In South Kashmir’s Lal Chowk, Altaf is smoking in a back alley. Barefoot and dressed in tattered jeans, as soon as he hears someone walking towards him, he stubs out his half-smoked cigarette, puts it into his pocket and walks away.
Since the insurgency in the Kashmir Valley in the late ‘80s, the number of Kashmiris suffering from mental health issues has been on the rise. Altaf, like many others, has been battling mental health issues for a while.
As per the NIMHANS Srinagar and MSF India report, more than 70 percent of adults in Kashmir have had to bear the violent death of someone they knew. It is no wonder that 45 percent (or 18 lakh) of the adult population in the Valley’s ten districts show symptoms of significant mental distress.
Trauma & Dehumanization
Altaf, whose brother was a part of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) militant group ended up being hauled into the notorious Kadipora Ikhwan camp by the Ikhwanis, the surrendered militants who worked for the government in 90’s. A cousin of his who identified himself as Ahmad, told this reporter:
“He was brutally tortured and confined to an abandoned Pandit house for long. Even today, at the sight of armed men, be it even an image in a newspaper, Altaf gets traumatised.”
He says that after Altaf was released by the Ikhwanis, he could no longer continue at the bakery at which he used to work, and went into complete depression. “The torture had disturbed him deeply and he would disappear for weeks. Sometimes, he would roam around the premises of vacated Ikhwan camps where he was subjected to torture and confinement,” Ahmad adds.
After living in Srinagar for a year or two with captured militants Altaf was finally brought home a year ago.
“We tried to take him to a psychiatrist. But there is not much of a difference in him. It’s just the medicines, often mixed with his tea, that have made him a bit quiet. The torture dehumanised him,” said his brother on condition of anonymity.
In South Kashmir alone, which has been the hotbed of violence since the 90’s, there have been over 5,22,000 mental health patients like Altaf.
Dr Arshad Hussain, a psychiatrist and associate professor who has been practicing for 17 years in the Valley, calls the current period in Kashmir the ‘most traumatic one’.
Hussain says that while the current generation in Kashmir has become more immune to violence, children who are growing up looking at faces disfigured by pellets, and bodies torn apart at encounter sites, are experiencing acute trauma.
What Trauma Can Do To Your Being
At Qazigund area of Kashmir, Zohra, the daughter of slain policeman Abdul Rasheed Shah who was killed in a militant attack in 2017, still waits for her father to ‘return from the Hajj’. “She would keep asking where her father has gone. She was inconsolable and would cry endlessly. We eventually had to convince her that he’s gone for Hajj (religious pilgrimage) and will return soon,” said Bilkees, Zohra’s elder sister.
Not too far from Qazigund, in militancy-ridden Kulgam, lives 6-year-old Asmat who has not been able to sleep properly for months. Intense nightmares continue to haunt her.
“In our village, there was an encounter a few months ago. The militants were holed up in a nearby house. But an intense fear took over my daughter at that time when the forces locked us into one room and started firing bullets from the second storey towards the suspected house,” said Bilal, Asmat’s father.
“The operation was later suspended and the militants escaped. However, the Army forced us out and later set our home ablaze, even though no militants were hiding inside. Asmat’s books turned to ashes,” recalls Asmat’s father Bilal. Since then, Asmat keeps ‘hearing’ those explosions, the sound of which refuses to leave her.
According to the report by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), nearly half the residents of the Valley have mental health problems.
The report found that nearly 1.8 million adults – 45 percent of Kashmir's adult population – suffer from some form of mental distress. Nearly 93 percent have experienced conflict-related trauma. An average adult was found to have witnessed around eight traumatic events during their lifetime.
The carried out by MSF, was a third of its kind on mental health . The first two were in Iraq and Syria.
Low-Flying Panic Attack
Around 75 kilometres from Srinagar is Kulchochar, a small hamlet on a hillock that hosts another victim of violence – Sameer. Before the violent incident, Sameer was a regular school student and an aspiring engineer. On 26 May 2017, Hizbul commander Sabzar Bhat was killed in an encounter by the security forces, triggering widespread protests and clashes in the Valley. Sameer’s schoolmates also contended with the nearest stationed paramilitary battalion and in the subsequent skirmish, he was brutally injured.
“He didn’t remember any part of what had happened and it was one of his friends who informed us about the fateful incident,” said Nazima, Sameer’s mother.
“While some said Sameer was hit by a tear gas shell, others reckoned that pellets had been fired. However, upon getting Sameer operated, doctors confirmed that he was shot with a bullet straight to the head,” recalls Ramzan, Sameer’s friend’s uncle.
After being comatose for more than a year, now, Sameer is able to walk again but the midnight panic attacks are yet to leave him.
“His heart starts to beat faster while the whole body gets agitated. All he says is that they are coming to kill him again and cries profusely until he becomes unconscious.”Nazima, Sameer’s Mother
‘Caged By This Conflict’
He gets so violent at times that he starts to hit anything that comes his way.
“Sometimes, his anger rises to the extent that he starts beating his own sisters to pulp who do not revolt and just lie down, tolerating his randomly aimed kicks and punches,” says Shameema, Sameer’s maternal aunt. His elder sister, Yameena, who corroborates her aunt’s statement, says, “There is a crisis within him. We are not supposed to retaliate (to his impulses). My brother was a bird who has now been caged by this conflict.”
(Umar Sofi is a freelance journalist based in Kashmir. He can be reached at Sofiumer5967@icloud.com.)
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