What Lies Beneath

For years, people whispered about the thousands of disappeared young men in Kashmir. But only now are the bones finally speaking.

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."

The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, a Srinagar-based advocacy group, is led by 55-year-old former homemaker Parveena Ahanger, whose 17-year-old, speech-impaired son, Javed Ahanger, disappeared in January 1990 after a raid by the Indian Army. The NGO puts the number of enforced disappearances in Kashmir's long, brutal war at around 8,000 men and boys. They are largely believed to have been killed, their bodies weighted and dumped into the river or buried in unknown, unmarked mass graves. "My son was taken from my home by the military. The government is responsible for him. I don't know where they kept him, whether he is still alive. I want to know where he is," Ahanger told me.

In December 2009, the common knowledge that thousands were killed and buried in unknown places turned out to be true. The International People's Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-Administered Kashmir (IPTK), a group of human rights activists led by a local rights group, published a report called "Buried Evidence" that established and conclusively documented the presence of 2,700 unmarked graves of unidentified people in three northern districts of the Kashmir Valley, close to the Line of Control. By 2009, the insurgency was almost over, and access to the heavily militarized border districts became relatively easier. Activists from the group had spent a few weeks in the border areas helping victims of the late-2005 Kashmir earthquake. "It was then that villagers began telling us about the unmarked and mass graves," says Khurram Parvez, an activist with Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, the main group within IPTK.

Parvez and his colleagues sought more information, eventually visiting 55 villages in northwestern Kashmir's Baramulla, Kupwara, and Handwara districts, documenting the unmarked graves. "In the 2,700 graves we investigated, the body count was 2,943+. Within the 2,700 graves, 154 graves contained two bodies each and 23 graves contained more than two cadavers. Within these 23 graves, the number of bodies ranged from 3 to 17," their report read. Most of the bodies had been delivered to local police by the military. The police would register their deaths as foreign terrorists, take pictures of the bodies -- and then, late at night, go to the villagers demanding that they be buried, quickly and quietly. Most bodies were bullet-riddled; many bore the marks of torture.

In late 2009, I traveled from Srinagar to Chehal Bimyar village near the Line of Control, one of the biggest sites of the unmarked graves. In a tiny mud-and-brick house, I met Atta Mohammad, a 68-year-old farmer who had buried 203 bodies that the police brought to his village, mostly at night. "I did it out of religious obligation. The dead have to be treated respectfully," said Mohammed, a shriveled, small man. Despite being haunted by the defaced bodies and the graves in his dreams, Mohammad continued with the burials. A personal tragedy moved him to the task. His nephew, an orphan whom he had raised, had disappeared in the mid-1990s without a trace. A few hundred yards from his house, the graveyard spread out on the slope of a hill beside a school -- rows and row of mounds of dark gray soil.

In one instance, in December 2006, officers and men leading the police's counterinsurgency effort lured Abdul Rehman Padder, a carpenter from Larnoo village in southern Kashmir, to Srinagar with the promise of a low-level government job for a bribe of $2,000. In Srinagar, when the village carpenter met the policemen to check about his promised job, he was taken in an unmarked car to Ganderbal, 30 miles outside the city, where he was kept in a police station. The following night he was driven in a police car to a nearby forest by a group of policemen, soldiers, and paramilitary men. They shot him in the face to make identification impossible and recorded in the official reports that a Pakistan terrorist from Multan, named Abu Hafiz and a commander of the insurgent group Lashkar-e-Taiba, was killed in a gunfight. The head of the Kashmiri police awarded the officers around $3,000 for their bravery.

This is the political economy of the Kashmir counterinsurgency. Two decades of insurgency and counterinsurgency have resulted in the creation of a state of affairs that provides incentives to troops and policemen to show "kills." Counterinsurgency officers receive fast-track promotions, as well as monetary and other rewards, for showing results.

Padder's aged father filed a report about his missing son and met with several police officers, looking for answers. A few months later, an internal police investigation revealed that Padder and a few others had been assassinated by police and Army teams with an eye on fast-track promotions and monetary rewards. Padder's body was exhumed; his father told me that, despite the gunshot wounds to his son's face, he still recognized him. DNA tests confirmed it. Seven policemen were arrested and charged with killing Padder and passing him off as a Pakistani terrorist. Their trial continues.

There are thousands more like Padder, and tens of thousands of relatives still looking for their disappeared loved ones. The "Buried Evidence" report had raised slim hopes of an investigation into disappeared relatives, but the national and local governments ignored it. A year later in December 2010, six months after riots convulsed Srinagar, officials from the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), a semiautonomous body related to the Kashmiri government, approached IPTK. The SHRC's police investigation wing had finally decided to pursue the report of unmarked graves after a wide range of international and local rights groups and activists petitioned the commission. Eventually, with support from Parvez and other activists, a team of police investigators linked to the SHRC began traveling through four border districts of northwestern Kashmir.

This August, the SHRC finally submitted its report on the unmarked graves, which marked the first acknowledgement from any Indian official body of the presence of mass graves and murdered civilians being buried after being falsely described by Indian troops and police as foreign terrorists. "Kashmir Police handed over 2,730 unidentified bodies to villagers for burial, claiming they were unidentified foreign militants. 574 of such unidentified bodies were identified by families and turned out to be locals. Eighteen graves include more than one body. Twenty bodies were charred and in five cases, only a skull was left of the dead person and that was buried," the SHRC investigators' report said

There are 3,844 more unmarked graves at 208 sites in Kashmir's Rajouri and Poonch districts; the identities of the dead there remain as of yet unascertained, according to IPTK. The SHRC has agreed to expand the investigation to those graves. And the SHRC investigators have recommended DNA profiling of the remains of the more than 2,000 dead that lie in the unmarked graves in northern Kashmir to see whether they correspond with the list of Kashmir's approximately 8,000 disappeared civilians. "Some of the dead in these graves are certainly militants, but as several cases have shown, many bodies in the unmarked graves are likely to be of Kashmiri civilians who were disappeared," says Parvez. "The investigations shall include digging inside and around the infamous torture centers of the 1990s such as Papa-2, Hari Niwas, and Cargo, which are in Srinagar city."

The head of the Kashmiri government, Omar Abdullah, agrees that these graves shall be investigated and the identities of the dead established. "We also want to know who are buried in these graves," Abdullah told a television channel in late August. A time-bound independent commission of inquiry, with power to question the Indian military, paramilitary, and the police, is inviting applications and information from the families of disappeared persons. Amnesty International has suggested securing all unmarked grave sites and bringing in impartial forensic experts to carry out investigations in line with the U.N. model protocol on the disinterment and analysis of skeletal remains. But for any of that to happen, the SHRC has to make a formal recommendation to the Kashmiri government, which would then have to move to constitute such a commission.

The odds remains stacked against such a move. "Even if, a few months from now, the Kashmir government creates an independent commission of inquiry, how would it be able to question and get operational information from the military and paramilitary forces given the legal protection they enjoy?" wonders Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

India continues to garrison half a million soldiers in Kashmir, nearly three times the number of U.S. troops in Iraq at the peak of the occupation. And India's half-century-old Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which was extended to Kashmir in 1990, gives troops the legal authority to shoot any person they suspect of being a threat and guarantees them immunity from prosecution. To bring a soldier before a civilian court requires the permission of India's Home Affairs Ministry; there are more than 400 cases still waiting for permission to prosecute troops known to have killed Kashmiri noncombatant civilians.

The summer of last year, after the killings of 110 protesters in Kashmir, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government rejected repealing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act -- even though a committee set up by the prime minister himself four years ago had recommended doing so. Singh backtracked because of intense pressure from the Indian Army's leadership. Take Lt. Gen. B.S. Jaswal, the then-head of the Indian Army's Northern Command, who in the summer of 2010 told a television network, "I would like to say that the provisions of the Armed Forces Special Power Act are very pious to me and, I think, to the entire Indian Army. We have religious books; there are certain guidelines which are given there. But all the members of the religion do not follow it; they break it also. Does it imply that you remove the religious book or you remove this chap?" But thousands of unmarked graves make clear that this is more than just a few bad apples. "These graves suggest the possibility of mass murder," says Ganguly.

Until the Indian political establishment can stand up to the pressure from the military, the path to justice for thousands of victims will remain blocked. Unearthing the mass graves is one thing; punishing the murderers another. But India cannot rightly claim to be a democratic society that cherishes the rule of law unless it's willing to shine a harsh light on its military's conduct. It's always easy to blame Pakistan. Indeed, an India confident of its economic and political standing in the world might choose to callously ignore the crimes committed in its name in Kashmir, but the embers of dark memories continue to burn, fanning a desire for freedom from Indian rule in Kashmir.

But while Kashmir's youth have taken to the streets in protest and rage, Sidiq, the sand-digger, is more contemplative, more sullen. From the banks of the Jhelum, he looks up at the barbed-wire fence of an Indian paramilitary camp in the distance and watches the opaque Jhelum glide downstream. "It will take us many more years to understand what India did to us," he says. He stares at his hands calloused by years of hard labor, hands that have surfaced bones from beneath the green waters, hands that have quietly returned bones to their sandy, submarine resting place. "Even if nobody cares, we will not forget."

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images


Hot Teachers

The revolution may have left Tahrir Square, but Egypt's education system is boiling with anger.

CAIRO – From overcrowded schools in the southern city of Beni Suef to public universities in coastal Alexandria to an elite American university in the desert outskirts of Cairo, an unprecedented wave of strikes has erupted across Egypt's education system. Tens of thousands of teachers, university professors, and students are taking part in mass protests that have varying demands but all echo the same revolutionary calls for change.

With the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February following an 18-day popular uprising, longtime demands for education reform in Egypt -- from increased teachers' wages to the removal of regime-appointed officials -- suddenly went from distant hope to achievable reality. But, as with so much else in the post-Mubarak transitional period, change in the education system has been halting and haphazard. While teachers and students alike quickly mobilized in the revolution's early weeks to set out clear agendas for reform, they were met with resistance from the powers that be -- namely the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that took power after Mubarak's ouster and the cabinet of ministers that serves under it.

Mounting frustration boiled over this month, culminating in a series of protests and strikes across multiple levels of the education system.

The first major action was on Sept. 10, when 15,000 schoolteachers, comprising dozens of education movements and associations from governorates across the country, gathered to protest in front of the ministerial cabinet's headquarters in downtown Cairo. Their demands include the resignation of Education Minister Ahmed Moussa, increased wages, implementation of a 200 percent productivity bonus promised to public-sector workers, securing of employees' tenure and benefits through permanent contracts, and setting a minimum wage of roughly $200 per month.

A week later, on Sept. 17, the first day of the academic year, tens of thousands of teachers began a nationwide, open-ended strike -- the first collective action by Egypt's educators since 1951.

Although the Education Ministry announced that the number of teachers participating in the strike was minimal, media reports, citing activists and organizers, estimated that 65 to 75 percent of Egypt's 1 million teachers did not report to their classrooms.

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf responded by saying that meeting the teachers' demands along with those of 6 million other public servants would be a difficult task, but added he is working with the education minister to resolve teachers' grievances with the goal of bringing the strike to an end.

"The teachers' revolution has begun, and it will not stop unless there is immediate reform," says Barakat El Sharafawi, the Giza representative of the Independent Teachers' Syndicate, which called for the strike. "We won't back down until at least the education minister resigns and there is a timetable in place for our other demands."

By all accounts, Egypt's state school system is a broken one. Overcrowded classrooms, with up to 60 students per class, are tended to by teachers who are among the most poorly paid civil servants in the country's vastly bureaucratic public sector. In many cases to make ends meet, teachers essentially force undereducated students to pay for private lessons to pass their grade, creating a shadow education system that places a financial burden on parents.

"The reform of the education system is for the benefit of the parents and the students more than the teachers," Sharafawi says. "Parents completely are understanding this and are supporting the strike."

The mass strike comes in defiance of reported threats by Education Ministry officials of dismissal or jail time for teachers who participate. It also comes one week after the military council announced it would broaden the scope of Egypt's long-standing emergency laws in the wake of protesters' storming of the Israeli Embassy, to be applied against "aggression against the freedom to work, sabotaging factories and holding up transport, blocking roads and deliberately publishing false news, statements or rumors."

"The right to strike is an official right for any human being working on the face of the Earth," Sharafawi counters, citing multiple international human rights laws, a 1966 U.N. treaty Egypt signed, and a 2003 labor law ratified by the Egyptian parliament. "The revolution arose to give rights to all classes of society. We are entitled to hold a peaceful strike."

The Independent Teachers' Syndicate is vowing to continue the strike and escalate its protests if demands are not met, with plans for another large demonstration at the ministerial cabinet's headquarters and the possible launch of an open sit-in in the coming days.

Mass protests have also spread to higher education, where university professors and students are threatening a strike of their own on Oct. 1, the first day of the new term. On Sept. 11, more than 5,000 professors marched to the Ministry of Higher Education after the military council and the interim government failed to meet their demands, which include the removal of presidents, deans of faculties, and their deputies at 19 state universities and their replacement with administrators selected through a democratic process. For much of Mubarak's reign, university heads were appointed by the government, and they then selected deans and vice deans throughout the school. The selection process was overseen by the State Security branch of the Interior Ministry, which chose people based largely on their loyalty to the regime. Senior university officials acted as an extension of the ruling National Democratic Party within higher education, furthering regime policies and containing any growing opposition movements -- socialist, Islamist, or otherwise -- among the student body.

"The security presence within the university was very important to the regime to control people, to control the way of thinking," says Khaled Samir, an assistant professor of cardiac surgery at Ain Shams Medical School and the spokesperson for the Unified Coalition for the Independence of Universities. "We are obliged to stop this. We are obliged to make the change real."

The professors are also demanding transparency in the management of university budgets, increased wages, and greater government spending on higher education.

Students and professors began demonstrating in mid-March, a month after Mubarak's ouster, to put pressure on the ruling military council. In early July, hundreds of university professors staged a sit-in at more than a dozen campuses across the country.

Their efforts did not go unheeded. Last month, the presidents of Cairo, Fayoum, Helwan, and Al-Wadi Al-Gadid universities stepped down before their terms expired, while eight others resigned after their terms ended. Six other university heads, however, have refused to step down, and scores of top administrators remain in their positions. Although university professors say incumbent administrators would be welcome to try to regain their position by running in democratic elections, the military council last week reiterated its refusal to force their resignations.

"We don't want to strike, but we are obliged to do this because this is our only way to say that this cannot continue," says Samir, who was among a group of professors that on Sept. 14 met with members of the Supreme Council, including Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the country's de facto ruler. In addition to the planned Oct. 1 strike, professors plan to surround administration offices on campuses to prevent officials from entering the buildings.

University students have fully backed their instructors. Last week, the national student union organized demonstrations on campuses across the country in solidarity with the professors and announced its intention to participate in the strike by having students not attend classes.

"Why are we keeping these administrators in place when it is well known that State Security appointed them and that many of them are involved in rampant corruption?" says Hala Ahmed Safwat, a fourth-year student at Cairo University and a member of the April 6 Youth Movement. "This revolution was a revolution of the youth, which is us," she says. "If they don't fulfill our demands, we'll do another revolution if we need to."

The unprecedented wave of education strikes hit another milestone this month when it spread beyond the country's state institutions to reach the unlikeliest of places: the American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt's most elite educational establishment.

Located on the western desert fringes of Cairo in a newly developed area called the Fifth Settlement, AUC's gleaming, multimillion-dollar campus is a world away from its historical home in the heart of Tahrir Square, and it boasts a level of corporate sponsorship that would tickle the imagination of most neoliberal economists, complete with a Pepsi gate, CIB fountain, and Mobinil tower. AUC students pay $17,000 a year in tuition -- more than eight times the annual income of the average Egyptian.

Last week, thousands of students united with university workers to launch a mass strike and on-campus sit-in to protest the administration's policies. The students' demands include the reversal of a 9 percent tuition hike, permanent student representation on the university's budget committee, and transparency in school finances. But among their chief concerns was an end to what they viewed as the university's exploitive practices regarding its workers, including security guards, janitors, and groundskeepers. They accuse the administration of underpaying staff, some of whom reportedly work without contracts, insurance, or benefits for up to 16 hours a day.

"There are two letters that are very important: 'HR.' The university takes these two letters to mean 'human resources,' but they completely forgot that it also stands for 'human rights,'" says Ahmed Ezzat, 20, vice president of the student union that organized the strike. "We are demanding the human rights of the people who work at this university," he says, opting to speak in Arabic in deference to the security guards gathered around him listening.

According to several, separate accounts, striking university workers were threatened by management and were told they would be docked three days' salary for every day they participated in the sit-in. "I am here because of worsening work conditions and less pay," says Mohammed, a 26-year-old security guard who refused to give his last name. "This happened for no reason. We are not to blame for the budget, yet we work harder every day."

The situation reached a critical turning point five days into the strike when the university's president, Lisa Anderson -- a former dean of faculty at Columbia University and co-chair of Human Rights Watch/Middle East -- agreed to engage in an open forum organized by the protesting students and workers. During the discussion, which began with workers first airing their grievances, Anderson's responses were generally viewed as evasive and noncommittal. Protests erupted when Anderson decided, without warning, to leave the forum after an hour and a half and walked back inside her office surrounded by a phalanx of security guards.

Students then decided to take down the American flag flying on campus and march with it before returning it, untarnished, to the administration. "It was decided that the American flag representing ... those values [of democracy, freedom of expression, and human rights] should be dismounted and returned to professor Lisa as a reminder that she does not respect them," the students later wrote in an email to the AUC community.

Three days later, the university administration announced it had reached a compromise on many of the protesters' demands, including greater budget transparency, the creation of an ad hoc committee with student, alumni, and faculty representatives taking part in tuition and budget decisions, a guaranteed five-day work week for custodial and landscape staff, greater worker protections, and a review of employee salary levels. Anderson also stressed that no university employees would be punished for taking part in the strike.

The students and workers have announced the strike and sit-in are over, but say they will continue to push for further reforms and make sure the administration fulfills its promises.

"Whoever feels something is wrong, they should just get up and say something about it," says Omar El Sabh, a 20-year old junior. "This is the embodiment of the revolutionary spirit around all of Egypt."

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