The clock had barely dragged itself to 9:30 through the drab winter evening. The heavy flakes of snow continued to fall into the darkness. Suddenly, the army men broke into Kunanposhpora, a small village in the north of Kashmir, some fifty kilometers away from the capital city Srinagar. They entered the houses smashing the wooden doors and windows, yelling and barking away, and dragged all the men out of their homes. They assembled them near the village bus stand. And all the women, who were left in the homes, were raped. The little children looked on.
Seventeen years have passed since that cold night of February 23, 1991. And justice is still not in sight for the rape victims of this village. Now no one in this village is willing to talk about that night. Silence as a collective gesture from the villagers greets you in Kunan Poshpora. Over the years denial of justice to the victims has built a wall of silence in this village, behind which lie stories of abused women. The elders have decided now—and the women have agreed, too—not to talk anymore about that night anymore. It takes a lot of convincing to make the villagers, and womenfolk, answer the most difficult –the most painful question for them: what happened that night?
After initial reluctance Saifuddin, a village elder, talks about that cold February night of 1991 in short bursts of sentences. “It was snowing outside that night. People were sleeping in their homes. The army came and entered every home. The men were taken out and interrogated near the village bus stand,” he says.
He pauses here, briefly.
“Then they locked the rooms and raped our mothers and sisters.”
Far from their homes, no man knew what was happening in his home.
As the dawn arrived, the men were let off by the army. They ran to their homes. “When we went to our homes we saw what they had done to our women,” says Saifuddin. “We would have gone to lodge an FIR against army but we couldn’t as the whole village was cordoned off.”
Heavy presence of troopers in the village prevented the villagers from lodging an FIR against army in the nearby Trehgam police station.
Four days after the incident the villagers lodged an FIR against the army in the nearby police station. Then the police came to the village, and filed a case against the army. Doctors and nurses arrived in the village to examine the women. They confirmed mass rape, and submitted their report. The reports of doctors, confirming rape, are still in police station Trehgam according to the villagers.
The villagers say after the incident Dilbar Singh, the DSP of Kupwara in 1991, was investigating the case. “He was promoted as SSP Kutwa, and the case was stopped,” they said.
The social stigma that has come to be associated with Kunan Poshpora over the years has forced the villagers to marry their daughters with family relations, and within the village.
The village elders have a genuine grudge: in the past 20 years their women have talked enough but of no avail. The village elders say all these years all they got was disrepute; a bad name for their village. And their daughters, having attained the marriageable age, are sitting at home. No one outside the village is willing to marry them. And till now justice has evaded them; the perpetrators are free, unpunished. Over the years the villagers say giving interviews to journalists, human rights activists and filmmakers from across the world has brought nothing but disrepute to the village, and its womenfolk. The rape victims, having recorded their statements on multiple occasions in the past 17 years, feel ostracized, and ignored by the government. No financial aid has been provided to the affected women. After the incident some women, unable to live with the shame and stigma associated with their condition, died in the subsequent years. Others continue to live with the stigma. Some women, the village elders say, are yet to talk about their abuse. Most of the women, who were raped that night in Kunan Poshpora, are on medication.
That night Rahte (name changed) was holding her daughter in her lap when the soldiers barged in her home. And after dragging out all the men, they reentered the home –this time to assault women. The baby started crying. “She fell from my arms near the window as I made noise,” recalls Rahte. Since that night, her daughter –in her twenties now – developed a problem in her left leg. Her mother, more than thinking about her past, is worried about her daughter’s future. Stepping gingerly inside the room, the limp in her daughter’s steps is visible. “She doesn’t want to marry now,” her mother says as her daughter looks down, sits by her side, fiddling with the edge of her scarf.
That winter of 1991 Sameena (name changed) was married only a few days ago. The troopers barged inside her room. They adopted the same procedure by dragging the men out of the homes, leaving behind the women. Then they reentered the house, and assaulted Sameena. Next morning, a gun was slung across her shoulder by the soldiers. And then she was paraded in the village. “They took pictures of me while I was paraded before the villagers,” she recounts.
A few blocks away, across a narrow street, Sakeena (name changed) looks down from the old wooden window of her two storied house. Her eyes are cold, expressionless. Her mother Shameema (name changed) was 35 year old when the soldiers barged inside their home on that February night of 1991. Somehow, she was able to hide her daughter from the soldiers. She couldn’t protect herself.
Six years back Sakeena was married outside her village (in Nowgam). But at the time of her marriage her in laws didn’t know the history of the place she belonged to. They eventually came to know about it from newspapers. Since then life became difficult for Sakeena. “She was harassed and taunted by her in laws,” her mother says. Three years ago she was sent back to her home in Kunan Poshpora. Her in-laws are seeking a divorce now. They don’t talk to Sakeena directly; neither do they approach her mother. They come to their neighbors – to ask for divorce. Her husband didn’t return to take her back. The couple had one stillborn child; he died immediately after birth.
At another two storey house in Kunan Poshpora, draped in an embroidered pheran and a white scarf, a bespectacled elderly woman remembers the exact time the troopers entered her home. She is the first women from the village to file a case against the army.
“There was darkness all around. At 9:30pm in the evening the army entered the village. They took the men and children out near the bus stand,” she recounts. She pauses after saying this: “And then they entered our home at around 11pm and assaulted women.”
She says around 10 to 15 army men entered every home. “They would gag women to prevent them from raising hue and cry. We were not able to make much noise,” she says. There must have been some 1000 soldiers, she recalls. “They left the very small girls untouched; rest no one was spared.”
The next day at 10 am, she says, the deputy commander of army came to the village. “He told the women that the army has not done anything wrong,” she recalls. On hearing this, this outspoken woman brought an 80 year old woman, who was abused that night, out of her home. Then she showed her condition to the army commander. “I told him that she is an 80 year old lady but even she was not spared by his men,” she recalls having told the commander. “He didn’t say a word. He stood speechless. He just looked down.”
The social stigma—as a result of mass rape—is making the lives of women of Kunan Poshpora difficult. Even today the daughters of this village find it difficult to get marriage proposals from outside the village. They are eventually married off in their own village. “People outside the village talk about our daughters, and say they are from ‘that’ village,” she says. “This label has made our lives difficult.”
After the mass rape of their women, the village elders say some 35 boys in the age group of 18-30 left their homes for training across the border. Among the group of boys, who left immediately after the mass rape incident, the villagers say twenty boys have been killed. Some have disappeared. All of them were unmarried.
A woman from the village says her only son left home immediately after the incident. “He couldn’t stand our condition. He was 18 when he left home. Later I came to know that he had crossed the border for arms training,” she says as tears begin to form in her sunken eyes. Her son returned to seek revenge. “He was later killed by army,” she says fighting back the tears.
At another home in Kunan, a bearded jobless young man says he gets very angry when journalists and human rights activists ask the same questions to his mother about that night. “Many people from across the world have come to this village in the past 17 years. They record the testimonies of our mothers and sisters, and then they never return,” he says.
He was an 18 year old boy in 1991 when he was forcibly taken out of his home that night by the troopers. “Our village has been made into a business place in the past 17 years”, he says. “People come, take the testimonies, and then they earn money from it.”
The tragedy of Kunan Poshpora is the clichéd story of Kashmir: justice delayed is justice denied.