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A refugee's return to his homeland of Kashmir

The Kashmir border region between India and Pakistan has cost thousands of lives and resulted in many more refugees. This is the story of a 28-year-old who got to know his homeland while he grew up somewhere else.

Photo: Women carrying cut grass

Kashmir in the news often means pictures of soldiers and the results of violent attacks. But peaceful, everyday-life also takes place: like these three women clearing grass from a rice field.

"When two elephants fight together, it is the grass that suffers," says a Hindu proverb. In the conflict between India and Pakistan, the Kashmiri people are the grass - and I'm one of the blades of grass.

Our Kashmir meadow was divided into two parts, following the first Indian-Pakistani war in the 1950s. Since then, the "Line of Control" divides it into an Pakistan-governed and an Indian-governed part.

Map of the Kashmir region, claimed by India, Pakistan and China

The Kashmir region amounts to more than 220,000 square kilometers, almost the size of Great Britain. More than 16 million people live in all of Kashmir's territories. The majority of them are Muslim.

Forty years later, the region still hasn't come to rest, but was shaken by terrorist attacks: My family fled Kashmir in 1989/90 - together with at least 300,000 other people. We belonged to the Kashmiri Pandits, a Hindu minority, that didn't have a place in the worldview of the terrorists trying to reshape the region into an Islamic Kashmir.

I was only two years old back then, but it still impacts my life, though it took me time to really grasp that.

Just a house, not a home

My earliest childhood memory is from Jammu, the region we fled to. In school, the other kids called me names "Kashmiri" or "cowards" and treated me differently. I remember huge gatherings around our camps, people holding heated discussions and shouting slogans to take us back to our homeland - but I didn't understand why. The only home I knew back then was that place - Jammu.

7-years-old boy

Rohit Pandita in Jammu in 1994.

With time I got used with that and the people in Jammu got used to us. My parents kept the memories of Kashmir alive. They told me about our family history, about my grandfather, who was a respected person in our village. My brother often told how grandpa used to carry him all along to a garden on his shoulders to make him catch the school bus.

I was fascinated by their stories; and sometimes while listening, shadowy memories came to mind; hearing someone running down the wooden stairs of our old house in Kashmir, and people running chaotic here and there, getting loaded into vehicles in the dark. It was such a rush when we left that my family and thousands of families had to leave memories behind: many couldn't even bring the photo album of their full family tree, let alone other things.

Even though we have our own house in Jammu today, my family never really settled. For them it is just a house, not a home. And if your family doesn't feel at home, how can you?

Get on your knees

My own perception of where my home is changed when I was 22 years old and visited Kashmir for the first time with my dad.

We boarded a flight from Jammu to Srinagar, in the Kashmir valley. I was eager to get the window seat to see what Kashmir looks like from above. Looking out, my dad said, "These are the Himalayas" and I saw huge, fully snow covered mountains. As the plane crossed the Pir Pajal Range, separating Kashmir from the rest of India, the white-and-grey landscape made way for a lush green valley, stretched over hundreds of kilometers, surrounded by mountains from all sides.

Trees on a river bank

Chinar trees on a river bank.

It was totally different from Jammu and other parts of India I had visited before. Looking through the aircraft window, I was getting goosebumps. Something there was connecting me with this place.

When we landed on the airport and debarked, I got down on my knees at the airfield and kissed the land. I still remember saying, "This is my homeland", though I still don’t know what made me do this.

Memories become reality

While roaming around the streets of Kashmir, I recognized things I knew from my family's narratives: Beautiful mountains, green forests, rivers and pastures. The land of sparkling rivers and sleepy lakes, of startling gardens and regal Chinar trees. The high snow-capped ridges of the Himalayan range in the east and the Pir Panjal range in the west and south enclose Kashmir. Jhelum River glides across Srinagar and flow through the winding ways of the valley. I could now feel this place. It was no longer stories or a memory, but a real world.

Photo: Snowy mountains

Snowy mountains in Kashmir.

My dad used to visit Srinagar often, but this time we visited the place where our home used to be. It was in Anantnag District of Kashmir, but looking around the area there, my dad couldn't figure out where our house was. Most of the area had remained cut off from rest for nearly two decades. But then one of the locals came by and showed my dad the land where our house used to be. It had burnt down in 1996.

My dad sat on the land and remained silent for minutes. Even I couldn’t whisper anything that time. This was the moment I realized that Kashmir is my home.

The idea of peace is lost

Later on we visited the nearby village. Most elder people started recognizing my father. A lady came towards me and asked who I was. Following my answer, she hugged me and asked about my mother. Apparently, the two of them had been colleagues, both teaching in the local school.

Photo: Two men standing next to each other.

Rohit Pandita with his dad during their 2009 visit in Kashmir.

I also remember one of the kids asking his father "Are they Kashmiri Pandits? They are just like us ...". He seemed to have thought that we must be some other creatures, not humans. You can judge from this incident to what depth and intensity we had lost our Kashmiri identity. We lost our identity and that's the biggest loss one can suffer.

After this first visit, I came back a year later and stayed there for three. During that time the locals and I discussed a lot about the past: There is no doubt that every Kashmiri has suffered because of the turmoil, be it a Hindu or a Muslim. We, Kashmiri Pandits, suffered outside Kashmir and Kashmiri Muslims suffered inside Kashmir. Kashmir as a whole lost its Kashmiriyat, the idea that all communities could live together in peace.

But now we have moved on. Because we had no other choice. We have moved on to an idea of surviving and living with peace. We have nothing to lose now. Since everything is lost already. We have started building our homes at different places. We have settled across various regions of the world.

The hope of returning to our homeland is not there anymore. 25 years is a long time - during which a whole generation has grown up, not knowing anything about Kashmir, not even their mother tongue. Telling them to go back to a place they don't know would be as disturbing as it was for us to flee.

Weapons can only bring destruction not prosperity

However, when we come back to our ancestral land - no matter how welcoming old acquaintances are - Kashmiri Pandits are generally welcomed only as guests or tourists, not as permanent settlers.

And from a guest's perspective, there's currently not much that makes you feel it's a place worth to live in: You can feel a silent tension gripping the valley. A famous adage has developed in these last 25 years: "The situation and season of Kashmir can change any time". On one day, you will see a complete calm and on the next, there are slogans, people on streets, stones being thrown.

Photo: A man in a boat

A peaceful scene from Rohit Pandita's 2013 visit to Kashmir.

It's a volatile situation over there that greatly impacts your everyday life: Schools and colleges are shut down. Shops are closed. It's a place where education and economy suffers because of these uncertainties. So it's hard to expect development there. At the same time, you see wars going on all over the world for water, energy, land, food. And then you see Kashmir as a place, rich in all these things, but because of the conflict and tensions not having the chance to make something of it's wealth.

But if we, Kashmiri Pandits, can forget the dreadful past that we have gone through and move on for the betterment of Kashmir, we hope India and Pakistan as well as those involved with the hatred against each other will forget the past and move on, as well.

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