Srinagar, the ghost capital of Kashmir

French daily’s eyewitness account of post Aug 5 events

Paris, October 20 (KMS): The French daily, LE FIGARO, published a full page feature article on Kashmir, carrying an eyewitness account by one of its reporters, Derville, Emmanuel, of the situation in occupied Kashmir emerged after imposition of military clampdown and communications blockade by the Indian government on since August 5.

The article was published at the same time when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on a visit to France. The French journalist, Emmanuel Derville, was one of the first foreign journalists to get permission to visit the Kashmir Valley to report perhaps because of a citizen of India’s friendly country.

The newspaper begins the article with the following introduction:

‘Our reporter has been able to travel to the valley which is under close surveillance since India revoked its autonomy.’

The English translation of the article is given as under:

Derville, Emmanuel
Le Figaro – Page 11
August 23, 2019

Monday, August 19, in the village of Shirmal, south of the Kashmir Valley. It is about 2 a.m. and Shabana, a 24-year-old woman with black eyes, is sleeping on the first floor of her house. Suddenly, a noise wakes her up. “I heard blows against the gate. I got up and saw men climbing up our property, invading the garden, breaking down the front door. There must have been about 50 of them,” she says in an angry voice. Soldiers, police and special forces broke into her room. Shabana screams, asks them what they want. “A man threw himself on me, pressed his hand against my mouth before propelling me out of the room by tearing off my clothes.” Rifle butt blows bludgeoned her back and kicked her out of the house with her family. The nightmare lasted half an hour until the soldiers took one of her two brothers, aged 22, with them.

The noise woke up the village. Concerned, some residents got out of their homes. The army opened fire with non-lethal weapons. “When they fired, I turned around and was shot in the back,” said Bilal, 21, before taking off his shirt to show his wound. About ten steel pellets punctured his back, leaving reddish scars. “I had surgery in the nearby clinic and the doctors removed the pellets. But since they didn’t have the equipment to do X-ray, I don’t know if I have any other debris in my body. It still hurts, I can’t lie on my back.” A local resident said he had “counted about twenty-five armoured vehicles. The soldiers were shooting into the air, spraying houses with metal pellets and deafening grenades,” he said. On the wall of a house that borders the main street, splinters are still fresh.

Since the Narendra Modi government repealed Kashmir’s autonomy on 5 August, Indian forces appear to have intensified their operations, cordoning off homes to arrest minors and transfer them to police stations. In the cities of Srinagar, Shopian and Pulwama, many people tell the same story as the people of Shirmal. “The army invades our homes at 2:00 in the morning. Most of the time, they locks the family in a room, search, loot food and jewellery, break windows… Soldiers tear off women’s veils, grope them… “, lists Muzaffar, a 30-year-old Kashmiri sitting at an intersection in front of the Pulwama Hospital. As he let his wrath burst, a crowd gathers around him. Everyone wants to slip a word, confide their testimony, pour out their frustration. In the ambient noise, Rafiz Ahmed managed to make himself heard: “We no longer want to be part of India. We want independence. The Hindu government persecutes us because we are Muslims. Secular India is dead. The federal government wants to transform Kashmir into Hindu territory when we are in the majority!”

A state ruled by a prince during English colonization, Kashmir had been autonomous since its accession to the Indian Union in 1947. The region had its flag, its Constitution. And section 35A, in effect since 1954, prohibited non-native Indians from purchasing land or real estate property on it. By removing autonomy and Article 35A, the government of the Hindu nationalist right (BJP) has thrown the identity of this valley of 7 million souls out of the window, which is now under the control of the central government. Narendra Modi thus claims to promote a better economic integration of the valley. Eventually, Kashmir will become a “Union Territory”. Voters will be able to elect a Legislative Assembly, but local government will have limited rights.

Aware of the explosive nature of the repeal, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government wants to prevent a popular uprising. Night raids, the imprisonment of Kashmiri politicians, as well as that of children and adolescents, are intended to deter civilians from organizing themselves to revolt. “Many children no longer dare to go out to play,” admits a Srinagar official who wants to remain anonymous. A few moments later, he received a visit from a resident of Soura, a district in the north of the city. The 30-year-old man claims that his 17-year-old brother was picked up by security forces while walking down the street with a friend on August 9. “People are getting tired of it. They are angry with the Kashmir administration. A few days ago, I had to take off my uniform before I went home.” continues the official, with a resigned look.

The rage is rising with all the more force as since the abrogation of autonomy, communications have been blocked. Along with arrests and night raids, this blackout is the third axis of the government’s strategy to suppress a smouldering riot. The mobile phones are no longer working. The Internet is cut, cable television and fixed lines are cut off. These began to be restored earlier this week, but not everywhere. To reach their families in the rest of India or abroad, the inhabitants of Srinagar have no choice but to wait hours before accessing two phones installed at the district chief’s headquarters. The district chief, Shahid Choudhary, tries to hold back the ambient exasperation. “Between 2,000 and 3,000 people came to make a phone call. The crowd is starting to decline as fixed lines are restored,” he says.

Those who are waiting to call seem sad and frustrated, with people at their wits’ end. The crowd is so large that a call should not last more than two minutes. “The authorities make us live in the Middle Ages. When the blackout is lifted, the population will catch fire like a torch,” says a young man who has been waiting since 5 a.m. Attracted by these words, Samiya, in her forties, opens the floodgates of a torrent of anger that she seems to have contained for two weeks: “If the world cannot help us, let the government massacre us and take our land! All we’re asking is to live freely.”

Usually teeming with cars, Srinagar has become a ghost town. Almost all the restaurants, unable to stock up, have closed their doors. In the establishments that are still open, only one dish is served, a sign that the shortage is not far away. Since August 5, the agglomeration has been the scene of several clashes between demonstrators and police forces. The authorities announced the reopening of schools to demonstrate a return to normalcy on August 19. The measure has only amplified the frustration. “A few days ago, my neighbour was closing his windows when he received a machine-gun shot in the head. How can we send our children to school under these conditions?”, says infuriated Yassir. This 40-year-old man with a red beard came to take care of his mother, who was admitted to SMHS hospital in Srinagar: “I am afraid to go out in the street and be beaten up by paramilitaries or soldiers. And they would like the school children to go back to school?”

The military presence in Srinagar remains intense despite the reassuring announcements of the federal government. In the area around the airport, soldiers wearing helmets, bulletproof vests on their backs, assault rifles slung over their shoulders stand guard on every street corner. All shops and office buildings have lowered their iron shutters. Only pharmacies are open. The economy is paralyzed.

In the south, the road to Pulwama was blocked on Tuesday by hundreds of people who had set four barricades in the space of a few kilometres while the authorities announced a relaxation of the curfew. “From now on, it’s civil curfew,” shouts one demonstrator who held a roadblock made of logs in the middle of a crowd ready to fight. The Kashmiris responded to the repeal with a blockade of some secondary roads. To get through, you have to talk, show your identity card, state your destination. Cars that defy the ban risk a proper rocking. And Indian journalists, accused of keeping quiet about the army’s abuses, risk lynching. “The press only lies. It says nothing about what we are going through,” said another demonstrator.

In this valley with the appearance of a pressure cooker, some hospitals are preparing for the worst. A doctor in Srinagar, who is not allowed to speak to the press, says he had to empty a dormitory of about 40 beds in one day in his hospital to manage a possible influx of injured people. “Yesterday, we had dozens of patients, all wounded by machine gun fire. They had to be sent home to make room,” he says. Kashmir is about to bleed. But no one can say when or how.

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