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Print edition : Jul 13, 2007 T+T-
Manzoor Ahmad Awan, wife Asfat Mir and their youngest son Munir. The family has returned to its mountain hamlet from POK.-PICTURES: PRAVEEN SWAMI

Manzoor Ahmad Awan, wife Asfat Mir and their youngest son Munir. The family has returned to its mountain hamlet from POK.-PICTURES: PRAVEEN SWAMI

Several men belonging to the State have returned from the jehad training camps in Pakistan, and many more are waiting their turn.

FOR most of the afternoon, soldiers at the Nanak Post at Uri in Baramulla district had stared out through the mist at four brightly coloured specks winding their way towards the Line of Control (LoC). At first sight, it seemed as though a group of militants was crossing over and, as such, preparations to ambush them were put in place. But soon it became clear that there was something unusual about the spectacle. One of the members of the group was a woman with two crying infants in her arms; and the man beside her was urging two exhausted children to take the last steps to complete the savage climb into India.

"My name is Nasir Ahmad Pathan, and I want to come home," the bedraggled man shouted when he finally reached the rolls of barbed wire that mark Jammu and Kashmir's border with Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK).

At least 138 residents of the State have returned from across the LoC since the Great Kashmir Earthquake of October 2005 - five of them with the families they built during their stay in Pakistan. Most of them had left to train at camps run by Islamist terror groups; others were among the estimated 35,000 refugees who fled the State fearing war and ethnic cleansing following the jehad of 1989.

In 2002, though, the world began to change. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda bombing in New York and Washington D.C., the world woke up to the threat posed by Islamist terror groups operating out of Pakistan. Soon after, India and Pakistan almost went to war - and Islamabad came under intense pressure to scale back support to its secret armies in Jammu and Kashmir.

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) started squeezing funding to militant groups, and the jehad in the State began to disintegrate.

Hundreds of men are thought to be waiting in jehad camps for a chance to return to their old lives. Thousands of refugees, too, believe the time has come to resume their war-interrupted lives and build a new future. But the road back home is proving both long and perilous.

Pathan was a sixth-grade student when he began his journey from the impoverished mountain hamlet of Sultan Dhakki to Pakistan. His brothers Javed and Mubassir were to join the Indian Army; Pathan, however, turned to the jehad in search of adventure, self-esteem and a living.

One summer evening in 1989, Pathan traversed the minefields along the LoC with the help of a Hizbul Mujahideen recruiter. By that evening, he was on a truck to a training camp near Muzaffarabad. But unlike thousands of other recruits, Pathan's stay in the training camp was brief. His father Saifuddin Pathan contacted relatives in Pakistan and sought help. Within six days, Pathan's relatives pulled him out of the camp.

Since there was no way of returning to his family, Pathan began living with his Lahore-based uncle, Mohammad Mamoon Khan. He trained as a driver and later purchased a mini-bus. Soon Pathan had saved enough to own a small plot of land in Rasoolpura. In 1994, he married a Pakistani national, Naseema Akhtar. The couple had four children - Uzma, who is now 12, Umar (10), Ishrat (six), and Aqib (four). Pathan had built the life he had always wanted. Which side of the border had been the site for the dream to come true seemed to matter little.

No one is certain just what provoked Pathan to leave his apparently picture-perfect life. "My father had visited us just before the earthquake and begged me to come home. My wife and I felt obliged to respect his wishes. After my father passed away, we decided that we had to make the passage to India, even if it meant risking our lives," Pathan said. Police records dispute this account. The police believe Pathan had long worked for the Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Front, a feared militant group responsible for a series of murderous urban bombings between 1995 and 1998.

According to the police version of the events, Pathan was coerced to resume offensive tasks on the Indian side of the LoC - and used the opportunity provided by the earthquake to break free of his handlers, and escape.

Like Pathan, Sopore resident Abdul Hamid Rather was among the hundreds of young people who crossed the border in the first months of the Jammu and Kashmir jehad. He makes no secret of his motives for returning home.

In 1990, Rather crossed the LoC as part of a group of 135 young men from Sopore. After three months of combat training, he returned to serve with a Hizbul Mujahideen combat unit in the Sopore area. Abdul Rather claims to have been disgusted by what he saw. "Most of our leaders were from the Jamaat-e-Islami," he says, "and their main interest was in killing leaders of the National Conference and the Congress. They did not want freedom; they wanted power and wealth." In 1992, Rather lost a brother who had sought to follow in his footsteps - he was shot by Indian troops before he could make it across the LoC. "I had got my own brother killed," he says bitterly, "and I had to ask the question: for what? The answer was loud and clear: for nothing."

Rather returned to POK in 1994, and began the precarious life of a refugee. His wife Reshma soon joined him along with their sons Khalid Hamid and Irfan Hamid. The family survived on a dole of Indian Rs.3,500 a month, made up of assistance both from the provincial government of POK and the Hizbul Mujahideen.

Life, however, was hard, and Rather began searching for a way out. In 2000, he joined supporters of the pro-peace Hizbul Mujahideen dissident Abdul Majid Dar. "We were sending men to death each day," he said, "for a cause we knew was lost. We wanted peace." When Dar's peace effort was opposed by the Hizbul Mujahideen command, Rather was among those who rebelled. Supporters of the dissident commanders exchanged fire with their one-time comrades on at least two occasions. Peace returned after the dissidents were given a camp of their own. But without official patronage and funding, their future was tenuous.

In 2004, Rather's father Ghulam Ahmad Rather travelled on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus, bearing an offer that held out new hope: If Rather wished to return home the police were willing to facilitate his rehabilitation. Using contacts in Muzaffarabad, Rather succeeded in obtaining Pakistani passports for himself and his family. A travel agent arranged for tickets on the Lahore-New Delhi bus service, along with Indian visas to visit non-existent relatives in Kolkata and New Delhi.

"It cost me some Rs.25,000 in bribes to get the travel documents, but I wasn't willing to risk the lives of my family crossing the Line of Control," Rather recalls. Released on June 21 after six weeks in jail, Rather hopes to help his father operate the family's three grocery stores and chicken farm.

Many of those who have returned have similar dreams for their new lives. Manzoor Ahmad Awan left the mountain hamlet of Kundi Barzala for Muzaffarabad in 1989 when he was just 10 years old. His father Zafar Khan had decided to leave India, fearing that the jehad in the State would lead to war or a pogrom against residents of hamlets close to the LoC. Soon after Khan died. Awan continued to live with relatives in Muzaffarabad. He married a Muzaffarabad resident, Asfat Mir, in 1999, and the couple had three children. Interestingly, Asfat Mir's family had been residents of Kundi Barzala until 1947; her father Amiruddin Mir fled the region in the midst of the first India-Pakistan war.

Although Awan was entitled to a refugee's dole, he could only make ends meet by doing odd-jobs on construction projects and roads. It was, he felt, a humiliation.

"We have a few acres of land," he says, "and I knew my family would have a much better life there. It was, however, just too dangerous to risk the journey home." After the earthquake, however, there were no job options for Awan in Muzaffarabad. Facing starvation, Awan and his family decided to risk crossing the mountains.

Munir Ahmad was born to the Awans in March: an event that is tempting to read as a metaphor for hope and healing. Reality, though, is rarely poetic. As India maintains that Pakistan-controlled Jammu and Kashmir is part of the Republic of India, Asfat Mir is not a foreigner. However, her crossing of the LoC, like that of her husband's, is an offence under the Egress and Movement Control Act. She, like all of those who have returned, face prosecution, and possible prison sentences.

While a wide spectrum of politicians in the State have been calling for the Act to be waived and an amnesty to be put in place, officials note that the jehadists who have returned pose genuine security concerns. In May, the police arrested Hajan resident Riyaz Ahmad Rather, who surrendered to Indian troops on the LoC in March, for his alleged role in a plot to assassinate Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. Riyaz Ahmad, the police claim, had hoped to use his credentials as a Hizbul Mujahideen dissident to penetrate a Congress rally in Bandipora and plant an explosive device.

Yet, there is little doubt that the ranks of the home comers are set to swell. Increasingly, relatives of militants who are still in camps are using the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service to persuade their loved ones to return home; hundreds of families have contacted the Military Intelligence Directorate to secure safe passage for their kin across the LoC.

Some have chosen not to wait, and, on occasion, with tragic consequences. On June 23, for example, troops shot dead Hizbul Mujahideen operatives Irfan Ahmad Ganai, Fayyaz Ahmad Bhat and Javed Ahmad Khan, when they were attempting to cross the LoC near Uri.

Mohammad Siddiq Ganai, Irfan Ganai's father, says the three began planning their escape from the training camp last year after hearing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's offer of rehabilitation to all those who returned to India. Plans for their attempted crossing were finalised when Mohammad Siddiq Ganai visited Muzaffarabad last year - but errors in communication, as well as the inevitable risks involved in border crossing, meant that their hopes of a new life were shattered in blood.

The Jammu and Kashmir government needs to find ways to make the journey safe - not just for those who seek to return, but also for those who live in the State. For all the passionate polemic their problems have provoked, there has been little serious discussion on just how this might be achieved.