HE began with the outline of a burning Charar-e-Sharief. At its entrance stood a mother carrying her slain child.
Photo: Jewella C Miranda
Exchanging his pencil for crayons, Mohammad Dhar continued his rendition of the 1995 tragedy. In it Kashmir had lost one of its most sacred shrines to militancy.
In the forefront of the blaze, the eight-year-old painted his prominent impression of life.
It was a sunny morning early in 1997. Srinagar was seeing its first painting competition since militancy erupted.
Around Dhar, 494 children were painting the theme 'My Valley'. But not many chose the Paradise on Earth, the Kashmir of breathtaking beauty.
To the majority the Valley was violence. It was death.
And so there came about a leering skeleton, the map of Kashmir engulfed in fire, counterinsurgency operations, boys playing at militants...
A couple of months later, travelling to the Valley for the first time, I interviewed a few contestants at a reputed school in Srinagar. What, I inquired of them, prompted such images?
"That's what came to my mind first," replied eight-year-old Dhar. "I read papers. I have seen pictures of the Charar-e-Sharief burning and soldiers looking on and...."
Syedtalia, Mohammed's senior by one year, explained her My Valley On Fire thus: "Because... because there are militants and firings and killings all around!"
The children I met were mostly from middle-class families. Your average, school-going kids. Opposed to the hundreds of orphaned and maimed the Valley has sired since 1990, I had in my mind dubbed them 'normal'.
After I spoke to them I realised no child in Kashmir is normal. All are affected. Every single one is a child of conflict.
"Our children have bruises of the mind," Dr Mushtaq A Margoob, a leading psychiatrist in Kashmir, said. "Even otherwise, they go through a lot of crisis during adolescence. On top of this they have had to put up with the uncommon tension all around.
"This has forced them to bottle their natural aggression, their fears. Everything builds up in them and comes out as conduct and behavioural disorders, irritability, distractibility, aggression and the like."
I went back to Kashmir many times over the next three years. I met people in the hotbeds of militancy like Kupwara, Baramulla and Anantnag. The here-today-dead-tomorrow situation that existed all over was telling on them, especially the children.
Unfortunately India was so busy crushing militancy, and the Kashmiris and Pakistan feeding it, that the children were forgotten. What do you do about your tomorrow when you are not sure about your today?
And so, one whole new generation has grown up - is growing up - in fear and hate. So unknown, so unexplored is its plight that no one, not the government nor the scores of humanitarian organisations we have all over, have taken adequate note of it.
My subsequent visits to Kashmir in February and September 2001, armed with a journalism fellowship from the Delhi-based National Foundation for India, were intended to remedy this as best as I could. To bring to the world's notice what the children of Kashmir are undergoing -- and, more importantly, what can be done about it.
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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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