Bangla Saturday, September 26, 2020

In Kashmir, an empty bed signifies a life lost

The funeral of prominent rebel commander Zakir Musa in Noorpora, a village in south Kashmir's Tral district

I was born and raised in Srinagar's old town, where I would often watch street clashes play out between Indian security forces and Kashmiri protesters.

The photographers who came to cover the protests in my neighbourhood were always men.

Whenever I saw them, I imagined myself like them, taking pictures of the scenes before us.

An armed rebellion broke out against Indian rule in Kashmir in the early 1990s. Photojournalists have played an essential role in documenting the bloodshed and rights violations that followed.

Over the past three decades, journalism in Kashmir has emerged as one of the strongest institutions challenging the Indian government, with Kashmiri journalists working relentlessly to keep the story alive.

But it was not an easy choice for me to become a photojournalist.

I was raised in a conservative Muslim family. My father is a truck driver and my mother a homemaker. My parents wanted me to pursue a university degree that would lead to a government job. But I defied their wishes and instead went to journalism school.

Four years after I became a photojournalist, my parents now support what I do.

But photojournalism is still not considered an acceptable career choice for women in Kashmir, where society expects us to stay at home or work in jobs with office hours.

Kashmir through the eyes of its women

Being a female photographer in the field can be frustrating at times. People stare at me because they are not used to seeing a woman with a camera.

I was once harassed on social media and called a "mukhbir", or an informer of the Indian army, after people saw a picture of me covering a gunfight. They simply could not understand why a woman would be photographing this because they had not seen it before.

There are other risks as well. Apart from being exposed to the dangers of conflict, journalists have been openly beaten, intimidated and attacked.

But what drove me - and still does - to become a journalist was wanting to show women's perspectives, and to explore my own, too.

The stories and perspectives of women have largely been ignored and buried in the Kashmiri and international media. They have hardly been spoken about - their losses, their resilience.

I wanted to document the untold stories of women and to talk to them. I knew women in my neighbourhood wanted to speak. They were suffering, but would hide their faces and feel uncomfortable opening up to male journalists.

A rebel's funeral

Taken last year, this picture makes me think of the immense and silent suffering of those who have lost loved ones in this conflict.

It was stormy in the early hours of May 24, 2019, when I set out with other journalists to cover the funeral of prominent rebel commander Zakir Musa. For Kashmiris, the civil engineering student-turned-militant was a popular face of Kashmir's new generation of rebels. He was the founder of Ansar Ghazwat-Ul-Hind, a rebel outfit that had pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda.

We had to get to Noorpora, a village in south Kashmir's Tral district, about 30km away. I was prepared to ride there on my motorbike, but fortunately, a fellow journalist offered me a ride.

The night was foggy and full of police patrols and security checkpoints. The armed forces had sealed off all entry points to the village and journalists were not allowed through. We changed routes often to evade security. When we arrived, we walked the final 3km in the rain through the crowd heading to the funeral.

The road to the house where the rebel was killed was a sea of mud. Puffs of smoke rose from the burned remains of the cement structure. Thousands of people had gathered around it.

Some men told me to leave. They would not allow me inside. "She doesn't have manners," I heard them whispering. "What is she doing here among the men?"

I am used to these words by now. They do not affect me.

The empty bed

I found another way in. When Musa's body reached the funeral ground, I was in an attic, preparing for high-angle shots and standing on the edge of the roof. The noise from the slogan-shouting crowd seemed to shake my camera, but I was able to take some pictures of the body before it was taken away to be buried.

Then, before I put my camera away, I peeped into the viewfinder and saw the empty bed where the rebel's body had been. I took this picture.

For me, the empty bed had a different story to tell, far more haunting than the story it told with a dead body on it. It was the void the frequent killings of fighters and ordinary women and men leave behind in their families.

The bodies of Kashmiris killed by the Indian armed forces are not taken to the graveyard in a closed coffin. They are considered heroes or martyrs and are often carried out on metal beds or stretchers - taken from the hospitals where families have gone to identify them - so everyone can see them.

This picture makes me think of how these beds carry the bodies of young men, women, children, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers before they are gone forever. I think about families coming to kiss them for the last time on those beds. These beds share a connection of death and grief.

Although there are largely men in this picture, I imagine the women - a mother, sister, wife or daughter, looking at the bed a loved one once slept in, and the loneliness and emptiness this brings. I think of their pain.

Lives lost

I think all my pictures reflect day-to-day life in my homeland. In a conflict zone like ours, every picture in its own way, even in this beautiful Himalayan landscape, describes the tragedy of Kashmir. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict, most of them civilians.

This picture also reminds me of my very first news assignment in August 2017. I had to meet the family of Firdous Ahmad Khan, a labourer killed in a gunfight in the southern Kashmiri district of Pulwama. I was worried that his family would not speak to me, or that security forces would stop me. I was afraid of failing to tell the story.

But when I met Firdous' widow Ruksana, then 25 and soon to give birth to their second child, she hugged me and cried and told me about the pain of losing her husband. She was burdened and desperate to speak, and could open up to another woman.

While her story made me extremely sad, I felt a responsibility to tell it. I watched Ruksana's two-year-old daughter embracing her father on a metal bed, kissing and touching his face for the last time before he was separated from them forever and another empty bedframe returned to the hospital.