'Can We Ever Go Back Home?' For Kashmiri Pandits, Home is Only a Distant Dream
"The first thing I will see after going back to Kashmir is my home and my neighbours," says Bakshi.
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"The first thing I will see after going back to Kashmir is my home and my neighbours," says Kusum Lata Bakshi, as she gazes at the distant mountains of Jammu, around 240 kilometers away from Srinagar, her ancestral home.
A Kashmiri Pandit, 50-year-old Bakshi and her family had fled the valley during the militancy of the 1990s, after her 25-year-old cousin was gunned down by unknown militants.
Haunted by the memories of that targeted killing, and the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits that followed, Bakshi hasn't returned to the valley in over 30 years, let alone visiting her home in Srinagar's Rainawari.
Today, she stays in a two-room apartment in Jammu's Jagti refugee camp, from where she can only dream of Kashmir.
Bloodshed & the Exodus That Followed
But things in Bakshi's Srinagar mohalla weren't always this grim. Her childhood memories are rather happy – filled with moments of joy she shared not just with her cousins, but also with friends from the majority community.
"I had a happy childhood in Kashmir. There was no discrimination on the basis of religion. Children of different faiths would play together. Suddenly, militancy reared its head and created an uproar."Kusumlata Bakshi, Kashmiri Pandit Refugee
She still remembers the day her cousin was killed. A 25-year-old graduate, he was basking in the sun, when a group of unknown militants showed up and started pushing him around.
When he resisted, they pushed him to the ground and sprayed him with bullets, breaking all bedlam loose in Rainawari, which till that point had remained free of violence.
"I shiver at the very thought of incident, imagine what it was like to witness it," she says, attempting to explain the trigger that forced her family, and several other Kashmiri Pandits to flee Rainawari.
"Can Only Afford Saag"
After arriving in Jammu in a truck with merely two pairs of clothes, Bakshi's family stayed in a rented space, before shifting to a two-room apartment at the Jagti refugee camp in Jammu, constructed by the United Progressive Alliance government in 2011.
It is in these apartments that Kashmiri Pandit migrants like Bakshi have been living for nearly 12 years, surviving on a monthly cash assistance of Rs 3,250 per person, extendable to only Rs 13,000 for a family of four. While her daughter works in Delhi, her son is presently in Chandigarh, where he's enrolled at a college.
While Bakshi's husband is a cancer patient, and is unemployed, she herself suffers from thyroid and heart disorders. The collective medical toll, she says, barely leaves the family with any money.
"We have to meet my husband's medical expenses. I, too, am diabetic, and am under medication for thyroid and cholesterol. We spend around Rs 5,000 on medicines every month. In the end, we are left with nothing and have to make do with leafy vegetables for meals."Kusum Lata Bakshi, Kashmiri Pandit Refugee
While Bakshi says that the family's financial health isn't in the pink, the chances of them returning to Kashmir, too, seem bleak – much like her chances of meeting her childhood companion who she hasn't seen in nearly three decades.
"I keep on thinking about the places we would play at and our childhood companions. Only if they guarantee our safety in Kashmir can we think of going back there. Else, I don't want to," she adds.
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