“Take only a few books which can fit in this school bag, we don’t have that much time” called out my father in a hush but firm tone. It was a cold winter night of March 12, 1990, when I left my home. The home which I never saw again; the home which I never found in any other house.
My father had just returned back from Baramulla, a town in south Kashmir where he was posted. At that time, Baramulla was witnessing the most horrific peak of terrorist activities – kidnappings, looting and killings. Ma, my mum used to be terrified every day, glued to the radio for any news of “Deel”- relaxation in curfew – when Dad could take a taxi back to Anantnag, our home which was 80 miles away and where rest of us lived.
Every night we would hear firing and it would scare us. We used to hide below the beds wrapped up in quilts, crying, fearing that the bullets would penetrate our bodies. Unknown to us, this trauma and fear had already penetrated my brother’s and my tender mind.
Rock, our dog used to sense these firings in advance and would bark ceaselessly for an hour before the firing started. My mother was really worried about him being the target of the bullet one day.
In our locality, most of the Hindu families had already abandoned their houses and left, to save their lives. Only five families remained of which we were one. My parents did not want to lose their only investment and property built over a period of 5 years for the simple reason that they had no ancestral money and everything including our school fees had to be paid out of their salary.
“It is more dangerous and murky than we are thinking,” said Ma to Dad. “Do you really care for your children? We will be killed if we don’t leave immediately”, she said, reading the yellow pamphlet which somebody had pasted outside of our house gates in the dead of night. It read, “Raliv, Galiv ya Chaliv” (convert to Islam, die or leave) in simple terms.
As a little child trying to comprehend the enormity of this decision; all I could think was that a monster was trying to panic everyone. I was only worried about my school books which I had decorated and laminated in excitement of being promoted to Year Five. “Take only a few books” my father reminded.
Somehow I selected a few books, filled my bag to the maximum capacity, opened my piggy bank, took out some money and started fleeing along with my neighbours. We feared someone was following us and if we make any noise, we would be shot dead.
This is the time when Kashmiri Hindus were openly being slaughtered, raped and intimidated to make them leave Kashmir and we were sitting ducks for the terrorists. Rock was barking relentlessly again, and this is when we knew something or someone strange was around us, watching our movements.
Somehow, we reached the house of a business family about a mile away, from where load carrier trucks were supposed to take us to Jammu. Jammu was a city outside the Kashmir valley. It was a part of Jammu And Kashmir State and was fast becoming home to millions of migrating Kashmiri Hindus.
We were about 5 families, 25 people including children and our Labrador dog. We had not eaten dinner and were offered some snacks. The moment I picked a snack there was a loud burst of gunfire noise and I dropped it from my hand, hiding myself in the lap of my mother.
It was the cross-firing again and we were all terrified by the idea that we are stuck in a stranger’s house and will be slaughtered there en-masse. It was the most agonising wait of our lives. I was just scared of the monster, the monster inside the terrorists. After an anxious wait for four hours, when bullets started to slow down, we got into the trucks all at once and left.
We were transported like cattles, alongside big sacks of rice. I did not like the sight of it. It was the longest and the most tiring journey of our lives.
We reached Jammu, 128 miles away and had to lodge with 10 other families in a dormitory in a school. I was hungry as I had not eaten for more than 18 hours. Dad bought some tea and biscuits and we had to be content with it for the next 8 hours. Somehow all the families contributed some money and all the ladies cooked a basic meal. Hours turned into days, days into weeks and weeks into months. There was no school to go to, no books to read, and no games to play.
Just endless wait with weak, wasting malnourished kids and families. No one knew what we were waiting for. I was worried about not being able to go to school or study again. Finally, we heard the news that my parents would be paid their salaries after 3 months. With this slight succour, my family somehow managed to move to a rented one-room place on the third floor of a house in Jammu.
It was pouring very heavily that year; both from the sky and from my mother’s eyes. She was inconsolable. We had lost everything including our homes, jobs, our belongings, our memories, our birthplace and our patience.
The next few years were equally testing. We were teased in school as being cowards and called names like fugitives, refugees, migrants, aliens and outcasts. I had to study in a storeroom with no vent or fan every day in scorching heat as there was only one room we could afford, and that was used for cooking, sleeping, eating, and everything else. This was a huge contrast with our lives in Kashmir.
We had just extended our house there to give us children individual rooms to study and play. In my room, I had kept my dolls and would talk to myself for long hours in front of the mirror and rejoice in nothingness.
Our house in Kashmir was special not only because it was our home but also because I celebrated my first birthday there and the walls were witness to my families’ happy and sad moments. Now, we had nothing. My brother was affected the most as he had his pre-university examinations and entrance tests.
I happened to visit Kashmir in 2005 about fifteen years after the exile as I had to join my Post Graduation course in Medicine but my dad felt I would not be secure enough in the troubled environment.
He still remembered the innocent and ever-smiling face of our neighbour Sarla Bhat who was a Nurse working in the same hospital where I was supposed to join. She was kidnapped, mercilessly raped for many days, killed by the terrorists and the body thrown in open area in downtown Srinagar.
The irony is the rest of the neighbours around their house were warned not to join the cremation or else lose their lives. My father felt I too would be killed as my job involves dealing with the wounded.
I had to surrender my post-graduate Course in Srinagar. We both could not go and visit our home town for it was too traumatic to breathe the obnoxious air that smelt of murders. He was told by his Muslim neighbours when they visited us in Jammu that our photo albums and ma’s expensive pure silk sarees lay torn and thrown open near dustbins not far off from my home in Kashmir.
Now our family has moved on and re-built our lives. We focussed on the positives, on education, on building our careers. I am a doctor in the UK and my brother has an MBA Degree and works with a leading Bank in Saudi Arabia.
However, the trauma of our childhood is itched very deep in my memory. I often get dreams about running away and being chased with guns. ’Of all the things I miss, I miss myself the most’ in those photo albums where my childhood was caught in innumerable memories. I do not have any photographs from my childhood.
Dr Viny Kantroo