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Curled up on the veranda of his grandfather's house, Ali is whisking a toy car up and down the floor with the untiring energy of a nine-year-old.
When death is no stranger, a child begins to attach lesser significance to life, says psychiatrist Dr Wahid Khan.
Photo: Ami Vitale/Getty Images
His grandmother watches from a few feet away. Beside her sits six-year-old Majid, Ali's quiet, serious brother.
"I want to become ---," Ali says, naming a militant-hero in his part of the world. "He was a mujahid, like my papa."
Where Ali lives, a village in Srinagar district, every second family is said to have dedicated a son to militancy. Ali's father was one such.
At 18, as a Hizbul Mujahideen leader's personal security guard, he had married Ali's mother almost at gunpoint. She was 14 then and not at all keen on the match. But he promised her he would kill the man who married her.
Ali's father did not live beyond 21. Security forces shot him dead in an encounter in 1993.
Shortly afterwards, her in-laws threw her out, and Ali's mother returned to her parents. She remarried a couple of years later.
Her second husband made it clear he would have nothing to do with her children. So Ali and Majid now live with their old grandparents.
The boys have no memory of their father. They have been told he was a brave man and he died fighting Hindustan, India.
"Hindustan is very bad. Their military killed my papa," Ali says. "Pakistan is good."
"I am not afraid of the military," he says. "I will fight them."
Majid nods. He shares that ambition.
What bothers the grandparents is not their grandchildren's militant dreams -- they are proud of that -- but a practical question: who will provide for Ali and Majid after their death?
"As long as we are alive, we will look after them," the grandmother says. "But when we die?"
Ali isn't worried. The only deaths he can see are of the men who killed his father.
He says, "I wish I had a gun."
Violence is part of every human being.
That, psychologists say, is because, for most of his evolution, man has lived with danger all around, his survival dependent on his brawn.
Civilisation has not killed his capacity for violence, only buried it deep -- in the brainstem, to be precise. It now takes an unusual amount of abnormality to revive that capability.
Like today's Kashmir.
Chronic violence and stress -- two factors that can inspire aggression -- are part of life in Kashmir. And they affect children much more than adults.
'Children exposed to chronic violence are more likely to be violent,' says American researcher Dr Bruce Perry in his academic paper Incubated in Terror: Neurodevelopment factors in the cycle of violence. 'This is related to many factors, including modelling and learning that violent aggression is acceptable, even a preferable, and honourable, solution to problems.'
Dr Wahid Khan, a leading psychiatrist in Srinagar, puts it in perspective. The children in Kashmir have not experienced peace, he says, they have only seen strife and killings.
"When a child sees or hears about killings every day," he says, "he begins to attach lesser significance to the value of life. You or I will think 10 times before pulling a trigger. A child growing under these circumstances might not."
Dr Khan says a child could grow into a militant for broadly three reasons -- curiosity, ideology or revenge. If Faiz is inspired by the third, in Ali's case it is a mixture of curiosity and revenge.
"Both need counselling," Dr Khan says.
Unfortunately in Kashmir, like in most of India, the need for psychiatric help is yet to be recognised. Consequently, there aren't enough facilities -- just one devoted psychiatric hospital, less than 10 psychiatrists, and very few counsellors for the whole of Kashmir.
"We need a number of trained counsellors," Dr Khan says. "Many cases can be set right with psychological debriefing (letting the patient talk about the incident that is bothering him) and counselling."
Medicins Sans Frontieres is working to fill this gap, through 'guidance counselling'. Successful in Kosovo, the concept involves1 training social workers, doctors and nurses in debriefing and counselling.
Many youngsters are too close to guns for comfort. Unfortunately, there is little help available for them in Kashmir.
Photo: Ami Vitale/Getty Images
Experts like Dr Khan believe education is another tool to wean away the new generation from violence, something along the lines of Education for Conflict Resolution, which the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund has launched in Sri Lanka.
That programme, according to a UNICEF report, aims at integrating ideas and methods of conflict resolution into the school curriculum as first step. Then, it will be extended to parents and the community.
The Jammu and Kashmir State Board of School Education had proposed a similar project -- dubbed Mobile Training Team in Values Education in India 2, which the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation was to help with -- in 2001. A decision is still pending.
A section of Kashmir observers look upon the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed government's pro-people 'healing touch' policy as positive. Unfortunately, it is a generic exercise, with no special focus for children like Fiaz, Ali or Majid.
In a dark room in one of Kashmir's 20-odd orphanages, Fiaz sits on the carpeted floor, his back against the shabby wall.
After his father's death, his relatives could not afford to look after him and his brothers. So, as the eldest of the four, Fiaz came to live here.
He is 15 now, almost grown-up. He tops his class and dreams of becoming a doctor.
"I will become one even if I have to work as a labourer to study," he says.
He hasn't forgotten the pact he made with his family.
"I dream of it," he says, "me and my brothers dragging them [his father's six killers] out and shooting them."
Fiaz speaks composedly. This is something he has gone over in his mind many, many times.
"Sometimes I think of them dying before we get to them," he says. "I hope that doesn't happen. I want to kill them myself.
"Five of them have joined the fauj [security force, as 'Ikhwanis' or pro-government militants] now. I know where they are."
What's more important to him -- being a doctor like his father wanted, or revenge?
Revenge, Fiaz says. After which, he would like to leave the valley.
"I know I may go to jail for it," he says. "But I will not let them live."
Editor's note: To protect identities, the names of the children have been changed.
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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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