SRINAGAR, Kashmir — On a pleasant September morning, Mohammad Sidiq, a sand-digger in his early 30s, pushes his long wooden boat out onto the River Jhelum, which cuts through the heart of Srinagar, the biggest city in the disputed, Indian-controlled province of Kashmir. As the sun rises over the blue-gray pines and bleached snows of the Himalayas circling the city, Sidiq paddles out with his partner, using long-handled shovels and corkscrews to draw sand from the riverbed. It's slow, hard work, but a day's labor nets a boat full of sand, which sells for $50. While describing the modest economy of his work, Sidiq speaks of his relationship to the Jhelum, a wide green river that flows quietly through the Kashmir Valley, across the disputed, mountainous border, known as the Line of Control, and into Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. "No man can bear what this river has witnessed," he says, staring across water.
Sidiq has been working on the river for 12 years now. Every week or two, as he hoists a shovel full of sand from the riverbed, he finds himself staring at a skull, a broken skeleton, or a shattered femur. "Most of the dead were young men. You could see their shiny teeth; you could tell from the skull, he was very, very young. One day I found a young man.... He had been badly tortured. Both his hands and feet had been chopped off," says Sidiq as he sits beneath the majestic maple trees lining the riverbank.
A fellow sand-digger in his early 40s, Naseer Ahmed, found a skull in March. "It was a small skull. It would have been a 16- or 17-year-old boy. The other day, it was a thigh with flesh still on it," Ahmed said. "It is a haunted river."
The grim story starts more than two decades ago, in 1989, when a separatist insurgency blossomed in Kashmir. India had gradually eroded any sense of Muslim-majority Kashmir's autonomy, rigging elections and arresting and torturing opposition political activists. Gun battles between the separatist guerrillas and the Indian troops were routine; land mines and hand grenades exploded every other day in crowded markets, on empty roads. Fear dominated the streets and nobody stepped out after dusk. By 1996, according to conservative official estimates, around 15,000 had been killed -- a number that has since risen to 70,000. India's military, paramilitary, and police forces deployed in massive numbers to pacify the rebellious province, and tens of thousands of Kashmiri civilians were taken into custody. Thousands never returned. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and several Indian rights groups have repeatedly urged the Indian government to investigate the disappearances in Kashmir, but the government and the Army consistently argued that the missing weren't dead: They had crossed over to Pakistan to train as militants.
Stories of arrests, torture, killings, and secret burials were rife in Kashmir throughout the 1990s. Akhter Mohiuddin, a much-respected Kashmiri short-story writer, dedicated a collection of stories to "young men who were murdered at unknown places," and celebrated Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, who taught at New York University and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, wrote in his 1997 collection, The Country Without a Post Office, "And the night's sun there in Srinagar? Guns shoot stars into the sky, the storm of constellations night after night, the infinite that rages on.... Srinagar was under curfew. The identity pass may or may not have helped in the crackdown. Son after son -- never to return from the night of torture -- was taken away."