CHANDERHAMA, Kashmir – On a recent cold morning, Zoona Begum, 55, climbed a small ladder to reach the attic of her one-story house in this small hamlet in north Kashmir. She opened the lid of a large aluminum storage trunk and pulled out two picture frames holding photos of her sons, Manzoor Ahmad and Abdul Qayoom, who were killed by the Indian armed forces in 1994. Both were militants and had joined the fight against Indian rule in Kashmir, which many Kashmiris consider to be a military occupation. According to official figures, the violence in Kashmir and Jammu has claimed 43,000 lives since the clashes began in 1990. Human rights groups say the true death toll is much higher.
Begum says Qayoom, her younger son, loved photos and would often have his taken at a local studio. “He loved to make everyone laugh,” she says. “I don’t know how I am enduring their loss. Their absence has left a void in my heart which can never be filled.”
The photos help. “They fill the emptiness in my home and light up the darkness in my heart,” Begum says. “They bring back to me the memory of my sons, their smile, anger and smell.”
Keeping photographs of loved ones who were killed during three decades of clashes in Kashmir has become, in the words of Susan Sontag, a “social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power” against forgetting.
Like Begum, a large number of Kashmiri men, women and children who have gone through similar experiences of loss find solace in photos. They keep them as reminders and proof, as expressions of suffering and testimonies to the injustice they feel, and as symbols of endurance and hope.
In Dardpora village, in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district, Bano Begum (who is not related to Zoona) looks at the photo of her husband that she has saved on her phone so that “he is always close to me.” Her husband, Salam-ud-din Khatana, was killed in 1996 on the Line of Control (LoC), the borderline that halves the disputed Himalayan territory – one part claimed by Pakistan and the other by India. “This is the picture he took after our marriage. He was very handsome,” says Bano Begum, 40, with a momentary smile.
Kulsum Hilal, 17, has been living in an orphanage in Srinagar since 2005. She doesn’t know when her father was killed. Her mother lives in north Kashmir’s border district of Kupwara with Hilal’s two younger siblings, but can’t afford to support Hilal and her elder brother, so both were sent to orphanages. “I feel very unlucky, for I haven’t seen my father,” she says. She always carries the photograph in her schoolbag. “All I have of him is this photograph and I have grown up with it.”
In homes all around Kashmir, these photographs of remembrance are hung on walls, in living rooms and kitchens, and kept as wallpaper and screensavers on mobile phones. But some mothers prefer to keep their photos hidden, in closets, in drawers or, like Zoona Begum, in trunks in the attic. Because if their boys and men can be so quickly taken from them, nothing is safe.
“What if they take away these photos as well? What will I do?” asks Begum. “How can I see my sons then?”
This photo essay was reported with the support of the International Women’s Media Foundation through the Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.