Mona Sahaf, a Kashmiri-American, is a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C.
I arrived in Kashmir on Aug. 5 with my 5-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter and landed in a total communications blackout. The day we got to Srinagar for a 12-day trip from my home in Washington, D.C., to see family, the Indian government cut all phones and Internet connections to the entire region. A new detachment of 30,000 troops joined the 500,000 soldiers already posted there. Hundreds of guarded checkpoints and barriers went up around the area. Simultaneously, the national government arrested or removed from Kashmir a number of its citizens, including political leaders.
My mother, who had traveled to Kashmir from Delhi a few days prior, had managed to find a driver willing to take her to the airport and begged her way through the various checkpoints by saying she was there to receive her grandchildren. She told us that she had not replied to our calls and texts because the phones were down and a curfew had been instituted. The government had warned tourists to leave a few days before we arrived, citing, as a pretext, the risk of attacks from Pakistan. As I hurriedly scribbled down my family’s information on compulsory foreigner registration forms, we were ushered out, as police appeared to be closing down the airport.
The drive to my mother’s childhood home was lightning-speed, because the streets were deserted: no cars, no buses, no rickshaws, and this in August, the height of tourist season. Right away, I noticed the great increase in the number of military checkpoints. There were soldiers everywhere standing guard, seated in front of closed storefronts and hanging out of military vehicles. In certain sections of the city, an armed officer or barbed wire checkpoint was set up every 10 feet, at every corner, every alleyway.
My family and I remained indoors at my mother’s childhood home, where two of her siblings still live. We couldn’t go meet relatives I had intended to see after seven years of absence, nor even call or text to tell them we had arrived. That night, on a televised evening news program, we watched in shock as the government introduced bills to strip Kashmir of its special status under the Indian constitution, which had given Kashmir domestic autonomy over its domestic affairs. In that moment it began to click: This was what the heightened security and communications blackout was really all about. A day later, the bills had passed both houses of the Indian Parliament and forever altered Kashmir’s status.
My children asked questions I was unprepared to answer. Why can’t we leave our homes? Why can’t we walk outside? Will the military shoot at us — is that why they’re carrying long guns? I wondered if Kashmiri children who have been living in a militarized zone for their entire lives even ask these questions anymore.
We waited anxiously to find out whether restrictions would be lifted after that first Friday, the Muslim holy day, but they stayed in place. Surely, we thought, the situation would improve before Eid, which was just two days later. The government would have to allow people out to ready themselves for this important holiday. And then the day before Eid, I saw a police truck driving through our neighborhood blaring orders on its loudspeakers that all businesses were to close immediately. I saw military officers standing over an elderly shopkeeper as he hurried to close his doors. That day, as well as on Eid, 95 percent of the stores we saw remained closed.
Perhaps after Eid then? Or perhaps three days after that, once India’s Independence Day, Aug. 15, had passed?
No and no. And now, nearly three weeks later, cellphones, Internet service, and most landlines remain cut off. It is the longest period that Kashmiris have been cut off from cellphones and the Internet (although, sadly, the government of India has employed the tactic against Kashmiris countless times). It is also the first time in memory that the government has ever cut landline service in Kashmir, leaving people with no way to communicate.
While we were there, I saw a mother bring her feverish toddler to my cousin’s home seeking medical help, as she could not get her child to a doctor. My 75-year-old father bicycled to three pharmacies seeking injectable pain medication for his sister’s husband, who was sleepless and suffering after a recent heart surgery. My relatives — a pediatrician, a shopkeeper, dentists — did not go to their jobs. Seeing Kashmiris out of work and unable to earn a living was heartbreaking; the state’s economy is tourism-based, and many people try to earn their keep for the entire year during the summer. My 9- and 12-year-old nephews were trapped in their homes, unable to go to school. I asked their father if time would be added onto the school calendar to make up for days missed, but apparently, they would simply skip those units and move on.
I left Srinagar with my children on Aug. 16. We were stopped at multiple checkpoints, but because we had printed flight itineraries showing pre-purchased tickets, the military allowed us to pass.
My mother and other relatives stayed behind. Now that we’re back in D.C., we are unable to communicate with them. (This past Wednesday, after several days since we’d been in contact, my mother walked more than three miles to a police station so she could call a woman in another Indian state, who then called me to tell me my family remains safe.) As soon as my flight out of Kashmir landed in New Delhi, I sent the many text messages that people had asked us to pass along once we were out, to let their relatives outside the country know that they were okay.
I heard all sorts of reactions from Kashmiris suffering through this lockdown while we were there — anger and frustration about how they and their children were being treated, but also resignation, because they have experienced these incredible indignities so many times over the past 30 years.
Painful cycles of violence and curfews and communications blockades have gone on in Kashmir since the late 1980s. My cousins who grew up in Kashmir in the ‘80s and ‘90s lost three years of schooling because of curfews and crackdowns. I can’t believe I’m seeing the same thing happen to their children 30 years later.
Many friends reached out to my sister in D.C. while my family was in Kashmir, concerned for our welfare, and they cheered upon our return. But it’s impossible for me to feel any relief about being back, because my mother is still in Kashmir; my aunts, uncles, cousins and friends are still there, and they are not safe. The truth is, I was naive. I never expected the communication blackout and curfews to last this long. I embraced my mother for a long time when we said goodbye, as my father and I again begged her to cut her trip short and return home early. She assured me that she would be fine. I can only hope that she was not being naive, too.