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.