‘Celebrating’ Eid: The poignant lives of Kashmir’s Orphans

Suhail Ahmad Khan, 12, is a feeble boy whose bright black eyes give him inquisitive looks but silence pervades his movements. Unlike kids of his age, Suhail isn’t looking forward to Eid, a holy festival marking the end of Ramzan, the month of fasting for Muslims. The festival in fact adds burden to his memories of home in north Kashmir. Suhail is an orphan amongst 40 other odd orphans at Jammu and Kashmir Yateem Foundation in Jawahar Nagar locality of Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar.

I asked him what Eid meant for an orphan like him. He looked down and started fiddling with the hem of his shirt. He had no answers to my questions, any question. “He is a silent kid and he remains occupied with himself,” said one of the men at the office attached to the building which houses the orphanage.

In 2009, Suhail, then aged six, was brought to Yateem Foundation by his cousin. He is among the few whose relatives have ‘stopped coming for him’, says Bashir Ahmad, program executive of the JK Yateem Foundation. On the occasion of festivals like Eid, Suhail has to spend it at the orphanage unlike most of the kids. “When nobody comes for him, I take him to my place,” says Bashir. “He is a pretty lonely kid,” he remarks.

Most orphans at Yateem Foundation go to their extended families on Eid and are returned after three to four days. On fewer occasions during past Eids, Suhail’s cousin would turn up at the orphanage and take him to his home in north Kashmir’s Uri, but this year the prospects are bleak. “His cousin has stopped visiting him after he got married. It doesn’t look like the kid is going home this year,” says Bashir.

Suhail smiles softly when asked to write his name. He speaks Kashmiri language with an accent inflected with the dialect of Gujjars living in mountains of Kashmir. He says the Yateem Foundation ‘is good enough for me but not as good as home’. His home is in Nellusa village of Uri town, some 105 km from Srinagar. A massive 7.6 earthquake on Richter scale in 2005 flattened Uri. Nearly 1500 people died in the disaster and thousands of homes were shattered to a mass of debris. Suhail’s home was reduced to rubble too.

The image of home in Suhail’s imagination is built by his fond recalling of being a darling of his father and a nuisance to his mother. Speaking of the tragedy which befell his home on October 8, 2005, he recalls it as if nothing has happened. “Gar saara toot gaya tha (The whole house had broken down),” he says as if speaking of a broken toy. There is no emotion in his voice. Suhail seems to have settled in his fate of an orphan.

His father, Mir Ali Khan, a woodcutter, died shortly after the earthquake for which he blames his mother. “Mother poisoned his food. One morning we woke up and found him dead. White froth was coming out of his mouth,” Suhail says in a matter-of-fact tone.

One morning, his mother left to fetch firewood from a forest nearby but she never came back. Suhail and his sister were left alone. “My aunt took my sister and I was brought here by my cousin,” he explains. Suhail recalls his childhood at home marked with fights between his parents. His disregard for his mother, his father’s second wife, is upfront and he doesn’t shy from speaking out about her. “She fought with father every day and was hostile to me. She beat me up regularly for no fault,” he says.

One Eid when Suhail was aged four, his elder sister Kulsum had gone out to fetch a pack of biscuits for themselves. On returning home, he found her mother seething in anger. “She had fought with father and when she saw me, she leapt up and beat me with a stick,” he says.

His Eid was ruined and he had a sore back but Suhail says that celebrating Eid at home was still pleasant as he had his elder sister to play with. The death of his father and further disintegration of his family due to the earthquake has left him with no hopes of availing those pleasures. At the orphanage, he has no friends, no pals, to call his own, “I had one friend at school but he too left after meeting an accident which left his legs injured.”

At home during Eid, his father would spoil him with love. Suhail would hop on his shoulders and go around the village. “I loved my father more than my mother,” he declares. Suhail felt his father’s death keenly and his brow twitches in remembrance of him. His father called him Zameer Ali, he says boastfully.

At the orphanage, Eid is a sullen affair for Suhail who prefers silence over brouhaha. Every year on Eid, he and other children get two new Kurta-Pyjamas, a shiny shoe or slippers and some ‘Eidi’. “We all look so alike here. It’s the code of this place,” he says wryly.

Life at the orphanage is marked with obligations of which religious obligation is the primary one. “It’s important to give these children a moral education to help them grow up to be religiously upright,” says Bashir Ahmad. But this comes with a denial of little freedoms that childhood is blessed with. “At home, you can do anything. Not here,” says Suhail. He quickly adds that he loves this place as it has given him an education which he wouldn’t have availed at home.

On Eid, Suhail and other children at the orphanage wake at the crack of dawn. “We first offer the morning Salah and then have tea in the hall.” Afterwards the children would be taken to the Children’s Park of Jawahar Nagar. This is the happy little time they would get. “We all play in the Children’s Park. I love it there,” says Suhail. Would he like to go out more often? “Yes, but we have to be obedient here. We cannot go out on our own.”Suhail’s happiest moment on Eid is when he buys a toy gun from the Eidi. His eyes lit up when asked what he would do with it. “I like to play with the toy-gun. It makes me look like a mujahid.”

Suhail says he has three options for the career he wants to pursue, which he calls umeeds (hope). He wants to be either an Islamic scholar, a teacher or a mujahid. “My father always told me to fight for my deen (religion).” On the day of Eid, he indulges in the militant dream by playing with the toy-gun. “Without a toy gun, there is no Eid,” he says.

Suhail takes little solace in his studies with Urdu as his favorite subject. He reads newspapers and innocently says what is going on in Kashmir – the insurgency. Deep inside a structure which allows these children no freedom to experience the life outside, it is difficult to believe that children like Suhail look at the armed insurgency with awe and romanticism.

In the first twenty five days of Ramadan, Suhail observed fast for seventeen days. “I like Eid ul Fitr better because of Ramzan,” he says, “On this Eid I want to play at home.” But there are no signs yet of this wish to be granted. His cousin hasn’t called on him for eight months. “I phoned him but he tells me he is busy,” he says.

The life at an orphanage is predictable and it attunes to children’s need of education, but it leaves them wanting for the desire of freedom. “When I came here, I felt like coming to a prison, like I was being locked up. I cried for whole days till I started adjusting,” says Suhail. When his needs were met, Suhail stopped complaining. “They gave me whatever I asked for. There are good people here.”

The number of orphans in Kashmir is pegged at 2.4 lakh, of which around 20000 are sheltered at orphanages. Jammu and Kashmir Yateem Foundation is one such orphanage out of hundreds which boasts of satisfactory infrastructure. The forty odd children at the orphanage study at private schools. “I study at Soliha Sublime, Rajbagh and it’s a good school. The teachers are also good,” says Suhail.

However, there are other several orphanages in the city which are un-registered and un-regulated and the children at these places are living in the worst imaginable conditions. Only 27 orphanages are registered with the Jammu & Kashmir Social Welfare Department. According to officials, the department directly runs 11 Bal Niketans and six Nari Niketans where it provides lodging, boarding and education to orphans.

But there are many orphanages that operate outside government control in Kashmir. A narrow lane in Barbar Shah locality of Srinagar leads to a dilapidated old Pandit house. The structure houses the Alamdar Yateem Trust, an orphanage which looks after 30-odd children. The house is decrepit, the stairs creek and a foul smell emanates from a dirty room in which a row of little children are learning to read. The walls of the room are plastered with dirt and are without paint. Every child is wearing a dirty skull cup over a frilly Kurta-Pyjama.

Bilal Ahmad Querishi, 14, is an orphan who lost his mother in childbirth which brought him to the trust. It’s Bilal’s eighth year now. He looks weak and there are white spot marks on his face. Coming from a poor family in Bandipora, Bilal and his elder brother were taken up by this orphanage. While Arif has left the place to earn a livelihood by working as a salesman in Srinagar. Bilal wants to become a doctor, an announcement which induces laughter from other children in the room. “I want to treat him,” he points to a frail-looking boy in the room. “He is so weak,” he remarks.

Bilal is sitting cross-legged with a torn school bag in front of him. He brightens up when asked what he wants to do on Eid. “I like Eid because we go out on an outing to Childrens Park,” he says. The children go on outings like this twice or thrice a year and this year after the Eid is over, they will be going on a picnic. On the second day of Eid, the children will be leaving for their homes; most of them are from far-flung areas of the Valley.

“We will meet our relatives and then return,” says Arif Ahmad Nayak, a thirteen year old kid whose handicapped father left him at this place three years ago, “There is nothing much at home, Eid or no Eid.”

There are no preparations for Eid for these children. They don’t ask for clothes or accessories. “We provide them with whatever we can. New clothes and shoes, etc.,” says Mudasir Bukhari, general secretary of the Alamdar Yateem Trust, which has been accused in past of forcing the children into begging.

But Bilal says he likes it here more than home. His family has very limited means to sustain themselves. Poverty and the resultant hardships force these families to send their children to orphanages. “Some of the children here belong to very poor families and they leave them here because they can’t take care of them on their own,” says Bukhari.

Alamdar Yateem Trust is an unregistered orphanage and is run on public funds. “We generate funds to the tune of Rs 7 Lakh per annum,” says Bukhari. Being an unregistered orphanage, the funds go largely un-regulated. And the conditions of the place speaks for the neglected treatment it gets.

Arif and Bilal are best of friends at the orphanage and they would like to spend the Eid in playing cricket. “Arif supports Pakistan cricket team and I support India, so there is always a tussle,” says Bilal. This year, if all goes according to plan, the day of Eid for them will begin by waking up early in the morning to offer pre-dawn prayers. Thereafter the children will offer congregational Eid prayers at a local mosque and then leave to the chairperson’s home, where they will have tea and snacks, “Once we are back, we will burst firecrackers and make merry,” says Arif.

Sometimes the longing for home is overpowering for these kids. Some years ago, Bilal was restless to go home and would run to the gate and try to escape. “But older children caught hold of me,” he says sullenly. When the longing for home becomes too much, Bilal likes to stay alone with no one to sully his silence. When I asked him whether he misses home, ten-year-old Sharif Ahmad Khan, a resident of Bandipora, offers a sordid reply, “I miss home every moment of my life.”

Festivals like Eid come and go, changing nothing in the lives of these children. For Sharif and others like him, the occasion of Eid is an opportunity to visit home, however dreary the life at home is. “Home is where I always want to be,” he says ruefully.

Originally published here — https://archive.authintmail.com/article/reportage/celebrating-eid-poignant-lives-kashmirs-orphans

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