The Departed

Hundreds of Kashmiri militants who left home as young men two decades ago have begun to return, middle-aged and disillusioned. What happens to them now?

Hizbul Mujahideen militants in southern Kashmir during the early 1990s. KADIR VAN LOHUIZEN / NOOR
Hizbul Mujahideen militants in southern Kashmir during the early 1990s. KADIR VAN LOHUIZEN / NOOR
01 September, 2012


THE MEN WHO GATHERED in Srinagar on a bright Sunday morning in early July had all left their lives behind; not once, but twice. They sat, about 25 of them, on the lawn outside the historic Mujahid Manzil—once the epicentre of a movement for Kashmiri independence—trading stories, chain-smoking cheap filterless cigarettes, inspecting old wounds. More than 20 years ago, all these men left their homes in Kashmir to cross to the other side—to Azad Kashmir, a sliver of the former princely state under Pakistani control. They crossed the mountains to become militants; to be trained with guns and explosives and grenades in camps run by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Some returned as fighters; some never fired a shot. Within six or seven years, they had all ceased to fight; they left the camps, became refugees in Pakistan, and started new lives on the other side of the line. They married, had children, scraped together work. And then, two decades after they first crossed over, they began to return, in ones and twos—smuggling themselves back into the state they once dreamt of liberating from Indian rule.

They find themselves back in a place they hardly recognise, transformed by decades of grinding conflict most of them did not witness. Many of the men they knew have been lowered into graves, and the simpler, even innocent, ways of life they grew up with are now long gone.

More than a few men arrived late to the meeting—the old landmarks had vanished, they complained, and they couldn’t find their way through streets they once knew well. But they too have aged beyond recognition: men who were teenagers when they departed—too young to shave, in some cases—now have graying beards, wrinkled faces, tired bodies. They still use their old code names, and they spoke to one another in a mix of Kashmiri and Urdu, their accents slightly hardened by years on the other side, with the occasional curses in Punjabi slang. They marvelled aloud, almost bewildered, at all that had changed and not changed in their absence. One man declared that he had walked past the old Palladium Cinema in Lal Chowk a few days earlier to discover it was gone—militants had burned it down in 1990. Another pointed to one of the city’s innumerable open drains, which carry sewage into the river Jhelum, and shook his head in amazement: “It’s been 20 years,” he said, “and they still haven’t covered these drains.”

Between these men, meeting for the first time back in Kashmir, regret and resignation hung in the air: they were finally home, but it was no longer the place they once left, and they were no longer the young men who left it. The battle they had gone off to fight, fired by hope and passion, quickly extinguished both. Now they traded tales of what they had abandoned in Muzaffarabad, where they settled after leaving the camps: the things they discarded and left behind. “I sold my rickshaw for a few thousand rupees,” one man said. “I knew that on the way back, you have to spend money to pay guides and bribe police. I sold whatever I had, just to come back. Now we have no money at all. Sometimes I think, ‘Is this what we did to our lives?’”

One of the men pointed to a white-bearded figure, wearing a grey jumper and dark brown trousers, who walked towards the lawn with a limp. “Look, Hanief Hyderi is coming. He too has grown old.” Everyone stood up to welcome Hyderi, a 57-year-old former militant commander who had been among the first of these men to return, back in 2006, and served as a kind of unofficial leader for the group. After embracing each man three times—an unusually formal greeting rarely seen in Kashmir—Hyderi, who has a squint, offered me a firm handshake.

He turned to address the men, urging caution in the presence of a journalist. “Everyone here [in Kashmir] is a spy—either with India or ISI,” Hyderi said, scanning the entire lawn. “All of you, see that man, even he can be a spy.” The men turned to where Hyderi was gesturing, towards a trashpicker rummaging through a bin, and they burst into laughter. Hyderi laughed too.

Two decades ago, after protests exploded across the state in the wake of the elections held in 1987, which were widely regarded as rigged, the idea of revolution smoldered in these men. Like millions of Kashmiris, they rallied around the slogan “No election, no selection, we want freedom!” Convinced that armed insurgency could eject India from Kashmir, tens of thousands of young men joined militant outfits, took pseudonyms, and smuggled themselves across the Line of Control (LoC) into Pakistan-administered Kashmir; some were killed before they even crossed the line. In Pakistan, they were taken, often blindfolded, to secret training camps, and taught to make bombs, fire anti-aircraft guns and wage guerrilla war. Many were brought to Afghanistan, where they were expected to acquire additional expertise and support the mujahideen fighting the Soviet-backed Afghan government. From Muzaffarabad, they were “launched” in small groups back across the border, to attack Indian army bunkers, hurl grenades at army patrols, and plant land mines to destroy Indian convoys.

Some of the men who crossed over abandoned their weapons as soon as their training was complete, unable or unwilling to become fighters. Many others grew disillusioned with the harsh realities of a freedom struggle run by Pakistani intelligence, which showed little concern for the independence or freedom of Kashmiris. Ideological clashes soon broke out among the fractured militant groups, pitting pro-independence secular nationalists against pro-Pakistan Islamist groups like Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), favoured and backed by the ISI. Within a few years, many of the Kashmiris who joined the insurgency had quit fighting, and by 1995, most had resigned themselves to living in exile on the other side of the line—certain that if they tried to sneak back across, they would be hunted down by the Indian army or “renegade” militants-turned-counterinsurgents.

When the situation along the de-facto border calmed in 2004, after extended talks between Pakistan’s then-president, Pervez Musharraf, and the Indian government—culminating in the opening of a bus route across the LoC—the former militants in Muzaffarabad grew restless to return. That same year, one former militant climbed up to a sentry post on the LoC with his wife and two children, and shouted a plea to the Indian soldiers: “My name is Nisar Ahmad Pathan, and I want to come home.”

Hizbul Mujahideen fighters in the Kashmir Valley, October 1991. ROBERT NICKELSBERG / TIME LIFE PICTURES / GETTY IMAGES

In the past eight years, a few hundred former militants have returned to the valley; some reports put the number as high as 500, though SM Sahai, the inspector-general of police in Kashmir province, cited a figure of “about 250”. Their numbers were tiny at first, but the passage of a “rehabilitation policy” for surrendered militants in November 2010 increased the flow of returnees. Most of the men sitting on the lawn outside Mujahid Manzil had come back this year—all by flying from Lahore to Nepal, and then illegally crossing the border into Uttar Pradesh. After entering Kashmir, they presented themselves at police stations, where they were detained and interrogated before being released, with orders to return for scheduled visits. (The families of those who returned after the start of the rehabilitation programme had filed applications with the police before the men even arrived.)

At the meeting in Srinagar, the men talked of floating a new political party, called Haqeeqi Tehreek (True Movement), with a platform opposed to India and Pakistan and a mission to bring back all the former militants from Pakistan-administered Kashmir, along with refugees and their families displaced since 1947. But this seemed a distant ambition: their main focus remained the problems of day-to-day existence, and the gathering felt more like a support group than a revolutionary council. Few spoke of their militant days, or their time in Pakistani training camps, though stories of their mistreatment on the other side flowed freely.

“We should not talk about our past,” Hyderi told the men. “We should just delete that chapter. It’s better to focus on how to bring all our brothers back.”

He asked the men if anyone disagreed. A short, stout man spoke up. “I have a friend who’s stuck in Muzaffarabad for sixteen years,” he said. “Yesterday, he called me and asked me whether home is treating me well. I couldn’t lie to him. I told him the truth. I told him at this age it’s not good to be jobless and it’s really painful to carry bricks on your shoulders.”

Hyderi cut him short. With a grimace, he urged the men to encourage their friends on the other side to return, in spite of the difficulties they had faced. “I have one request to all of you,” he said. “Please don’t talk about your suffering when your friends call you from Pakistan—this is not good. If we lie, it will be better for them.”

“Tell me one thing,” Hyderi continued. “Did we come here to live comfortably and make money? Every one of us made money in Muzaffarabad—I’m not saying we were well-off, but we were not dying of starvation either. We earned and ate properly. I didn’t come back to make money. I just wanted to see my family, and I always prayed to God, please let me die in my homeland.”

Hyderi at the entrance to his home in Srinagar. ABID BHAT FOR THE CARAVAN

The group fell silent for a moment, and Hyderi asked one of the men to take down all their phone numbers and addresses. “We have to look after each other,” he said. “You never know, your best friend can be sharpening his sword against you.” A notebook made the rounds, and each man scribbled his number on the page. The circle broke off into a handful of smaller conversations, most of them dedicated to the minutiae, and the frustrations, of their new lives.

One man complained that his brother had welcomed him home with open arms, but turned him out a few days later; others chatted about what little work they’d managed to find—one a house-painter, another a wood-carver, a third a shop assistant, several others nothing at all.  “My wife is not happy now,” I heard one say. “She asked me, ‘What was my sin? Why did you come back when you had nothing here?’” Soon the call to afternoon prayers came from a nearby mosque, and the men filed off together.

Before they walked away, two or three middle-aged men with skullcaps wandered past and asked me about this ragtag crowd meeting on the lawn. “Who are these guys?” one man inquired. They’re former militants, I said, who’ve recently come back from Azad Kashmir. He nodded in recognition, cast a skeptical eye in their direction, and said, “So have they come here to create a new mess?”


A FEW DAYS AFTER THE MEETING at Mujahid Manzil, I went to see Hanief Hyderi at his home, in a densely packed cluster of houses near the airport on the outskirts of Srinagar. His small two-storey house looked like it was still under construction: there were unfinished concrete floors and bare brick walls, and some of the windows were still missing their glass—but Hyderi explained that it had been built a few years earlier, with money his wife had borrowed from her brothers. When I arrived, he was waiting for me in a by-lane near a neighbourhood mosque, wearing grey sweatpants and a matching baggy jumper.

Hyderi, who nearly suffered a brain hemorrhage a few years ago, looks older than his 57 years. He speaks with a quiet rasp, calmly and slowly; his manner is both rigid and resigned, fitted to a man who lost his battles but never abandoned his stern faith in the cause. A few minutes after we sat down inside the house, in a sparsely furnished room with a few mattresses piled in a corner, one of his daughters suddenly appeared with cups of tea on a tray, and Hyderi quietly reproached her for entering in the presence of male strangers.

He joined the Kashmiri branch of Jamaat-e-Islami as a teenager in the late 1960s. “My father was a worker in a silk factory,” Hyderi said. “I left school after sixth grade—I wasn’t interested in studying, I was more into the technical side since my childhood. My father sent me to learn tailoring, then I got into the iron and steel fabrication business, making gates, grills. Eventually I had two shops.”

“From my early days of youth,” Hyderi continued, “I supported Jamaat-e-Islami.” The ideology of Jamaat, a conservative Islamic movement founded in Lahore in 1941, began to spread through the valley in the early 1970s—the Jamaat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani won his first election to the legislative assembly in 1972. The movement commanded the respect of young men like Hyderi, who regarded the Islamist party as the only true resistance to collaboration with India—particularly after Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, the father of Kashmir’s independence movement and the state’s most powerful political leader, signed an accord with Indira Gandhi in 1974 that separatists regarded as a capitulation.

In the mid-1970s, Hyderi started a small madrassa in Srinagar’s Hyderpora neighbourhood—as many Jamaat supporters had done across the state. Earlier, he told me, he had taught the Quran to local children in a mosque, but when his iron-working business grew, he rented a few rooms nearby and hired another teacher to expand his intake of students.

Before the fateful 1987 elections, Hyderi campaigned for the Muslim United Front, a coalition of Islamist separatist parties attempting to unseat the Abdullah family’s National Conference. He walked the city to hang banners and distribute pamphlets, and served as a poll worker for Syed Mohammed Yousuf Shah, a Jamaat candidate whose apparent victory was reversed in one of the highest-profile cases of poll rigging. Shah, who would later become a top militant leader under his nom de guerre, Salahuddin, was arrested after the election along with many of his supporters; Hyderi presented himself for arrest as well. “I was tortured by the police,” he told me. “The cops asked us, ‘Are you trying to make Kashmir into Pakistan?’”

Syed Mohammed Yousuf Shah, now known as Salahuddin (left), the head of Hizbul Mujahideen, offers prayers at the funeral of an HM commander in Muzaffarabad in April 2003. ROSHAN MUGHAL / AP PHOTO

Hyderi and his jailed compatriots would make up part of the first wave of Kashmiris to cross the LoC and take up arms against India—convinced that the elections had proven only violence could resolve the Kashmir dispute. By early 1988, militants representing the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), a nationalist pro-independence outfit, had already been to Pakistan-administered Kashmir and returned with weapons; a JKLF bomb that blew up a Srinagar telegraph office in March 1988 announced the beginning of the insurgency.

That summer, Hyderi was approached by Abdullah Bangroo, later to become the first military commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, who told him that a group of Jamaat men were planning to cross over and join the insurgency. He bid farewell to his old identity—his real name, Abdul Ghaffar Bhat, no longer sees much use—and became Hanief Hyderi. (“I liked the name,” he remembered, because “Hyder” means lion in Arabic.)

He told his wife that he was going to Pakistan for six months to train as a militant, leaving her and their children. She was furious, he told me: “She said, ‘Why did you marry, then? You have three young children.’” Hyderi’s answer was blunt: “I can divorce you, if you want me to.” He kissed his children goodbye, and left for Pakistan the following morning. By that night, he and six other men were climbing across the mountains of north Kashmir, led through the passes by a Gujjar tribesman; within a week, he was shooting a Chinese-made pistol at dummy targets in an ISI-run training camp near Muzaffarabad.

Hyderi, however, was not sent directly back into Kashmir: his performance in the camp, and his Islamist orientation, led the trainers to divert him to the jihad in Afghanistan. “I was good with light weapons like AK and pistol,” Hyderi said, “so I was sent to Afghanistan.” He received further training in heavy arms like anti-aircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenades during three months in Khost Province, along with regular religious lectures and readings in the history of military tactics. “In Afghanistan we were introduced to war literature,” he said. “All the strategies—Saladin, all the great Islamic warriors.”

The Kashmiris were dispatched to assist mujahideen operations in eastern Afghanistan: Hyderi joined patrols along the crossing at Torkham, “a very crucial border through which ISI would send food and other commodities to the mujahideen”, he said. Later, he joined the attack on a Soviet military camp in Jalalabad, where Hyderi and other Kashmiri fighters were supposed to provide cover for Arab militants assaulting the camp. (The young Arabs, he recalled, “were crazy—they would never retreat, and keep fighting until they die or kill the enemies”.) Instead, he recalled, their ambush was strafed by fighter jets. “We lost many men there,” he said. “I hid under a rock, and when the bombing stopped, I slid out and saw bodies soaked in blood, corpses with missing arms and limbs. Oh god, it was so bad. We gathered what remained of the bodies and handed them over, in bits and pieces, to the locals for burial.” Hyderi went silent for a few seconds, and turned his face towards the window. “Let’s just leave this part,” he said.

After six months in Afghanistan, Hyderi returned to Muzaffarabad, where he was informed of plans to create a new “hard-hitting” militant organisation, Hizbul Mujahideen. The insurgency had thus far been dominated by the JKLF, a nominally secular outfit fighting to make Kashmir independent of both India and Pakistan. The subsequent rise of HM, affiliated to Jamaat-e-Islami, would decisively shift the insurgency to an Islamist, pro-Pakistan ideology.

The former Hizbul Mujahideen commander Hanief Hyderi, who returned from Pakistan-administered Kashmir after 18 years in 2006. ABID BHAT FOR THE CARAVAN

“The idea suited my religious belief,” Hyderi said. “Islam is my way of life, and politics cannot be separate from Islam. It was all so simple—the goal was to liberate our homeland from India, and make it an Islamic state.” The ambitions of HM’s founders, and their sponsors in Jamaat-e-Islami, extended into Pakistan as well. “Our plan was big,” Hyderi said. “We seriously thought that after we defeated India, we would have a bigger say in Pakistan. We would have been very powerful if we defeated India, and it would have been possible to change Pakistan into a completely Islamic state.”

“HM was not child’s play,” Hyderi continued. “Its men engraved the poems of Iqbal in their hearts, they read Quran and they loved martyrdom. I know how much thinking has gone into the formation of this group. It has a strong ideological belief; it has a proper organisational structure. That is why it survived, and it’s still fighting.”


IN THE SUMMER OF 1989, Hyderi crossed the LoC back into Kashmir with a group of 10 other fighters that included several other founding members of HM. The militants were taken in covered trucks from their camps—whose location the ISI did not want the fighters to remember—to crossing points along the border, where they were given weapons and “launched” to the other side. Hyderi remembers that his “camp-in-charge”, a man named Sher Khan, handed him an AK-47, a Chinese pistol and a few rounds of ammunition. He was now the Hizbul Mujahideen area commander for Srinagar and Budgam districts.

Back in the valley, Hyderi remained underground, shifting between hideouts in the middle of the night. Once a month, he said, he returned to visit his wife, who remained unhappy with his new identity. “Things were not fine there,” he recalled. “We were poor, and my wife was doing everything on her own—sending children to school, buying vegetables, cooking, washing—she did everything in my absence. She was never happy to see me. The army would harass her every day, and after my visits, one or two days later the BSF [Border Security Force] or army would raid the house at night, question my children.”

Hyderi’s iron-welding shop had been bulldozed in a road-widening project while he was training in Pakistan (an event which he related as evidence of the “arrogance” of Indian administrators in Kashmir), but he now had far larger concerns. Hyderi had become a key player in the growing insurgency, which had—if only for a brief moment—put the Indian army on the back foot. He had six bodyguards, and a network of informers to keep him appraised of army patrols. I asked Hyderi about his involvement in attacks on policemen and soldiers; he brushed the question aside, but reminded me with evident pride that he had been the man in charge. “Don’t be stupid,” he said. “You know I was the area commander, and all these things happened while I was there.” Did you shoot anyone, I asked him. “I have never killed anyone,” he responded. “The government has no cases against me, and if they did, I would have been hanged and I wouldn’t be free today.”

At this point, young men were still flocking to Pakistan-administered Kashmir by the hundreds to join the insurgency, and new militant outfits were proliferating. “Soon it became like a habit,” Hyderi said. “Four or five young men would gather, cross the LoC, and return a month later with another new militant organisation.”

One of these young men was Jehangir Butt, who crossed the LoC as an 18-year-old in August 1990 and returned to Srinagar earlier this year. “I remember the week before I left,” Butt, whose real name is Mohammed Yousuf, told me. “I was at a friend’s wedding, and his cousin took me out to get a money garland for the groom. When we left, he introduced me to some guys and they asked me if I was interested in becoming a militant.”

“I was already so angry with everything,” Butt continued. “This anger was mounting slowly, and I didn’t know what to do. So when these guys told me they were leaving for Pakistan in a few days, I said I will also come.” He was taken across the border with a group of about 50 boys affiliated to a nationalist outfit called Muslim Janbaz Force; a few gave up along the way, three were killed when they fell into a gorge, and one was shot by an army sniper. Their guides, Butt remembered, urged them forward and told them to recite verses from the Quran for their safety. “Of that group of fifty,” Butt said, “only three are still alive today. If someone gave me one crore to cross the border now, I would say, ‘I’m not going, motherfucker.’”

After entering Pakistan, Butt and the other men were taken in a covered truck from the LoC to the camp. “It was an army truck. We went inside and they wrapped it with a thick tarpaulin”—to conceal the location of the camps. “It was suffocating inside, many guys vomited.” After about 12 hours, they reached a camp near Dhani, on the banks of the river Neelum. “There were at least 8,000 Kashmiris there,” Butt said. “It was terrible—there were worms in the rice. But this was the road to freedom, a holy route. We ate it.”

From the beginning, Butt was ill at ease with the atmosphere in the camps, where Pakistan was asserting firmer control, and existing ideological divisions among the militant groups were hardening. “The Kashmiris, particularly, would fight with the camp administrators over arrangements,” Butt said. “They would tell the Pakistanis, ‘You’re trying to take revenge on us for 1947, when Kashmiris got your tribals and soldiers arrested.’” At the same time, Butt recalled, the Pakistani trainers created a divide “between those who were from Srinagar and the villagers”, who tended to be more religious and less vocal in their discontent. “They gave extra rotis and rice to the villagers, and took them under their control.”

Jehangir Butt (left), who escaped from a militant training camp in Afghanistan after a series of ideological conflicts with his trainers. ABID BHAT FOR THE CARAVAN

After a month in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Butt was taken with a group of militants to Afghanistan for further training. “We did exercises in the morning, and then there used to be a lecture, and then after that they would teach us how to explode bombs and throw grenades.” One afternoon, Butt said, he walked out from a long lecture delivered by an Afghan trainer: “I didn’t like the way he was talking; he was speaking in Urdu, but his accent was very bad. I tried to sneak away, but he shouted at me, ‘Why don’t you pay attention to me?’ He told the group that I didn’t have faith in Islam so I had lost interest. That made me more angry—this is how our religion was used every time.” The instructor announced that Butt was an infiltrator from India’s intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW)—such paranoia, Butt said, was widespread in the camps—and senior militants had to intervene on his behalf. “I was so young, I didn’t even know what R&AW was at that time,” Butt said, laughing.

Butt’s next confrontation with his trainers was less amusing. A few Pakistani commanders came to the camp to brief the fighters on their targets inside Kashmir. “They told us the bridges should be burned to cut the army supply lines,” Butt said. “It didn’t make sense to me—India doesn’t need bridges for supply, and they could anyway build emergency bridges to replace any that were destroyed in one or two days. In my view, burning a bridge was a sin, because a bridge is mostly used by the people.” Butt stood up and demanded that the commander show him where it was written in the Quran that such acts were permitted. “He ordered his men to take me away. They tied me to a tree, and I’m sure they were going to execute me in a few days. My Kashmiri friends came to me and said the only way to save my own life was to shout loudly and act like I had gone insane.”

For three days, Butt put on a dazzling performance: singing Pakistan’s national anthem and Bollywood songs, shouting abuse at the commanders and then singing songs in their honour. “Somehow I managed it well,” Butt said. “They thought I had serious mental problems, and they untied me.” Soon he planned his escape from the camp, stealing out in the middle of the night along the route used by supply trucks to bring food to the camp. He hitchhiked back across the Khyber Pass to Peshawar, and then to Muzaffarabad, where he tried to steer clear of the camps, living off the charity of Kashmiri families and sleeping at mosques.

After a year or so, Butt said, a young Pakistani man whom he had seen staying at the same mosques approached him with a proposition: the two would work together to raise money for the insurgency, and Butt could keep a small share of the proceeds. For the next two months, they knocked on hundreds of doors together. “In those days,” Butt said, “people would give anything for Kashmir—hundred-rupee notes, gold necklaces, rings.” One day, the pair were in a village outside Abbasspur, near the border with Jammu, and the other man beat him and ran off with the money they had collected.

“He was a fraud,” Butt said. “He used my identity—he told these villagers, ‘Look, a Kashmiri mujahid has come on his own to collect money for his cause. Support him, help him to liberate Kashmir.’”


BACK IN SRINAGAR, Hanief Hyderi was experiencing the first pangs of his own disillusionment. By the summer of 1990, the valley had descended into chaos, and the Indian government had begun to adopt a more aggressive response to the growing rebellion. The intensifying army crackdown—and events like the shooting of civilian protestors on a Srinagar bridge that January—swelled the ranks of militant outfits, which multiplied in number and began fighting amongst themselves. Further disputes emerged within Hizbul Mujahideen over the militant group’s relationship with its parent organisation, Jamaat-e-Islami.

According to Hyderi, Jamaat wished to exercise closer control over HM, a direction supported by Mohammad Ahsan Dar, the militant group’s founding chief. “We never wanted to be the military wing of Jamaat,” Hyderi said. “I thought, don’t involve Jamaat here, because Jamaat is not supported by the majority of Kashmiris. Jamaat leaders thought they could change people’s religious ideology with the support of the gun—that if HM will defeat India, Jamaat will become like the Congress. But people don’t change with force. Today Jamaat still stands where it was twenty years ago, it couldn’t grow.”

Around the same time, Hyderi says he was dismayed to discover that his own outfit was recruiting untrained locals inside Kashmir and giving them weapons, triggering further friction among the ranks. Hyderi and other HM leaders placed the blame on Dar, who was accused of “hurriedly training locals in the forests of Kashmir and promoting them up into senior positions” to bolster his own support. Hyderi took part in several meetings, he said, in which top HM ideologues plotted to dislodge Dar and replace him with Salahuddin, who took control as the group’s leader in 1991.

Hizbul Mujahideen began to receive the lion’s share of support from the ISI, which had started to cut off the supply of weapons and funds to JKLF and other non-Islamist groups who favoured Kashmiri independence rather than a merger with Pakistan. HM leaders openly taunted JKLF as a “childish” organisation, and fighters from the two groups turned their weapons on one another: between 1990 and 1993, according to government figures, 200 militants were killed in inter-group clashes. At the time, JKLF leaders alleged that HM, with the support of the ISI, had all but destroyed their militant cadres.

Even after the JKLF had been marginalised, the pro-Pakistan Islamist groups continued to splinter into new factions; even top HM leaders split off into their own new outfits, and internecine fighting deepened. “Everyone started making their own parties,” Hyderi said. “It got so bad that at one point nobody knew who was killing who.” At the same time, the Indian army had begun to have success identifying and eliminating militant leaders—in part with the assistance of so-called “renegades”, former militants who switched sides and proved effective at locating and killing their former allies. In 1993, Hyderi told me, he decided to hand over his weapon to Salahuddin, and he crossed the LoC, hoping to “discover the causes of disunity among the militant groups”.

But what he saw left him disenchanted with the armed struggle and its Pakistani sponsors. “I got very angry and frustrated because ISI and Pakistan were behind it,” he told me. “They were fully responsible for encouraging the factionalism in Kashmir.” When he arrived at the militant base camp, in a dense forested region near Muzaffarabad, he discovered that it had become a massive operation, with thousands of men, of varying races and nationalities, being trained in separate camps divided by party.

“I saw eleven different organisations in eleven different camps,” he recalled. “When I met the second-rung commanders of all these groups, I asked them, ‘Why are you sending so many different groups? Why aren’t we together?’ And they told me each organisation was supposed to have a different religious and political orientation—so Wahhabbis will have Tehreek-ul-Mujahidin and Lashkar-e-Toiba, Shias will have Hizbul Mohmineen, Sunnis will have HM and Hizb-e-Islami, and so on.”

“It didn’t make any sense to me,” Hyderi said. “I was angry. I thought, if there are 72 factions in Islam, does that mean we will have 72 different outfits?” He met two senior retired Pakistan army men who had trained him when he first crossed the LoC—one told him he should simply go back and keep fighting, the other said he “shouldn’t think too much”.

“I was depressed,” Hyderi said. “When I saw this mess I couldn’t tolerate it, and I didn’t sleep for months. The doctors told me I was depressed and gave me medicine.” For a time he remained in the camp, but it was clear his militant days were over. “In the camps the situation was miserable—men were ill, many had kidney failures, hypertension,” Hyderi said. “They weren’t fed properly—just two pieces of roti and some rajma.” In Muzaffarabad, he saw many Kashmiris who had quit fighting, or never become fighters at all, struggling as part-time labourers at construction sites, pulling carts or driving autorickshaws, stranded and unable to return home.

Young militants, whose numbers rapidly grew in the first years of the insurgency, patrol the streets of a Kashmiri village in 1994. KADIR VAN LOHUIZEN / NOOR

In 1994, Hyderi left the camp and moved to the Central Plate neighbourhood of Muzaffarabad, where he started a new organisation to advocate for the former militants, called Jammu and Kashmir Refugees Welfare Association. During the day, he returned to his old trade as an iron-welder; at night he tried to organise the former fighters and make common cause with the earlier waves of refugees who had ended up on the other side of the line in 1947 and 1965. “I shared a room with fifteen other people,” he said, “It was very hard to survive. My earnings were meagre and I didn’t have any office or employees. But I couldn’t resist this problem. I thought, ‘Allah will punish me if I ignore it.’”

Jehangir Butt had also managed to piece together a new life for himself in Muzaffarabad. After the embarrassment of being swindled and beaten by the man with the fundraising scheme, Butt was taken in by an influential local family in Kotli district, in the southern part of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. They treated him like their own son, he said, and what was supposed to be a “temporary” stay stretched from a few days to three years. But by 1994, he said, he had begun to worry he was abusing their generosity. “I felt I couldn’t live there anymore, eating their food and doing nothing,” Butt said. The family helped him with a small amount of seed money, and he moved to Muzaffarabad and set up a small workshop as a wood-carver, which had been his father’s trade back in Srinagar. In 1997, he married a Pakistani woman who had come to be his apprentice in the workshop, and they had two sons and a daughter. “Before marriage, I made it clear to her that one day I would return home, and she supported me,” Butt said. “I would tell my children, ‘I am from a far-off place called Kashmir, a beautiful place full of lakes and apple orchards.’”

After moving to Muzaffarabad, Butt often went on Friday evenings to Uppar Adda, a market area near the university, which had become a common gathering place for many of the former militants. The men would meet for tea and snacks, and then assemble into a circle led by Hyderi and his associate, a man named Jamil Mirza. Hyderi and Mirza had become vocal critics of Pakistan—both for its role in Kashmir and its ill-treatment of the refugee fighters—and the men talked amongst themselves about the increasingly apparent failure of the armed movement they had left home to join. “Every Kashmiri used to go there,” Butt remembered. “We used to sit together and weep over our fates.” He smiled and gave a wry laugh. “No, we never wept, but we would ask each other, why are we suffering? We were able to see that each one of us was not alone.” Slowly the meetings coalesced into an informal movement, led by Hyderi and Mirza, and before long they were holding small rallies, delivering lectures at colleges, and trying to spread their message through the media—criticising the government for ignoring the welfare of former militants, and accusing the ISI of “muzzling the voices of pro-freedom Kashmiris”.

Suspected militants are paraded before an informer during an army crackdown in Srinagar in January, 1994. KADIR VAN LOHUIZEN / NOOR / LUZPHOTO


BY THE END OF THE 1990s, the militancy in Kashmir had faded almost completely from view: in the cities, the gun-toting fighters who had been a common sight early in the decade were no longer visible, and what little fighting remained was confined to the state’s northern regions and border zones along the LoC. The participation of Kashmiris had declined considerably—in a group of 10 militants, only one or two would turn out to be from Kashmir. The ISI had responded by increasing the number of Pakistani fighters sent into the valley, and groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba, whose cadres were drawn entirely from Pakistan, were at the forefront of the fight. But Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan further drew its attention away from Kashmir: after the American invasion, Hyderi said, he saw the training camps around Muzaffarabad run out of food. “The wealthy Punjabis stopped sending rice and money to these camps, because they felt the Kashmir issue was over, and it was no more a jihad,” Hyderi said. “They chose to start sending that money to Taliban instead.”

Back in the valley, moderate separatist leaders began to quietly reassess their own support for armed resistance, whose failure had become undeniable. In April 2002, the senior separatist leader Abdul Gani Lone announced that Kashmir had nothing to do with the global jihad, and that foreign militants would no longer be welcome in the valley. A month later, Lone was killed by two unidentified gunmen at Srinagar’s Martyr’s Graveyard, where he had gone to pay homage to Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq, the Kashmiri religious leader who had been assassinated a decade earlier. In 1992, the death of the Mirwaiz was widely blamed on India, though later accounts have pointed the finger at Hizbul Mujahideen. Lone’s killing had a similarly massive impact inside Kashmir, but this time talk of Pakistani involvement was far more widespread. Leaders of every stripe, including hard-line separatists who still supported armed insurgency, condemned the murder; among the Kashmiris still stuck in Muzaffarabad, one former militant told me, no one doubted the ISI had ordered the killing.

The Martyr’s Graveyard in Srinagar, where the senior separatist leader Abdul Gani Lone was assassinated by two gunmen in 2002. ABID BHAT FOR THE CARAVAN

As the situation inside Kashmir and along the LoC grew calmer—culminating in the announcement of a ceasefire between India and Pakistan in 2003—Hyderi and Butt became more vocal in their public criticism of the Pakistani government. When the two countries decided to open the bus route between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad in February 2005—after a 63-year hiatus—the former militants rushed to apply for travel permits at the commissioner’s office in Muzaffarabad, but they were all denied. “The rule was first-come, first-served,” a former HM militant named Jamsheed told me. “But we saw people who applied way behind us getting permits, but not us. The Pakistani government always discouraged any attempt at sending us home.”

On 6 April 2005, one day prior to the departure of the first bus from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad—the first civilian vehicle to cross the LoC since 1947—a group of former militants led by Hanief Hyderi decided to welcome the passengers near the border. But Hyderi, Jamil Mirza and four of their associates were called to a meeting with a district magistrate and police superintendent. Mirza gave his version of the conversation in a 2006 Human Rights Watch report on abuses in Azad Kashmir: “They told us, ‘You cannot welcome the bus.’ We said we support the bus. They said we will not give you permission: ‘You will be our guests,’ they said. They took us to the city police station just a few hours later... We were locked up there for two days.”

A day later, when the bus was flagged off from Srinagar, Hyderi, Mirza and four other Kashmiris started a hunger strike; they were quickly booked under a public order ordinance and taken to Muzaffarabad central jail, where they discovered 20 other members of their group had also been arrested. After the police tried to force-feed them a few days into the hunger strike, they were beaten with sticks and iron rods by prisoners inside the jail on the instruction of local police.

Later that summer, Hyderi and his group held a protest rally at Shaheedi Chowk in Muzaffarabad, which was attended by about 100 former militants and an even larger contingent of local university students. After Hyderi delivered a long speech criticising Pakistan’s policies in Kashmir—during which the former HM militant, who fought for accession to Pakistan, asserted that Kashmiris would now make their own choices about independence—the police appeared and lathi-charged the protestors, arresting Hyderi and 30 others. This time he spent three months in jail. “I was tortured,” he said. “They threatened that if I opened my mouth again, the results would be even worse.”

When he was finally released, Hyderi decided he was no longer safe in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and made arrangements to return to the valley via Nepal. Two years later, one of his close associates in Muzaffarabad, Bashir Ahmad, was arrested by security personnel and killed in custody. According to a BBC report at the time, local officials claimed he had “committed suicide by jumping into the Neelum River”, but eyewitnesses said he was shot in the back while fleeing from arrest. “The police refused to hand over his body because they knew they’ve murdered an innocent,” Butt told me. “They hushed up the case. Every Kashmiri was terrified after this incident.”

In 2008, the group’s senior-most leader, Jamil Mirza, died of kidney failure. “He didn’t have any money for treatment,” Butt said. Now it fell to Butt and a few others to keep up the pressure against Pakistan for their return. “I wrote hundreds of articles in different newspapers criticising the government,” he continued. “We would openly say, you are curbing the voices of Kashmiris.”

Butt finally received a response in the summer of 2010. An unidentified caller summoned him to a meeting at a training camp near Muzaffarabad. When he arrived, he was taken into a small room, where he found a few top commanders of HM and plainclothes officers he believes were ISI men. One asked him, “So why are you making India happy?”

“Then they asked, ‘Will you stop this nonsense?’ I said, No, I can’t. I am talking about my own rights, and the rights of my Kashmiri brothers,” Butt said. He was taken away for further interrogation. “I found myself in a room where I remember bits of conversation with a bearded man. I was drugged, and I felt like I was in the clouds. I can remember hearing a voice, asking, ‘Jehangir Butt, who is behind you?’”

Butt was detained and interrogated for 11 days. “My wife involved the media, and got me out,” he said. “Otherwise I’m sure I would have been killed.” He was released with a stern warning: “Don’t exceed your limits.”

Hizbul Mujahideen fighters on patrol near an Indian military post in Srinagar in July 1991. ACQUES LANGEVIN / SYGMA / CORBIS

When he returned home, he told his wife the time had come to leave Muzaffarabad, and in March of this year, he paid a local agent PKR 150,000 (about R90,000) to smuggle him and his family back to Kashmir. When he walked into his parents’ home, Butt told me, his own father didn’t recognise him as the boy who left 22 years earlier. A few months later, he still feels profoundly out of place: unable to comprehend the transformations that occurred during and after the war he went off to fight. “A lot has changed,” he told me. “Twenty years ago people had a lot of respect for their elders. I am shocked to see young boys smoking cigarettes in front of their elders. We used to hide in by-lanes to smoke.”

“Life is difficult here now,” Butt continued. He can’t enrol his children in local schools without paperwork from Azad Kashmir, which is impossible to obtain. And his wife, he said, is unhappy in Srinagar. “She told me, ‘What if I get stuck here for twenty years like you were stuck there?’” Almost all the men who returned told me similar stories of dislocation: strained relations with family, incomprehensible changes in their absence, difficulties finding work and earning money.

“I had five rickshaws over there, and now I don’t have the money to buy a cigarette,” Muhammad Latief Shah told me. A former JKLF fighter, Shah left in 1989, when he was only 16. He was arrested by the Indian army in 1992, but released two years later when his outfit declared a unilateral ceasefire; his hometown, Sopore, was still a hotbed of the insurgency, and he crossed the LoC once again, but soon quit the militancy and married in Muzaffarabad. He has a bullet scar on his leg, and another scar on his head from the shrapnel of a bomb. “I was very brave then,” he said. “I am still brave, but now I have a heart ailment.” Shah argued that the rehabilitation programme had done little for the men since their return, in terms of jobs or business opportunities. “I don’t know whether this state still accepts us or not.” And yet, as another former militant, Mohammad Ahsan, told me, “If the doors were opened properly, there are another 25,000 people who are desperate to come back.”

When I met Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, who passed the rehabilitation policy in 2010 over considerable opposition, he admitted there was still much work to be done. “The first component was bringing them back, but the second part is how do we rehabilitate them, to fit them back into society,” he said. “The rehabilitation programme doesn’t suit many people here,” he continued, referring to both separatist leaders and his political opponents. “There is still a need to keep an eye on these men, for their own safety. We will be careful, and the police are aware of their locations.” Abdullah insists that the policy is not an “amnesty”: he describes its beneficiaries as men who crossed the border but did not fight, because to admit that formerly active militants have indeed returned home would incur substantial political backlash. “Those who have performed any militant activities—they will never be given amnesty.”

It is true, of course, that some of the returned militants were never fighters: they were swept across the border by the fervour of the moment, and quickly recoiled from the unromantic realities of guerrilla warfare. For the men who are finally home, it has been bittersweet to discover that some Kashmiris regard them as deserters. “They expected to be pampered in Pakistan,” one local journalist told me. “They forgot they were going off to a war.” When I visited Jehangir Butt at his home, even his father gently teased him: “He went off to become a militant, and instead he came back with a wife.” Butt bristled at the suggestion. “I have not surrendered,” he told me. “I have returned home, but the ISI and separatists see this as surrender. I don’t want young Kashmiris to die like we did—we died for Pakistan, and Pakistan did not give us anything but factions.”

The valley’s hard-line separatists have not vocally condemned the returnees, but their feelings are quite clear. “They should have stayed there,” I was told by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the most prominent and powerful of the separatist leaders. “They should know that it is a police state here. We are under occupation. There is no law, there is injustice.” Geelani, who has been kept under house arrest for the past six months, dismissed the rehabilitation policy as a ruse. “They fell into a trap,” he continued. “They say this is rehabilitation, but now they are jobless, they are homeless, they have nothing. This was a false commitment [from the state government].” For Geelani, the message being spread by Hyderi and his comrades—that Pakistan undermined the insurgency—is obviously an unwelcome one. “We cannot blame Pakistan” for what happened to these former militants, Geelani continued. “These men haven’t fulfilled their duties. They signed up [to fight] and they should have decided to stay with the cause for which they left. They should have remained steadfast in their ranks.” For that reason, he suggested, their loyalty remains suspect. “Why are they sneaking in like thieves? If we had resources, we would have helped them, but we don’t know whether they are sincere or not. They should prove themselves by contributing to the movement, by keeping the sentiment alive.”

Hyderi has little time for such talk today. “We have not given up or compromised,” he told me. “Our ideas have evolved with time, and now we want an independent Kashmir. It is not going to be solved with violence now. We had a chance in the 1990s, but we missed it. Now that chance is gone.” I asked Hyderi about his former separatist allies, and their unsubtle insinuation that men like him have sold out the cause to return home. “That’s not the case,” he said defiantly. “Tomorrow, if India says ‘Give us 100 people, we will hang them, and give you freedom in return,’ I’ll be the first volunteer.”

For Jehangir Butt, who at 40 still hopes to rebuild a life in Srinagar, the broader political implications of his return are insignificant next to the social and emotional difficulties that still remain. “We will be fine without these two countries, and I will spread this thought,” he said. “But when I walk out in my neighbourhood, and I see the mothers or brothers of those who died in my absence, I can’t face them. I fear they will ask me, ‘Why are you alive? Why are you still living with your family? Why are you happy?’”

“I am not happy.”