The first custodial disappearance in Kashmir took place in 1992, and sparked a wave of similar disappearances that only ended eight years ago. In the majority of cases it was the wives who were left behind, forever labelled Kashmir’s “half-widows” and never to know whether their husbands were dead or alive.

In the fifteen years that intervened, the situation of these half-widows was nothing short of deplorable. Even today, these women  the wounds of conflict. The disappearance of their husbands remains a mystery, and many hold on to hope that their husbands will return someday.

The Kupwara district – which flanks the Line of Control that divides Kashmir into the Indian-administered and Pakistani-administered zones – was an epicentre of sorts; a major transit point for young Kashmiris to traverse the rugged terrain to enter Pakistan for weapons training in the early 1990s.

Those who returned with weapons to fight the Indian troops would stop at Kupwara on the way. Many young men in the district and nearby villages were part of the rebellion; some of them were taken away by unidentified forces, or were killed in encounter skirmishes between the rebels and the troops. For many of the women left behind, their husbands’ disappearance whilst in custody was never explained.

Begum Fatima, who recently turned 64, says that her husband had left home in the morning – and that was the last she had seen of him:

“I don’t know where he had intended to go that morning, and where he went, or if anyone took him. It was in the middle of the time when men were taken into custody, and I presume that was what happened to him. It has been over 20 years now and I’ve heard nothing of his whereabouts. I don’t even know if he’s alive.”

Life in the interim, for Begum, was difficult. Plunged into the role of breadwinner, Begum had to provide for her three children. Legal help was out of the question, and the search had to stop at some point:

“For a while, I searched for him. When my sons were old enough, they joined me. A point came when it was all too much – to wake up each morning and to chart out a new place to go look for him – it was overwhelming, tiring and no longer possible. Our lives had to move on if we needed to survive. Legal cases and justice was impossible – we had no money, and we are all illiterate. Who will tell us if the lawyers are really helping us or taking money and doing nothing?”

Kashmir’s armed rebellion preceding the custodial disappearances began in 1989. Whilst there are no official government reports on the number of women whose partners disappeared, a study by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies (JKCCS) estimated that there were approximately 1500 half-widows.

Titled “Half widow, Half Wife? Responding to Gendered Violence in Kashmir“. The report also indicates that there are mass graves in which the victims could be buried, and urges the identification of remains found in these graves.

Another “half-widow” Sultana Banu explained:

“We’ve not had financial support. Those of us who have had daughters to support have had to safeguard ourselves doubly well to ensure that we don’t face ‘those’ kind of crimes. It is not easy – we have had dreams of educating our children, but our fate has forced us to give them a future as dark as their past.”

Sultana’s husband was dragged out of their accommodation – a thatched hut – one evening in early 1997. There were conflicting stories throughout; some told her that he was taken prisoner and kept in a cell, others told her that they had seen him being shot, and one went so far as to tell her that he escaped and went to another country.

Everyone wants to offer their assumptions. It is hard to keep your head above the waters when people are hell bent on telling you the negative“, she opined.

For most half-widows, remarriage was not an option in their initial days – one, because of the law, and two, the ascription of a stigma that kept them locked in a cycle of poverty. But last year, clerics passed a rule allowing these half-widows to remarry after waiting for four years to receive information on their husband’s whereabouts.

“But what’s the point now?” asks Sultana.

“All the years that I would have benefited from the support are now gone. I am old now, and my children have grown up. There isn’t much sense in the remarriage decree coming in now. What will I do with it? What will any of the women as old as me, do with it? We have had it hard this far, it has been nothing but a half-life. A cursed, troubled half-life.”