While most of the thousands of girl orphans of Kashmir militancy live a wretched life, Pervez reports of an orphanage in Handwara, town of border district Kupwara, that has given shelter and hope to some
(Mr. Pervez Majeed Lone, 36, was born in Ashpora, a hamlet located in Handwara Tehsil in the Kupwara District. His primary schooling took place in government schools in his hometown, and he finished his higher secondary education from the Government Higher Secondary School, Kupwara. He graduated from the University of Kashmir as a Continuing Education student with Sociology, Philosophy and English Literature as major subjects. In 2004, he completed his Master’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Kashmir. He has worked in various local Urdu journals (Chattan, Pukar) and the Radio Kashmir (Sheharbeen) before joining the Sahara Time, a weekly national news magazine from the Sahara Group. He is passionate about the Urdu language and poetry, and loves to listen to music, read English literature and traveling. The following article has appeared previously in the Sahara Time, New Delhi.)
Blooming Garden of Daughters
The babbling and laughter inside this building is actually a grim reminder of the lost childhood of the orphans of conflict in Kashmir. Had there not been Gulistan-e-Banat (garden of daughters), these forty odd small girls too would have been living in abject neglect like thousands of other orphans have to. But for this orphanage, these kids have a reason to laugh and rejoice, for it has provided them not only shelter and food, but education and a hopeful future too.
Situated in a residential colony of Handwara town in North Kashmir’s border district Kupwara , this orphanage for the girls is run by Jammu & Kashmir Yateem Trust (JKYT), a respected charitable organisation founded in 1973. JKYT could establish this badly-needed orphanage here only because of the eagerness and selfless service of the organisation’s head of the Handwara unit, Master Ghulam Ahmad Kumar, who is the administrator of Gulistan-e-Banat.
JKYT decided to establish an orphanage for girls in Kupwara district given the fact that this border district bore the most brunt of the conflict in Kashmir. Known as the “gateway of militancy,” this backward and majorly hilly district has more than four thousand orphans, most of whom live a wretched life. Once a hotbed of militancy, the fighting between security forces and militants, like elsewhere in Kashmir, robbed thousands of children of their childhood innocence. Most of this army of orphans are those children whose fathers were killed either by security forces or militants. While some were militants and got killed in gunfights with security forces, or disappeared in their custody, many fell to the bullets of militants for being the ‘informers of the enemy.’
JKYT runs a number of orphanages in the state, only three among them being exclusively for the girls. The other two are in Tral and Chadoora area of Pulwama and Budgam districts respectively. When the organisation decided to built an orphanage for girls in Kupwara district, they chose Handwara town for the purpose, because Kumar was enthusiastic to shoulder the responsibility. After around one year’s of construction, Gulistan-e-Banat started admissions in May 2005. Beginning with ten admissions, the orphanage shelters forty girls at this time. They are as young as four-year-olds and hail from various parts of the district, as far as Karnah near the Line of Control. Even one Farhat is from the neighbouring district of Bandipore.
Kumar says Gulistan-e-Banat is an effort of JKYT to draw society’s attention towards the plight of orphans particularly the girls. “There are thousands of such orphan girls living a wretched life. This orphanage is just a sample of this ill-fated lot,” he laments. “We have set up this orphanage to motivate our people to raise upto the occasion and care for the orphans. If relatives and society perform their duty of taking care of orphans, then we don’t need to have orphanages. They can’t get that love and warmth of families in orphanages,” he maintains adding, “we have just lit a lamp of hope for these orphaned girls, this should not be an end but a beginning.”
Abode of Hope
For these orphaned girls, Gulistan-e-Banat is their world. They eat and sleep here, play and jostle in its premises. There is no dad and mom to cuddle them or sing them a lullaby. Whether they have any complaint or a demand, they do it with Abbajan, as Kumar is being lovingly called by them. Kumar says, “Our focus here is on their shelter, upbringing and education; our job would have been easier if we could a school of our own.” Gulistan-e-Banat is a model boarding and lodging facility for girls. The two-storey building has 17 rooms and seven bathrooms. The kitchen menu is like any standard boarding school, timetable is being strictly followed, rooms and surroundings are neat and clean, and everything is in order despite the fact that the inmates are too young to follow rules and schedules. Five young women have been appointed to serve as cooks and wardens and watch and ward staff. “For us this is more worship than a mere job,” they said. They not only cook, wash and care for the children, but also help them in their studies.
Not only the rearing but education of kids is a focus of Gulistan-e-Banat. All the girls go to schools and study like any other child of the town. Kumar has ensured their quality education by admitting them in more than dozen private schools of the Handwara town. “The schools are kind enough not to charge fees from us, however we provide all other facilities like books and uniform to the students,” Kumar said. After their return from schools, the girls do their homework or play at their common home, Gulistan-e-Banat. The orphanage has a computer lab for the children, having eight computers. Worrying that these girls should not lag behind in computer education, Kumar was anxious for the computer lab. However, Zahoor Ahmad Sofi, a Chandigarh-based corporate professional belonging to Handwara town, donated six computers to help orphanage establish a computer lab.
The inmates of Gulistan-e-Banat are victims of different guns, different ideologies. But they share a common tragedy, common pain of losing the love and compassion of their parents. Their parents might have fought and killed each other, but here their wards are living under a single roof. These tiny tots are too small to understand the intricacies of politics. A peep inside their lives gives a hint of what they have went through.
Asiya, 13, lost her both parents in the turmoil. Her father Ghulam Hassan Magray, a fruit vendor died when army cordoned his house and the frightened Magray went to second storey and fell down to death in 2003. Years later, her mother was gunned down by militants. She is one of the six orphaned children of the deceased couple. Its her sixth year at Gulistan-e-Banat. There is nobody except Abbajan she identifies himself with.
Saima studying in 3rd standard has not seen her father. He was allegedly subjected to enforced disappearance by security forces eight years ago. Later her mother too passed away. She is in this orphanage since five years. “Dadi visits me here sometimes,” she said.
Safeena’s father Mushtaq Ahmad Mir of Kralgund village was a militant and killed in a gunfight with militants. Her mother abandoned her three children and remarried in a nearby village. Safeena was sent to this orphanage while as her elder siblings, brother and sister live with grandparents. She doesn’t remember if she has ever seen her father. “Ma ne suna voh shaheed hua hai ( I have heard he was martyred),” this is all she knows about her father. And she has a faint memory of seeing her mother, because she abandoned her when Safeena was an infant. Studying in 6th standard, she is a bright student. In the last examination she stood second in her class with 94.9 percent marks. “Do you go to home?” She chuckles, “twice a year.”
Azra’s father Abdul Ahad Mir was an Intelligence Bureau operative and mysteriously went missing in 2006 from Kupwara town. Some people of his village Trehgam say he was sent across LoC on some ‘mission,’ arrested there and returned Kashmir after his release. Prevalent speculation in his village is that he was ‘disappeared’ by his employers. Mir has three children, one son and two daughters. Azra is one of the first inmates of Gulistan-e-Banat.
The orphanage admits other girls too who are orphaned for non-conflict situations. Shaista Jan of Lach Mawer village, lost her father Ghulam Mohi-u Din War some years back. She is youngest of War’s three daughters. Her mother occasionally visits her. “She is a loyal of this institution. Last time she brought hand-made rotis for us,” Kumar said.
Two sisters of Karnah area (near the Line of Control), Yasmeen and Kulsoom lost their father in the devastating earthquake of 2005. Later mother died to asthma. There was nobody to care for them and a relative brought them to Gulistan-e-Banat. Infact, requests for new admissions continue. Kumar shows two four-year-olds, Shabnam and Asmat, both hailing from Yamrad Rajwar village. They have lost both parents due to natural deaths. They are the fresh entrants to the orphanage, he said.
Excellence in Studies
These innocent victims of violence have proved that if provided the requisite care and opportunities, they can prove their mettle. Overcoming their trauma of losing the parents, they have excelled in their studies. The latest results of various classes speak about their hard work and intelligence. Almost all of them have secured not less than 70 percent marks. Ulfat Mukhtar of 2nd standard topped in her school with 99.8 percent marks. Shaheena Raheem (3rd standard) and Ulfat Manzoor (4th standard) topped their classes securing 80.85 and 96.27 percent marks respectively. Enthused by the girls’ academic performance, Kumar has a dream, “I wish we had resources to establish our own school!”
Handwara is known for hot politics. Be it the mainstream or separatist politics, both camps have ‘famous’ leaders and ‘ardent’ followers from here. Though both camps claim to represent and fight for the people, no leader has been generous towards Gulistan-e-Banat. Local MLA Muhammad Ramzan Chowdhry, a two time minister and senior leader of ruling National Conference, whose palatial house is less than half a kilometre away, has never visited the orphanage. However, he has once sent some grocery items to it. Sharif-din Shariq, who has been elected to Parliament the third time in 2009, too has never visited the orphanage of his hometown. “I even invited him once but still he didn’t come here,” rues Kumar. Separatist leaders, the brother duo Sajjad Lone and Bilal Lone have once visited the orphanage separately. “Sajjad provided some help during its construction, while as Bilal had promised to provide a generator set during a visit here a year back, but till date we have not heard from him,” Kumar said.
Master Ghulam Ahmad Kumar epitomises philanthropy. He is associated with JKYT since 1975, the days of its founder late Tak Zainagiri. A resident of Wadipora Rajwar, he retired as vice-principal of Govt Boys Higher Secondary School Handwara in 1998. After retirement, he devoted himself as a full-time worker of JKYT. He is one of the seven permanent trustees of JKYT, and like his colleagues doesn’t receive any remuneration for his work. As administrator of Gulistan-e-Banat, he has to remain available round the clock. “I have to reach here even during night time in case anyone falls ill,” he said and added, “but this is my garden and am happy to see it blossom.” His elder daughter Fareeda Shouq assists her father in his work and the girls call her Behanji. Kumar is known as a teacher and has received “Best Teacher award” from the government in 1978. Since past 28 years, he is chairman of a public school owned by people of his village. “Kumar sahib is an inspiration for self-less and charitable service,” says Abdul Majid Banday of Handwara.
(NOTE: This story was published as a special report in 2011 in Sahara Time, Delhi.)