Waiting for the disappeared in Kashmir

“He was very young and had severe torture marks on his body. We took off his clothes before burying him, hoping that his family might turn up one day,” said Ghulam Rasoon Mir, a Kitchama local. Nearly 135 unidentified bodies lie buried in this mass grave. Showkat Nanda/Magnum Foundation
01 October, 2017

IN AN IMAGE CAPTURED by the documentary photographer Showkat Nanda, a faded Khan dress—a type of salwar kameez commonly worn by Kashmiri men—is shown tied to a tree trunk next to a mass grave in the desolate village of Kitchama, northern Kashmir. The garment is weather-beaten and covered with moss. According to Nanda, locals in the area said that it belonged to a very young boy, whose dead body the police had handed over to them in 2004. They buried the body and left the clothes outside, hoping that someone would eventually recognise them and identify the boy. When Nanda took the photograph, 12 years after the boy’s death, no one had yet come forward to do so.

The photo appears in The Endless Wait, an ongoing documentary project that Nanda began in 2014. Much of the series consisted of portraits of Kashmiri women whose male family members went missing after being arrested by Indian armed forces. Thousands of Kashmiri men have vanished after such encounters—the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, which documents disappearances in Kashmir, estimates that there have been between 8,000 and 10,000 disappearances since the insurgency began, in 1989. The relatives of disappeared men often frequent graveyards, camps and jails, searching for snippets of information. Some wives have waited for decades for their husbands to return, and have had to raise children on their own, unable to marry again because of their uneasy limbo as half-widows.

Nanda was born, and still lives, in Baramulla: a large garrison city near the Line of Control, close to the sub-district of Uri and the district of Kupwara, both places with prominent mass graves. The streets of Baramulla teem with soldiers and informers, who keep the town under strict surveillance. In December 1989, when Nanda was a young boy, his cousin Parvaiz was among a crowd of peaceful protestors who were fired upon and killed by the police at Cement Bridge. A Baramulla landmark, this has a long history of protests, and just a day earlier, a massive gathering in the same spot had celebrated the release of five militants from prison. A few months later, Nanda’s brother Sajad died after slipping from a steep ridge while attempting to cross a mountain pass into Pakistan-controlled territory. According to Nanda, Sajad was on his way to receive arms training beyond the Line of Control, as part of a wave of young Kashmiris who did so at the time before returning to join an ongoing anti-India uprising. The family only found out what had happened to him when the people accompanying him returned to Kashmir after two years. “We didn’t know if he was dead or alive,” Nanda said. “I have seen my own mother suffering with the pain of losing a son. We didn’t even have a chance to see his grave.” While coming to terms with the death of a loved one gets easier over time, Nanda said, confronting a disappearance is perpetually nerve-racking—“The disappearance of a loved one immortalises a person’s pain.”

Although Nanda initially wanted to be a surgeon, the violence he witnessed pushed him to become a storyteller, and to illustrate the suffering and resilience of those around him. He was raised primarily by women, since the men in his neighbourhood fled in droves whenever government forces came searching for suspected militants, afraid that they would be picked up as well. “So in a way we kids were able to initially see this conflict through the pain and misery reflected on the faces of women—mothers, grandmothers, aunts, friends’ mothers, neighbours,” he said. “A woman’s face was the most immediate and prominent symbol of suffering in Kashmir.”

At the same time, Nanda added, he was intent on challenging this one-dimensional portrayal of Kashmiri women. “They become the poster-ladies of victimhood. My motive was to go beyond the routine photo-ops and front-page pictures of protesting women. I wanted to know how they live their lives, earn their livelihood, spend time with their families and raise and educate their children.” He also recognised the shadow that his brother could cast over his work. “I don’t want people to look at my work and say, ‘You can’t expect a credible story from someone who is the brother of a person who aspired to be a militant,’” Nanda said.

The long list of disappearances points to one thing, Nanda believes—that Kashmiris have been subjected to an unmatched oppression and that justice has been consistently denied. “It’s also true that, for some, time has changed nothing,” he said. “The long and endless wait for their loved ones might have taken away so many years of their lives, but they still think that they are at the same point where they started. They missed their loves ones then. They miss them now.”

This project was produced with support from the Magnum Emergency Fund.