Exploring Kashmir's Idyllic Meadow of Death
I smelled the fragrant wildflowers, saw the pristine lakes and met the victims of unexploded 80-pound shells.
A farmer and woodcutter, 65-year-old Mohammad Abdullah Malik, lost his hand in 2010 while cutting grass in the meadow.
Kashmir's tourism ministry has done a pretty good job promoting their portion of the Himalayan valley. "Sky-touching deodars fence this pasture, presenting a view of a green carpet in summer," the blurb on its website reads. "During the summer, the camps of the Gujjar community, and shepherds with their grazing sheep in the pastures, present a riveting picture. Also, the fragrance of wild flowers refreshes the whole environment."
Sounds delightful, right? Only, what the website fails to mention is that the 3,000-acre meadow, Tosa Maidan, is also known for being littered with unexploded shells, lurking in the tall grass under all those fragrant wild flowers. That reputation is an unfortunate side effect of the Indian army and air force using Tosa Maidan as a heavy artillery firing range for the past 50 years – testing, among other things, 40 and 80-pound shells.
The residents of surrounding villages – and their cattle – often come into contact with these shells, which explode on impact, killing or seriously maiming their victims.
Mohammad Abdullah Sheikh holding photographs of the corpses of his two sons and his nephew, who were blown up while playing in a nearby field in 1991.
For 22 years, Mohammad Abdullah Sheikh has carried his two sons in his breast pocket. He takes them everywhere, he says.
Unwrapping them from a transparent plastic sheet, he places two photos on the floor of the gloomy room we're in and points at the torn apart dead bodies. “These are my boys,” he says. He then lays another photograph of a dead boy next to them. “And this is my nephew.”
Sheikh’s two sons, aged seven and nine, and his 14-year-old nephew had taken their cattle to graze on the peripheries of a nearby meadow. Drawn to a strange object poking out of the undergrowth, they were all killed in the same blast.
“I found them in pieces and I washed them myself, piece by piece,” Mohammad says.
Women climbing to gather firewood and grass from the Tosa Maidan.
A dozen people gather in the room while Sheikh speaks. Among them are two young men – one without his right arm, the other without his right leg – and in the corner is a man whose clearest memory of his older brother is seeing him bathed in blood. Outside, they tell me, are dozens of people waiting for me in the rain, with their amputated fingers and hands and limbs, holding pictures of dead fathers, husbands and children. I have to hurry, the village elder tells me, so that I can listen to everyone.
I'm in Drang, a village of about 800 households in the centre of Indian-held Kashmir, an unknown, unremarkable village that has the misfortune of being next to the beautiful, but incredibly dangerous, meadow. “Tosa Maidan,” they all say, pointing at a mountain not far away. “Our best gift, our worst curse.”
According to government figures, shells in the Tosa Maidan have so far killed at least 63 people, but the villagers believe the numbers to be much higher. There are also no figures of those who have been wounded or disabled by the shells, but there seem to be plenty in the villages that surround the meadow.
Mohammad Abdullah Khan lost his finger in the meadow sometime during the last decade. He only remembers it was spring.
Every May, hundreds of Indian soldiers arrive in these quiet villages, carrying huge guns and boxes full of explosives. They set those guns up, take aim on the Tosa Maidan and turn the whole area into a war zone.
The meadow and the villages around it are a tragedy within the larger Kashmir conflict. Kashmir, a separate state until India’s partition in 1947, has been cleaved by three larger neighbouring powers – India and Pakistan, which hold it in parts and claim it in full, and China which controls the remainder of the disputed territory. Kashmir, one of the world’s oldest remaining conflicts, saw a popular armed resistance to the Indian rule in 1989; India then reportedly deployed more than 600,000 soldiers to put down the insurgency.
The Indian Army numbers the militants in the whole of Kashmir valley at around 300 currently, with Kashmiri resistance to the Indian rule largely consisting of street protests, stone throwing and clicktivism, rather than armed insurgency. Nevertheless, most of the 600,000 soldiers are still present in Kashmir, protected by an impunity and immunity that stops them from coming under the purview of even the Indian law.
Since he lost his fingers 11 years ago, Abdul Sattar Malik can no longer hold a plough or a spade.
“Every morning in the summer, our lives begin with a bomb,” says Ghulam Mohideen, a villager who lost his fingers cutting grass in the meadow. “When a hand grenade blasts nearby, one turns deaf for a few seconds – so imagine when an 80-pound shell blasts half a mile away, and then another one goes off, and then another, and so goes the day. Every summer, that is our life.”
But after half a century of a helplessly watching the meadow at the centre of their lives be reduced to a practice target, 51 villages surrounding the Tosa Maidan have banded together in an attempt to change both their own fate and the meadow's fate. Tosa Maidan’s lease to the Indian army ends on the 18th of April this year. The villagers see this as a potential fresh start for the local community, and are now fighting to stop the Indian army from renewing their lease on the meadow.
Indian Army with their artillery in a village taking aim at the Tosa Maidan(Photo by Javed Ahmad)
“We'd been told all our lives that the army has bought off this whole mountain and it belongs to them and they can do here as they like. Even when my children were blown up, I thought that was how it was,” says Sheikh. “But now that the children here are educated, we know that it's our land, not the army’s, and we wont let them make our lives hell.”
Sheikh, 51, says he's spent his last two decades failing at many jobs – baker, labourer, farmer, shepherd – and making unsuccessful attempts to come to terms with the death of his two sons, whose body parts he had to rearrange into a human shape before he could bury them.
“I have lived on the fringes of insanity and I feel my whole life wasted, but now I will fight with everyone and stop our future generations from getting blown up,” he says.
Farooq Ahmad Lone, 29, lost half of his arm 14 years ago while playing in the meadow.
Sheikh is part of the group Save Tosa Maidan Front, which the villagers have formed in a bid to convey their suffering to the government, putting pressure on them to end to the use of the meadow as a firing range.
The government in Indian-held Kashmir, meanwhile, has formed a high level committee to look into the grievances of the people and see if there are any possible replacement locations that could be used by the Indian army. However, the committee is yet to contact the local district administration.
“We have not been contacted yet,” says Mushtaq Ahmad Baba, Deputy Commissioner of Budgam, the jurisdiction that the meadow falls within. Mushtaq, the highest civilian authority in the district, believes that the people’s demands are justified, but reminds me that the army does need a firing range. He also confirms that there has been no system of compensation from either the army or the state for the victims so far.
“But if the lease to the army is extended in April,” Baba says, “we have decided that compensation will be paid to any new victims.”
When he was 12, Bilal Ahmad thought he had found a cricket ball lying in the grass. He remembers poking at it with his foot, before an explosion ripped his leg off. He recalls spending the rest of his childhood watching his friends do things that he was no longer able to do.
But the people here are in no mood for compensation – they want the lease to be stopped. There is a stirring here in the villages, there have been rallies and meetings already, with plans for protests on the highway and in the Indian city of Srinagar. Come April, they say, their demands will be answered, or they will make decisions that the government will then have to deal with.
“We will go with our families and sit in the meadow, and the army can blow us up, all at once – unlike [the current situation], where our lives have no value,” says Mohammad Akram, village head of Shunglipora, one of the most affected villages around the meadow.
Akram explains that it is impossible for the villagers not to go to the meadow, since their lives are completely dependent on it.
“We go there for the firewood, for herbs for ourselves and for our cattle – and most of us earn our livelihood as shepherds, using Tosa Maidan as our pasture,” he continues. “How do we not go there?”
Two widowed sisters in law, both named Raje, lost their husbands to live shells in the meadow in 2010 and 2012.
Akram, 39, takes me around his village and introduces me to people who have been disabled in shell blasts, and to the families of the dead. While we're on our way to meet two sisters-in-law whose husbands were both blown-up in the meadow, he casually mentions that his own brother was killed there. He then stops suddenly and unzips his leather sock to show me a scar.
“I stepped on a shell myself. I have no idea how my leg wasn’t taken off,” he says.
In fact, almost every sixth or seventh person I meet in Shunglipora rolls up his sleeve or hitches up his trousers or offers to remove his shirt to show me the scars, the burnt flesh, the bent bone or the missing fingers – or just launches into their stories of dead relatives or neighbours.
The Indian army says that some accidents are bound to happen. They deny that they leave behind any unexploded shells, and blame the casualties on the greed of the villagers.
“The army goes around with metal detectors and collects all the unexploded shells after the firing exercise,” says a senior army spokesperson based in Srinagar. “But these people want to sell the shells for scrap, so pick them up before the soldiers can find them. Then they get wounded or die in the process.”
Bashir Ahmad Malik points at an unexploded shell that he doesn't know what to do with. He hides it from the village children, but doesn't get rid of it so that he has evidence of what is happening in Tosa Maidan.
When I mention this to people, they deny it vehemently, and one of them – a young man – offers to show me a live shell in a field on the outskirts of their village.
“You can see for yourself how we find some of these shells outside our homes,” he says. “I had to hide this one under a rock so that children don’t go playing with it.”
Surrounded by amputees, I’m a little nervous about visiting this shell, but I agree out of curiosity.
Malik explains during our drive how, when the snow melts in the meadow, shells ride down the Dam-Dam stream that passes through the local villages. We slowly walk down a snowy slope while Malik mentions his uncle, who died last year after a prolonged disability caused by a shell in the meadow. Then, suddenly, he takes a rusted miniature missile from under a rock and holds it in front of my face.
"I have seen thousands of these in my 33-year life," he says, "and one doesn’t even have to go the meadow to see them." Malik keeps the shell where it is as evidence of what's happening on Tosa Maidan, but the number of people I've seen who are missing body parts is already evidence enough.
Malik is hopeful that this April they might finally wake up from half a century of terror – of not knowing whether a trip to gather firewood could result in death or a missing limb. But he's knowledgeable enough about Kashmiri politics to know that there's just as much chance of the lease being extended, forcing the villagers to go through for another 50 years of spring meaning not new life, but fresh unexploded bombs.