Winters are impeccable. You don’t sweat. You don’t curse the sun for burning you, rather you thank it for warming you! You don’t hate the rains as they’re not sticky and humid. They’re refreshing and sometimes the raindrops accumulate as snow too and it all looks so magical when the soft cottony feather-like stuff melts into your hand and you’re the first to touch the treat coming straight from heaven.
She belonged to magical land of Kashmir, where snowfall was a common treat. She, whom I killed that day, but her story will remain immortal in my heart till my last breath. Summers were full of tourists, as people from all across the country seek some coldness in the coldest place of the country. Kashmir is coldest. Not according to the temperature scales, but according to the behavioural and geographical tensions. The weather there has been always temperamental. The coldness in the air sometimes depicts the coldness in the hearts of the people who spread riots in the so called ‘paradise’ on the earth.
I still remember my last evening in Kashmir. The bloodshed, the brutal war, everything was just as they showed in the TV channels, but there was one difference – I could not switch it off to get a good night’s sleep.
The riots were so bad that it didn’t look like entertainment. The pain was real. The bullets were real. The blood was real too and people were dying in front of me while I watched from the window of my hotel. That one evening horrified me so much that I vowed never to return here again in my life. For me, Kashmir was dead that night. After a few hours when the riots were over and the police took control, they imposed a curfew throughout the city and the police patrolled every street of Kashmir, but I still couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t sure if someone would barge right into my room, drag me out and shoot me, or worse, take me along and rape me. Raping a woman wasn’t a big thing here, rapes were common during riots and the terrorists usually targeted tourists or local helpless women. It could happen with me too, and I wouldn’t be able to do anything for I was all alone and had no weapon.
It was a war between religions, the media said. Hindus had formed some terrorist groups to target Muslim women in particular for the Muslims had abducted and raped Hindu women last year.
Lying on my bed, I was thinking about my journey since the day I landed here till tonight. The wonders that I saw, the magic that I witnessed in the natural beauty of this place, and then the bloodshed that I could never forget. As I turned around, I heard a feeble sound. It was my phone which was vibrating under my pillow. I dragged it out and received the call. It was from my mother. She must have seen the news on the TV, maybe that’s why she was calling me.
‘I’m fine mother, don’t you worry. I’m in my hotel and I’m totally safe here.’ I tried to make her understand, but a mother is a mother. She wouldn’t stop crying until she saw me in front of her, fine and healthy!
‘Yes, I am coming tomorrow. Yeah, my flight is in the morning, now if you will let me get some sleep maybe?’ I was helpless on the phone. I couldn’t stop her from crying, and she won’t listen to me.
‘I will see you tomorrow, mom. Good night.’ I disconnected the call and asked her not to worry about me.
Worrying does no good. You can’t do anything about the situation already, and worrying makes you restless and sometimes, even sick! I asked her to take care of herself and keep calm as she was already a diabetic.
I turned to the other side, where I had my table lamp and a study beside the window. I looked at the camera facing the window, it had a little red dot beeping on it. I picked it up, it had recorded the entire riot scene, and the battery was low. I put it to charge and went to take a hot shower so I could get some sleep. I had a long journey ahead, and being sleepless makes it worse. Kashmir is anyways too beautiful to miss out even a single scenario before I leave. But whatever happened a few hours ago had paralyzed a part of my heart that may never revive again.
I returned from the shower and unplugged the camera. I couldn’t wait to see what it had recorded. Since I didn’t put it on record intentionally, so it also recorded an hour long video of the street-side, with tourists roaming around freely and enjoying the view of the famous Dal Lake. Suddenly, an ice-cream vendor arrives and takes out a gun from the fridge instead of an ice-cream and the people around start screaming and running. He starts shooting blindly and soon there was white smoke on the street. Few children were shot aimlessly and they fell flat on the ground, bleeding and crying. Their parents ran away fearing their own lives, leaving the kids behind as the shooting won’t stop. The tourists who were clicking photos and making videos, scattered in a second sensing the riots and their cameras were all lying on the street.
Within a few minutes, it was dark. The sun had set, and it made a perfect ambience for the terrorists to continue with their activities. The single ice-cream vendor, now had a few more companions who kept shooting around, looting houses and taking some women along. They had a group of seven people by now, and three women were taken as prisoners. They would probably rape and kill them. Two of them were crying, and one was looking right into my camera, straight-eyed. For a moment I was shocked. I zoomed in, rewind the video and watched again. The woman looking into the camera was none other than – Zahra. My heart sank and I lost the courage to watch the video ahead, so I switched off the camera and laid down on the bed, thinking about Zahra. She was abducted and I was lying here, I couldn’t be so casual about it!
I tried to sleep, but couldn’t. My mind won’t stop wandering and every time it took me to the street opposite to where I currently was, to Zahra and her abduction. I finally made my mind and called a cab. Since the curfew was over and peace was restored momentarily, I could at least visit a police station. I carried my camera along and asked the cab-driver to take me to the nearest police station. The innocent Kashmiri man obeyed my orders and within twenty minutes, we reached the police station. There were policemen inside, drinking and eating meat. I waited outside, I didn’t want to look inviting them over to rape me, for they were anyways too drunk to notice anything. I rang the bell which was there for the female visitors. It was meant exclusively for the local Muslim women, who wouldn’t enter into the police station premises. Within a few seconds there was some rustle inside and a female officer came out wearing casual dress.
‘Assalamu’alaikum mohterma, how can I help you?’ She greeted me in typical Urdu.
‘Aalykum-Assalaam, I need your help in finding someone.’ I tried something in my thick accent and dropped back to English.
‘Zahra. Here…’ I played the video and she kept watching for five minutes.
‘Is she your friend?’
‘No. She is my sister…’ I was strikingly different from the fair, pink-cheeked, glowing Zahra. My brownish skin in no way resembled to her and nobody would believe we were sisters. I didn’t know why was I doing this, but I felt indebted to her, and the way she looked at the camera, though according to her it was lying in the window of a hotel room on first floor, still she looked into such an angle as if she was crying for help. I couldn’t go back without knowing what happened to her, or if she was alive.
‘Sister? Where were you when she was abducted? Shooting the video for fun?’ The officer sounded hurt.
‘No, miss. I wasn’t even on the street. This camera was accidentally kept on throughout the riots and it shot the entire thing. I was watching everything through another window in my room, but I didn’t know that my camera would shoot everything from another perspective. It was when I charged it and saw the footage, I came to know about abduction of Zahra and I couldn’t stop myself from lodging a complaint.’
‘Complaint? Against whom? These masked men? Do you know their names? Or their location? Who know where they are? They may have killed her and trashed away her body parts, or they may have sold her for a fair price…’
‘Sold?’ I was shocked.
‘Yes, it’s very common here. The terrorists who live up in the mountains, buy beautiful women on a handsome price and use them for sex and slavery.’
‘Oh my God! And you do nothing about it?’
‘Do we look like we can attack an army of thousands having weaponry and ammunitions which can make an entire city disappear within a night? Do we? And even if we were that powerful, we wouldn’t make that decision for saving a bunch of women at the cost of burning an entire city down, that’s foolish!’
‘That’s inhumane…’ I felt so disgusted and helpless.
‘But that’s how it is here, mohterma. It would be good if you go back to your hotel, get some sleep and leave this city as soon as possible. Tomorrow morning you may witness more riots, so don’t sneak out the hotel, don’t even look out of the window! It’s not over yet…’ the officer went inside without listening to what I had to say.
I took the cab back to my hotel and sat in the bathroom floor. I couldn’t do anything to save someone who saved me. She could be anywhere right now, she could even be dead. How could I know where she was?
I cried and slept on the floor with questions in my mind. My phone was in the room, so I didn’t hear the alarm next morning. It was the shot of a gunfire that jolted me to consciousness. I was petrified. I clung to the bathtub as I heard some more gunshots being fired. The riots had started, the officer was right, it hadn’t ended.
I mustered some courage and walked out of the bathroom. Thankfully my room was locked and my phone was on the bed, ringing. It was mother again.
‘Oh my God!’ mother screamed.
‘Mom, I’m alright…’
‘Why didn’t you pick up the phone? I am trying from ten minutes! You know how terrified I was?’
‘Mom, it will be okay, hotel is safe. I’m fine, don’t worry! I’m not sneaking out of my room, so don’t cry…I’m okay…’ this time cries were heard from both the sides. I couldn’t take it anymore. Living alone in a city for two weeks was fun, but when the city starts haunting you, you can’t even breathe properly. Kashmir was haunting me now, and I couldn’t even get out from here.
I switched on the TV, there was again a curfew and all the flights were cancelled. I was stuck here for God knew how many days!
* * * * * * *
I was a tourist, visiting Kashmir for my college based research project and I was from hot and humid land of Punjab, where the earth figuratively burns in summers! Journalism isn’t an easy thing, I chose Kashmir over any other place in India because it was the only place with oldest and unsolved issues, still claiming many lives each year. Moreover, Kashmir is heaven, Amir Khusrau has truly said that – If there is paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here…
My research started with talking to local women from all across the city. I visited Gulmarg, Sonamarg, the infamous Shalimaar Bagh and the mesmerizing Chashm-e-Shahi. The women who lived around fondly talked to me about their everyday problems, and the most prominent one, apart from everyday riots was the problem of sanitation. There were no good toilets, and sometimes they had to literally walk out in open, search for some cover, a tree or bush, hide behind it and relieve themselves, which was a disgusting thing! The women living in the Shikara (houseboats) complained of lack of clean water. The water of Dal Lake was too polluted to be used for drinking purpose and they had complained many times to the local authorities, but they did nothing.
The life there was really tough and I couldn’t imagine myself living in such a place on my own! My hotel sounded much cleaner and better than the conditions the locals were subjected to. The women living in Gulmarg valley complained that the tourists polluted the place in vacations and they had to suffer the consequences for the entire year long!
While interviewing various women I came across one beautiful young girl in her twenties.
‘Assalam-alaykum, what is your name?’ I started asking her some questions. She didn’t know English so I had to conduct the entire interview in Hindi and holding on to my terribly pathetic accent of Urdu!
‘Alaikum-assalam, my name is Zahra, I live here, in this hut.’ she pointed at a shabby, broken shelter that she was referring as her home.
‘You’re beautiful.’ and she immediately looked away. She was so shy and simple. Her pink cheeks turned red as she looked at me again.
‘What do you do, Zahra? Do you study?’
‘No, I left study when I was in fifth grade. Abu said it’s enough of education for a girl, I anyways have to be a housewife in future. Study for a girl like me was useless.’ she said.
‘And what do you do now? You live with your Abu here?’
‘I am married Mohterma, my husband works as a horse-rider here in Gulmarg. He takes people up to the valley and brings them back here.’
‘Nice, have you seen that valley?’
‘No, mohterma. I have never been there. My husband says its expensive, but he tells me how beautiful it is. If there would be another name for heaven, it would be Gulmarg, that’s what he says!’ her eyes were sparkling, though she never saw the heaven herself.
‘I also went there yesterday you know? You’re right, if there would be another name for heaven, it would indeed be Gulmarg!’ I assured her that her husband was right, her smile widened.
‘What do you do all day, Zahra?’ her child-like innocence and beauty drove me to talk to her more.
‘Nothing much Mohterma, I make tea and Maggie for the tourists here. They pay a good price for it here than near the Dal Lake where I used to live with my Abu earlier.’
‘Oh! Do you know how to make that…tea, which is famous here, what do you call it?’ I pretended to forget the name.
‘Pink tea? Kashmiri Chai…’ she brilliantly said and laughed.
‘Yea! Pink tea…’
‘You want some? I have it ready, wait I’ll get some for you.’ within a few minutes she returned with a cup of rosy pink tea garnished with pistachio nuts. The aroma was mesmerizing and I immediately took a giant sip. It felt as if it quenched my thirst of a hundred years, just one cup was so fulfilling.
I thanked Zahra for her time, handed her over the money for the tea and moved on. I interviewed so many women in the next three days and on the fourth day I again returned to Gulmarg valley, it was two days before I was supposed to leave. I bought two trolley tickets for the Gulmarg valley and went to Zahra’s stall.
‘Hi, are you free today?’
‘Oh mohterma, welcome!’ she was happy to see me again.
‘Here…’ I handed her over one ticket of the trolley and she was delighted to see it.
‘I would love to come, Mohterma, but who will handle this stall here?’ as she was feeling sad about leaving her stall, her friend from a nearby stall came over and insisted her to go, and promised her that she would take care of both the stalls for one day.
Zahra held my hand like a baby, and walked behind me. I took her along and soon we were in a queue to enter the trolley. Six people could enter in one go and she was so excited to see the heaven for the first time. Soon it was our turn to climb into the trolley and within a minute or two, we were there. The valley was white as cotton, and shined like the surface of moon. It was serene. I was going there second time, but Zahra was gaping at it like a little child gapes at a big piece of candy!
‘This is really heaven…’ she was still standing there with her mouth open, that someone brutally ended her dream by slapping her hard across her face.
‘Raheem?’ she was shocked. It was her husband. He started abusing her and slapping her for being irresponsible, coming over to this place and leaving their stall below the valley unattended.
‘I’m sorry, Raheem, I wanted to see this place, Mohterma brought me here, I swear I didn’t spend your money, not even a single penny!’ she started explaining to her husband, and I felt so bad for her. As I was walking over towards her and her husband, my foot slipped, I fell in the snow and slid towards the edge at an uncontrollable speed. I was crying for help, but people were staring at me as if a show was going on. Some sledge-pullers ran towards me but they were lagging behind as I was sliding at a dangerous pace. Soon I was handed over a rope by a horse-rider who managed to catch my speed and reach me in time, just before it was hardly a few metres to the dead-end. I clutched the rope tight and the horse rider pulled me back. When the rider descended, I saw her face, and it was Zahra.
‘Don’t be so shocked, Mohterma. Raja is our horse, and girls here may not be educated in schools, but they all know how to tame and ride a horse!’ she gave me a hand and helped me get up. I didn’t know how to thank her. I just gave her husband two thousand bucks for their loss at the stall because of me, and the greedy man was satisfied. Then I took Zahra into the snow and we played there for some time, before we went back to her stall via trolley.
‘Thank you so much for this surprise, Mohterma! Today was the happiest day of my life…’ she smiled and wiped off a tear from her blood red cheek which still had the slap-mark of her husband.
‘I should thank you, Zahra. You saved my life. I will never forget this till my last breath!’
I bid her a goodbye, returned to my hotel and slept. The next day I was to visit the last spot, the local wood-market. The moment I returned from the wood-market and entered my hotel, the riots started, that’s when I checked the camera and spotted Zahra being taken away by the terrorists. It’s been over 12 hours since that incident, but her picture is stuck in my mind. Her innocent face looking into the camera as if she is crying for my help. I couldn’t leave this place with questions in my mind. I was never going to return unless I knew what happened of the beauty who saved my life.
* * * * * *
I packed a bag with essentials, leaving rest of my luggage in hotel. I walked out when the curfew was over and it was afternoon. The sun shined bright and the streets were empty, not even a bird chirped that day. I walked towards the police station and this time I was sure I would get a clue about Zahra at least. I wasn’t ready to return empty handed. The police station was just a few blocks ahead and someone grabbed my hand and dragged me into the narrow lane.
‘Zahra?’ I looked at her bruised face and torn clothes.
‘Mohterma, I ran away from the camp. The terrorists kept me in a camp last night and raped me, but today morning when they were away, I managed to run from there and saved my life, please take me to my Abu, I don’t want to go to Raheem, he sold me to the terrorists last night.’ and she broke down. I hugged her and covered her with a shawl that I carried in my bag and we walked towards my hotel. We were hardly ten metres away from the hotel that the noises behind us became louder and clearer. Some people were following us and in the blink of an eye, they were surrounding us from all sides. I was terrified to the core.
‘Hand over the woman to us.’ one man said to me in a heavy voice. They were all wearing black masks.
I said nothing and didn’t leave her hand either. Zahra was trembling and shaking with fear. They had finally found her and she knew she would definitely be killed today for running away.
One of the men grabbed her arm tightly and took her away.
‘No, no, leave her…please…’ I begged them, but they didn’t listen to me. I was shocked for they took her, but did nothing to me. Few minutes ago when they had surrounded us, I had mentally prepared a speech for my parents and family in case I died, but surprisingly they left me.
‘You’re a Hindu, so we are leaving you. If you were a Muslim too, we would have cut you into pieces like a soft lamb and fed your meat to your own family.’ the blood-red eyed masked guy screamed and shot Zahra in her head, ‘Just like of this bitch!’
‘NO….!’ I fell on my knees and cried, but couldn’t do anything. Zahra lied dead in front of me, with blood gushing from the wound in her forehead. The four men left me alone in the street and I cried for I killed her. My red vermilion dot in the centre of my forehead saved me and I wondered if it was enough to save everyone in the valley.
I blamed myself for her death, for I was a Hindu too. If I were a Muslim, they would have killed us both, but they left me to see her die. It was a war in the paradise. A war which was not about Hindus or Muslims. It was about humans. They fought over a piece of land which never belonged to anyone, and will never be owned by anyone in future either. They fought for something which was never theirs, and which will never be theirs, and still they were killing people, murdering children, raping women, all for a piece of land.
The curfew was over the next morning and I flew back to Punjab. Everyone was happy to see me, but nobody could read the story I had buried in my heart. Zahra was dead, but she was immortal.
There are hundreds and thousands of Zahras’ in Kashmir who are being killed every year. Zahra has no religion. She isn’t Hindu, or Muslim. She’s a human and her death is a tight slap across the face of humanity. In a war, nobody wins, both sides lose – people, children, lives, love, money and respect.