammu and Kashmir. Despite repeated pleas, the government has rejected the mass scale DNA testing of unmarked graves. There are more than 2,000 unmarked graves alone in three districts of northern Kashmir, claims JKCCS.
Hope has diminished but not died for her. Even now, an unexpected knock at the door makes her restless. Someone talks about someone spotted at some place and Tahira thinks it is him.
(The story was done under the Panos South Asia Fellowship on militarization and women in South Asia