Yasmeena Akhter is claimed by Kashmir militants as a suicide bomber and a martyr. But was she? Basharat Peer pieces together the story of a young militant and her dangerous love affair
(via The Guardian)
Saturday August 5 2006
Five days after the earthquake struck Kashmir in October last year, Ghulam Nabi sat in his shop in the south Kashmir town of Avantipura looking out at the highway that connects the Kashmir Valley to the Indian plains. Today, as every day, he saw hundreds of Indian military vehicles drive past. A hundred metres or so from his shop stands the local headquarters of the anti-insurgency wing of the Kashmir Police, and beyond that an Indian army camp.
Some of the most lethal attacks on Indian troops in the past few years have happened on this highway. It is an area dense with military and militants. That morning Nabi noticed even more soldiers and armed policemen on patrol than usual. An inspector general was visiting the police HQ and he wondered if a militant attack was expected. But, mostly, Nabi’s thoughts were with the earthquake victims on both sides of the Line of Control, the temporary border dividing Kashmir into parts controlled by India and Pakistan.
Political discontent has simmered in the Indian-controlled sector of Kashmir since partition in 1947 – the more so in latter years as Kashmiri rights and autonomy were eroded. Wars, several insurgencies, and countless political manoeuvres have failed to settle the issue of the “ownership” of Kashmir, and since the mid-1990s the rebellion has taken on a more jihadi, pro-Pakistan aspect; secular Kashmiri separatist groups that have laid down their arms have been overshadowed. Peace talks between India and Pakistan have made little progress and death remains a constant visitor.
At about 10.30am, Nabi heard a deafening explosion and saw a dark cloud of smoke rising. He pulled down the shop’s iron shutters and lay on the floor. He expected gunfire – instead he heard a crowd outside. Scores of policemen, soldiers and civilians were rushing towards the house behind his shop. The explosion had shattered the windows of the house and a boundary wall. The vegetable garden in front of the house was covered with shards of glass and blood.
The crowd talked about a fidayeen, or suicide bomber, who had accidentally triggered off the explosives before the attack. “I saw parts of legs torn from the knees, shredded intestines and then I saw a part of the skull and a long braid of black hair. It was hard to believe. But it was a girl.” Nabi’s face contorted in horror as we talked in his shop eight months later.
After the blast, a spokesperson of the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed – which is believed to have carried out the attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001 – phoned the BBC’s office in Srinagar and claimed responsibility. The caller told the BBC that the dead woman was Yasmeena Akhter, a member of Jaish’s Banaat-e-Ayesha (Daughters of Ayesha, the wife of Prophet Mohammed) regiment. He claimed that she was their first female suicide bomber, that she had attacked an Indian army convoy and had killed six soldiers. Militant groups routinely claim responsibility for attacks on Indian troops in Kashmir and give exaggerated accounts of casualties. In fact, Yasmeena was the only casualty of the explosion.
By the mid-June afternoon when I met Nabi and other townspeople in Avantipura, the 22-year-old Yasmeena and her last moments had already become myth. Some said that she had been begging in the marketplace and planned to enter the police and paramilitary camp as a beggar woman. Others told me that she saw a group of soldiers frisking men and women on the highway, escaped into the lane, and a few seconds later the bomb exploded. It went off outside the house of Ghulam Mohammed, a retired government officer: he told me he’d been asleep at the time and thought the earthquake had struck again. His son pointed towards a poplar rising over the rebuilt boundary wall – it was still covered with a thick layer of soot.
I walked to the police and paramilitary HQ, ringed with razor wire and heavily guarded. Some officers believe their camp was Yasmeena’s target and the explosives went off accidentally. At the blast site they had found three live hand grenades and pieces of a torn combat pouch – a belt with big pockets, that’s tied around the chest. “A person wearing a body belt tends to itch and adjust it frequently,” said Mumtaz Ahmad, a police superintendent, by way of explanation.
At the district court in Pulwama, 20 miles away, a clerk showed me the records of the investigation and pictures of the explosion. The file describes Yasmeena as a girl who “wore explosives on her body for the purpose of a terrorist suicide attack aimed at hurting the security forces and the police. She killed herself when the explosives went off accidentally near the Avantipura police headquarters.” I looked at the pictures: a dust-covered shoe on a leg torn away at the thigh; lifeless eyes staring out of the partial remains of the face; remnants of her body placed in a white cotton shroud.
Women combatants are not part of Kashmiri tradition. Reporting on Kashmir, I have met several women who have suffered physical and psychological abuse at the hands of Indian troops and police officers, as well as the Kashmiri and Pakistani militants fighting them. The latest of such brutalities came to public attention in May this year when it was revealed that scores of teenage girls and young women had been blackmailed into becoming “comfort women” for politicians, police and bureaucrats.
The girls had been lured by interviews for government jobs; they were raped after being given sedatives with tea and filmed. Following determined protests by Kashmiris, the Indian government ordered an investigation and many leading figures in the administration were arrested. But no female victim has chosen violent means to seek revenge; instead, they have tried, with resignation, to rebuild their lives.
I wondered what motivated Yasmeena. Was she really a suicide bomber? I drove to Samboora, her native village half an hour from Avantipura, to find her mother and the people who had known her when she was growing up. The village, a cluster of old mud brick dwellings and new baked brick and concrete houses, stretches between a plateau of saffron and paddy fields. Rows of women and men were planting paddy seedlings in the fields and singing traditional love songs. On the verandah of an austere brick house near the fields, a woman pruned vegetables in a wicker basket. This was Mughli, Yasmeena’s mother. Yasmeena was the third of her four daughters. She and her husband Yusuf farmed and, after the agricultural season, Yusuf worked as a carpenter. When the armed rebellion against Indian rule began in 1990, their austere but contented lives began to change.
Separatist militants had a big presence in Samboora village – Yusuf became enamoured and joined them, Mughli told me. In 1993, he was arrested by Indian troops and taken away. Mughli supported her daughters, working as a daily-wage labourer in the village fields and spinning wool. Yasmeena was 10 and her sister, Roheena, 12. During the three years Yusuf was in prison, the Indian army began funding a group of counter-insurgent militants called Ikhwanis, who murdered anyone they suspected of being sympathetic to the separatist militants.
One of the most notorious, Papa Kishtwari, operated in the Samboora area. “He sent a letter to Yusuf ordering him to work in his house as a carpenter,” Mughli recalled. Yusuf complied and in return Kishtwari escorted Yusuf to the local sufi shrine, the social centre of the village, where they would be sure to be seen together. Villagers and militants from the biggest Kashmiri group, Hizbul Mujahideen, began seeing Yusuf as a collaborator. Young men with guns began lurking near their house, and when Mughli saw them off with an axe, letters containing death threats followed. And so did raids by Indian troops and counter-insurgency police, who routinely pursue militants released from prison and keep the pressure on them to provide information about their militant associates.
The family lived an uneasy, anxiety-filled life. Yasmeena and Roheena dropped out of school in the late 1990s. In early 2002, Yusuf was abducted by unknown gunmen and found tortured and bleeding almost to death in the saffron fields near his village. Yasmeena and Mughli carried him to a Srinagar hospital and spent the next few months nursing him.
On his return from hospital, Yusuf looked to the Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, for help. A commander of the group, Abu Hafiz, and his bodyguard, Adnan, offered Yusuf protection if he built an underground hideout in his house where they could live. Yusuf agreed to the barter, and the two moved in.
“Hafiz was against any romantic involvement with the women of the family sheltering them, but Adnan was attracted to Yasmeena,” said a senior Kashmir police officer, who followed the family for years. Around a year later, Hafiz was killed in a gun battle with Indian troops. Adnan stayed on in the hideout. His romance with Yasmeena continued and they married in September 2004. “A secret marriage was performed without any social ceremony. Our informers saw Yasmeena and Adnan together at various places. She began helping him with transporting explosives and weapons,” said the officer, whom Mughli had described as a “decent” man.
Still a target for the authorities, Yusuf left home and began living as a fugitive with Pakistani militants. “Mother and I would be scared but Yasmeena looked the soldiers and policemen in the eye and shouted that we did not know where Father was,” said Roheena, now aged 24. In December 2004, a few months after Yasmeena and Adnan married, a joint team of the Indian army and a police special operations group raided her house. The underground hideout was discovered; explosives and ammunition recovered. “They broke the window panes, pulled apart the doors and dug up the house. They abused and beat us up and interrogated Yasmeena throughout the day. That evening she left home and never returned,” said Roheena.
Roheena was suspicious and fearful of the repercussions of what she might say – the conflict has made Kashmir a paranoid valley – but she did add: “Yasmeena was afraid that the army and the police would come again. We realised that she had joined the militants.”
“She just left and never came back,” said Mughli, breaking down and crying inconsolably. There was no search, no contacting of relatives – they knew she must be with her husband Adnan.
Mughli and Roheena clammed up when I mentioned Yasmeena’s marriage. Many villagers had mentioned the humiliation of the family after rumours and gossip about Yasmeena’s affair with a militant. How could a girl marry a man who was bound to be killed or arrested sooner or later?
She was not the first. I thought of Asiya Andrabi, who had married a militant commander, now in prison. She founded and heads the puritanical Islamist women’s group Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Muslim Community), that supports the armed militancy and ran a failed campaign to make Kashmiri women wear veils in 1990. Andrabi resurfaced in the public sphere in the summer of 2004, when she and her activists harassed young couples catching a few moments of intimacy in the claustrophobic cabins of internet cafes or sharing lunch in dimly-lit restaurants.
In newspaper photographs, Andrabi looked like a female Zorro, a veiled woman raising fists covered in white gloves. She had become a born-again Muslim in 1986, a time when she’d been feeling depressed and thwarted because her family forbade her from pursuing postgraduate studies in biochemistry in the distant Indian city of Pune. I met her in her Srinagar house in mid-June; she was barely four and a half feet tall and covered in her signature veil from head to toe. Andrabi was not surprised by Yasmeena’s decision to marry an Islamic militant from Pakistan, and considered it an honour for any Kashmiri woman to do so.
I was sceptical whether Yasmeena would have shared Andrabi’s viewpoint. Yasmeena’s mother Mughli and sister Roheena didn’t wear a veil or seem to espouse Andrabi’s zealous attitude towards Islam. When I first visited, the family invited me for tea inside their tiny kitchen-cum-living room. I was struck by a framed picture hanging above their television set. “It is the only picture of Yasmeena left with us,” said Roheena. A girl with stern black eyes stared from the brightly tinted collage, a thick lock of hair falling on her right cheek, in the style of a Bollywood actress.
On my way back I met Inspector Manzoor Lone, the police officer heading the counter-insurgency operations around Yasmeena’s village. He had just returned to his fortess-like office in Pampore town after a gun battle in which two militants were killed. On a chart pasted on a wall in his office, the names of the slain militants are crossed out in red ink. Lone had raided Yasmeena’s house on various occasions. “I don’t think she was an ideologically motivated militant. It was simply a love story,” he said.
Even Asiya Andrabi opposed the involvement of women in militancy. She argued that Islam did not allow women to be combatants, especially suicide bombers. “It is against the dignity of a Muslim woman that the parts of her body be strewn in a public place. If a combatant or a suicide bomber is a woman, her dead body is bound to fall or be scattered in a place full of men,” she told me. She supported suicide bombing by men; her objection to suicide attacks by women seemed to rest on the notion that a woman’s modesty must be preserved even in death.
Andrabi was critical of the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed for allowing Yasmeena to play an active role. “They use girls as couriers for explosives because girls can easily pass through check posts. I think Yasmeena was a courier and the explosives went off accidentally. Later, they glorified her death and claimed her as a suicide bomber. It was shocking for me,” she said. Strangely, some senior officers in the counter-insurgency police agreed with her assessment. In another rare accord, both Jaish-e-Mohammed and police records in the district court described Yasmeena as a suicide bomber. Who was right? Was an explosion planned or was Yasmeena a courier so desperate to avoid detection that she had strapped the lethal cargo to her chest?
I went back to the police officers who had followed the tragic journey of her fa~mily. Some months after the December 2004 raid on Yasmeena’s house, her husband Adnan had been arrested by police in the Indian capital, New Delhi. “He was in Delhi to receive cash for his group from a contact. The contact had already been arrested by the Delhi police and had called Adnan at their behest. After Adnan was tortured, he provided us with information about his militant group.
With his help, we were able to arrest and kill a number of militants in southern Kashmir, where he used to operate,” said a senior officer. How would a 21-year-old girl, who had married a militant, joined his organisation, and lived the life of a fugitive, react to her husband’s arrest and the prospect of him spending an unknown number of years in some Indian prison, or a brief report describing his death under police fire while trying to “escape”?
In the overworked Psychiatric Diseases Hospital of Srinagar, I met Mushtaq Margoob, the foremost psychiatrist of Kashmir, who has spent the past 16 years – all the years of Kashmir’s armed conflict – treating people with post-traumatic stress. In his research on post-conflict suicide, he found that the age group most inclined towards suicide was 20-25. “Leaving home and working as a militant, Yasmeena would have lived with the constant fear of a raid by troops.
She and her husband and others of the group would have constantly changed hideouts. It’s bound to lead to severe adjustment problems,” he said. Yasmeena’s father had been in prison when she was an adolescent, and she had married a militant at 20. “A girl like Yasmeena, who lacked paternal love, would have had a strong emotional attachment to her husband. And if he was arrested and she continued to be a militant without any emotional support or security, she was bound to become suicidal,” Margoob added.
Was being a suicide bomber or a courier of explosives (which also exposes one to the risk of certain death at the smallest mistake), the only way out for Yasmeena? Could she not have surrendered, spent some time in jail, and returned to lead a “normal” life in her village?
I recalled Firdausa, a girl from the south Kashmir town of Shopian, who loved and secretly married a Pakistani militant. They tried leaving for Pakistan after securing fake Indian passports, but were arrested by the police in January 2006 after the news of their marriage spread. Firdausa was released after a month and returned to live with her parents in Shopian town, around 50km south of Srinagar. Most people I met in Shopian advised me against meeting her. “Militants still visit her place and you never know when the army raids,” said Rashid, an elderly teacher. He was uncomfortable with a Kashmiri girl marrying a Pakistani militant who might have chosen to call Kashmir his war but was not accepted as part of Kashmiri society.
The younger men I met were harsher. “If a Pakistani militant dies in a battle with Indian troops, we would give him a Muslim burial, but he is not one of us. Firdausa has come back to live with her parents, but our town sees her as a wayward woman, a prostitute. No man here will be ready to marry her,” said Manzoor Ahmad, a young student. Firdausa’s town, Shopian, and Yasmeena’s village, Samboora, are an hour apart and alike in all respects. It seemed unlikely that Yasmeena would have been able to return to a normal life.
I revisited Yasmeena’s family to inquire whether she had talked about being a militant. This time I met her mother Mughli and Yasmeena’s eldest sister, who is married and lives in a distant village. “She never visited me at my in-laws’ place as we live near an army camp,” the sister said. I was struck when she told me her husband was a soldier in the Indian army, which is rare among Kashmiris. It seemed all the stranger considering two family members, father and daughter, were militants. “Her husband joined the army because that was the only job available, and we got them married because he is my brother’s son,” Mughli explained.
I asked her whether Yasmeena talked about martyrdom after the troops raided their house, when her father was in prison or when he was forced to work for counter-insurgents. “No! Never! She did the household chores and worked in the fields. She loved eating, attended all marriages we were invited to, and sang marriage songs. She never spoke about wanting to fight or being a martyr.” Mughli held my arm and broke down. “I will tell you why she died like that,” she said, pausing between sobs. “A martyr’s death was the only honourable option for my daughter. Thousands came here to congratulate me on her martyrdom.” Then she fell silent and sobbed.
I walked to the local graveyard on the main road, where around 20 people killed in the conflict were buried. The marble tombstones had names of the dead, dates of their deaths, and verses expressing longing for independence from India, calligraphed in different styles. In a corner I found Yasmeena’s grave; someone had showered rose petals around it. I was struck by the verse on her tombstone:
This generous soil sheltered me
After the suspicions of a heartless world
The lament against the censure of a conservative rural society spoke of the despair of a young woman whose tragic family history and reckless heart had pushed her into dangerous militant terrain, and further. Standing beside her grave I watched a torrent of young girls rush out of the school adjacent to the graveyard and head home along the dusty road. Seven years back Yasmeena had been one of them. I hoped that none of them ever has a life like hers.
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