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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Born in a refugee camp, raised in exile

When my parents and older brother left their home in Kashmir in the middle of the night in 1990, I was just a small foetus in my mother’s womb.

To escape genocide at the hands of armed Islamists backed by Pakistan in Kashmir, hundreds and thousands of Kashmiri Pandit Hindus — the indigenous minority community of Kashmir — fled in trucks, vans and whatever means of transport they could find.

Like others, my father and mother left behind home, work, friends, heritage and also, all their emotions for a place where they had both grown up, as they hopped on to a truck. A two-year-old son and a tiny bag of clothes were all that my father was carrying when they left. Mother was carrying me in her womb.

Back home in Anantnag, a town and district of south Kashmir, where he was born, raised and where he married my mother, my father owned a small business: a shop which sold newspapers, magazines and comics and rented out video cassette movies.

Jammu, the southern part of the state, was almost alien to Pandits. The people, culture and climate in the plains of Jammu, were nothing like what it was for Pandits in Kashmir valley, their native abode and homeland of their ancestors for more than 5,000 years.

After arriving in Jammu, my parents shared a tent in a refugee camp in Muthi with an aunt’s family because my father was yet to be allotted a tent by the government. Only after I was born that my parents were granted a tent in the Mishriwala refugee camp at the outskirts of Jammu town.

The tents could neither bear the blistering summer heat nor the blustery monsoons. Though I was an infant, I remember one monsoon night when a windstorm hit the tents, the entire camp was razed to the ground. I watched hordes of people running to find shelter in the nearby camps: women, like my mother, carrying toddlers and men carrying whatever essentials they could. Next morning, after the storm was over, we returned to the camp. Our home — the tent in the refugee camp — was completely destroyed.

I remember the image of hopelessness and helplessness on my father’s face as he looked around at the wreckage across the camp. The next day, my father gathered all his will and strength, and decided to make a makeshift hut — a hovel but strong enough to resist monsoon rains and windstorms. So he climbed on to every tree he could find around the camp and collected wood.

It took him three days to build the shack with his bare hands and a few tools he had borrowed. Once the shanty was up, I saw other refugees dropping by, patting my father’s back for his will and strength. Like him everyone in the camp had lost everything. Like him, they all wanted to rebuild their life and provide for their families. It was my father’s small moment of pride.

Throughout our days in the camp, my father struggled to find work. The exodus had turned his life upside down. In his 20s, he was married with two children and the sole earner of his family. There was barely any bread and butter.

When I was about five years old, my father after trying his hand at several menial jobs, decided to sell cheap watches on trains. One night when he returned home, tears were rolling down his eyes. After some prodding by my mother, we got to know that his suitcase full of watches had been stolen from him. Both cried the entire night.

As a kid, I couldn’t fathom their reasons but with time, I began understanding their sense of loss. Along with his means of feeding us, my father had been ripped off of his dignity.

I grew up in the refugee camp believing that poverty and lack of basics — food, clothes, shelter, electricity, medicines — was the normal way of life. This was because everyone around us was in the same state of existence.

Like the rest of the refugee children, I played in dirt and mud, without any toys. The things that children eat, drink and play with in normal circumstances, I got to know about, almost in my adulthood.

Mother often, with a wry smile and tears in her eyes, recalls how I assumed as a kid that humans live only in tents and shacks because that is all I had seen in my childhood. The first time my father bought jam for us, I believed we had suddenly become rich.

Once my aunt and her husband who lived in a rented house, were to visit us in the camp. Just an hour before they were to arrive, Mother sent away my brother and I, to play for the whole day and specifically told us not to return till the evening. We were happy and thrilled because we were never allowed to go out and play for so long.

Years later, my mother sobbingly revealed that she had sent us away because my brother and I did not have any proper clothes on us. We were in torn undershirts and showed signs of malnutrition. She did not want her sister and the rest of the family to know.

After almost a decade in refugee camps, father had managed to run a small business again. So he decided to move out of the camp. He built a small house and sent us to college, while slogging day and night.

Thirty one years after the exodus, father and mother look old and fatigued. They do not want to talk about their youth, entirely spent in struggle. Whenever returning to Kashmir is the subject of our conversations, it feels like rubbing salt on their own wounds. But someday, hopefully, they and I will get to live together in Kashmir with dignity and some amount of healing.

-By Hitesh Tikoo

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