CROUCHING in the loft of a multi-storeyed house in rural Jammu and Kashmir, 14-year-old Vinod Kumar listened to the sounds of his family being slaughtered below.
First came the rattle of automatic weapons. Then the death cries. The thud of falling bodies. Whimpers. More gunshots. Silence.
The boy waited in the cold January night. More shots rang out. He heard his neighbours wail. Then, once again, silence.
Vinod was too terrified to move. He could hear the killers moving around below. He prayed they wouldn't come upstairs.
After what seemed like hours, their footfalls faded. As his numbed mind deliberated whether to come down, he smelled something burning. The killers had torched his neighbour's house before they left.
Vinod dropped from his perch, ran down the stairs. There, in the light of the burning home, he saw the bodies of his parents, sisters and brothers, shot in the head and face, the new blood soaking a spreading stain on to their old winter-wear.
Outside three other families, Hindu Pandits1 like Vinod's, had been massacred. And the small temple in the Muslim-dominated village, a symbol of the communal harmony that existed in this foothill hamlet of Wandhama, 32 kilometres from the state capital of Srinagar, was on fire.
It was around midnight. The boy stood by the burning house, yet to comprehend fully the tragedy that had struck him. Unknown to him, he had become part of what is probably the most depressing fallout of militancy in Kashmir.
A generation of orphans.
IN conservative Kashmir, where breadwinning is mostly left to the male, a fatherless child is an orphan for all practical purposes. The state government defines2 him so.
Vinod Kumar joined the swelling ranks of that lost generation a little before midnight January 25, 1998. Had you then approached any authority in the state or outside for an estimate of the orphans in Kashmir, you would have had to grapple with figures from 10,000 to 75,000 and more.
And that's a tragedy: Despite the thousands killed in the conflict since the late 80s, despite the specially created rehabilitation council to take care of militancy victims, not to mention the human rights cells of political outfits, vital statistics like this still remains to be worked out.
In 1999, The Jammu and Kashmir Yatheem Trust, one of the few non-governmental welfare organisations working in Kashmir, made an attempt to remedy this. Its survey placed the orphan population in the six districts of the Valley at 15,308.
"The number must have increased at least by five per cent annually, to around 17,000," JKYT official Abdul Rashid Hanjoora said. "But this is only the children of the confirmed dead -- not those of the Kashmiris who have disappeared3."
Click for details of orphan population
Not just that. Hanjoora figures "two to three per cent" of Kashmir's population under 18, are "either orphans or neglected and do not get their basic needs fulfilled".
Divisional Commissioner Khurshid Ganai, the administrator in charge of the Kashmir province4, puts the orphan population much higher than Hanjoora's 17,000.
"I would say around 20,000 fathers have been killed in the violence," he said. "If you take each family had two to three children, and make allowances for the ones who have now grown up, that still leaves at least 30,000 orphans."
At rediff.com's request, the state social welfare department arrived at a figure based on the data available with it -- 4,421. But this reflects only the cases registered with it for relief; the actual number would be more.
It is in any case far lower than what the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference, a confederation of 23 political parties demanding Jammu and Kashmir's separation from India, hastily estimated for us. Its human rights cell, which claims "over 80,000" people have died in the conflict as against the official toll of around 35,000, figures the conflict has orphaned over 75,000.
An easier way5 to look at this calamity is: In the 24 hours after you close this Web page, the conflict will sire six more orphans in Kashmir.
In the next 10 days there will be 60, in a month 180, and by next year 2,160 more.
Page 2: 'Now There Is Nothing'
This article is part of Chindu Sreedharan's study on the Impact of Militancy on the Children of Kashmir, as a National Foundation for India Fellow for 2000-2001.
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