Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Close Call by Basharat Peer

A short and simple story about life in a conflict zone, an occupied territory. In this case it is Kashmir but it could be in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Uganda, the Congo, Nigeria, anywhere political divisions are drawn along lines of violence. Ambition never rests, for some the conflict is just another opportunity to grab power and get rich. The innocent suffer, law and justice are suspended. What do the marines swooping down in their helicopters, drones or patrolling in their humvees really know?


"It was a miracle," Father said.

They were at a relative's wedding in Uncle Rahman's village, three miles from our ancestral home. The ceremonies were over by 1 P.M., and after lunch, they left in a car with my two cousins. The care moved out of the village, and they traveled on a narrow dirt road running past a cluster of houses built on a plateau on their right.

"I saw these two young men sitting on the plateau across the stream. They were looking at us," Father said. " Your mother pointed at one of them. He had something like a calculator in his hand."

The car slowed down. "We were crossing a concrete water pipe running through the road."

Then there was a loud explosion

" It was like a strong blast of air lifting the car."
The force of the blast pushed the car off the road. Bricks and stones torn from the road fell on the car roof.

For a few minutes they lay huddled, waiting for possible gunfire. The calculator Father had seen was a detonator; the two young men across the road had planted the mine inside the water pipe. Luckily, they had forgotten to block one end of the pipe. The force of the explosion had veered off toward the unblocked end of the pipe, and the car tossed in the other direction. They escaped with minor bruises. Physics saved my family.

"But why you?" I asked him. He had no answers. Militants had been killing pro-Indian politicians, police, or anybody they perceived as working against them. But civil servants like my father, whose job it was to look after daily administration, were rarely targeted.

Over the next few days, friends and relatives brought news and the name of the man who had convinced the militants to kill my father. He was a man of political ambition who my family had known for a long time. I shall call him Iago. A month before the attack, he had met my father in his office. Father was the head of administration for the district and had to decide various disputes between organizations and individuals. One of Iago's rivals, also a man of political ambition, had applied in my father's office for a certain permit. Iago wanted that permission denied. Father told Iago that, legally, his rival had the right to that permission. "But you can skirt around that if you want. It is a little known law," Iago told Father. Father disagreed, and Iago left, sullen.

Iago was the characteristic ambitious operator from a conflict zone, flirting with pro-Indian groups during the day, feeding, sheltering, donating money to the separatist anti-Indian militant groups by night. One of the commanders in the biggest militant group operating in the area, Hizbul Mujahideen, was from Iago's village. While the militant was on the run, Iago had supported his family. After his meeting with my father, Iago sent word to the militant commander: "Peer is dangerous for you. He is working to ensure that village elections go smoothly." Militant groups had called for a boycott of all elections- village, district, state- which they saw as an exercise in strengthening Indian rule in Kashmir.

Iago's men convinced them if the militant boycott of the village elections were to work well, they had to get my father out of the way. A month later the bomb went off. In the weeks following the attack, hundreds of people visited our house, and the phone never stopped ringing. Iago did not call.

Much later, I bumped into him on the street. He shook my hand, complained that I didn't visit his family, asked about Father's well being, and paid him many compliments. I kept up the pretense, smiled back, and asked about his family.

Father was scared and even stopped making the twenty-minute journey from his official house in Anantnag to our village. A few months later, he left Anantnag for a new job in the relatively safe Srinagar.


  1. At the age of fourteen Basharat wanted to cross the line of control into Pakistan and train as a militant. He told his father of his desire.

    My Father looked directly at me and said, "I won't stop you."
    I couldn't hide my astonishment.

    "I won't stop you," he repeated. "But maybe you should read and think about it for a few years and then decide for yourself. At that point I will not say that you should or should not join a group."

    I found myself nodding in agreement. "From what I have read, I can tell you that any movement that seeks a separate country takes a very long time. It took India many decades to get freedom from the British. The Tibetans have been asking for independence from China for over thirty years. Czechoslovakia won its freedom from dictatorship; even that took a long time."

    Father continued to argue that rebellions were long affairs led by educated men. "Nehru and Gandhi studied law in England and were both very good writers. You have seen their books in the library. Vaclav Havel is a very big writer, The Dalai Lama has read a lot and can teach people many things. None of them used guns but they changed history. If you want to do something for Kashmir, I say you should read."

    I stayed in school. But the conflict had intensified. Fear and chaos ruled Kashmir. Almost every person knew someone who had joined the militants or was arrested, tortured, or beaten by the troops. Fathers wished they had daughters instead of sons. c Sons were killed every day. Mothers prayed for the safety of their daughters. People dreaded knocks on the door at night. Men and Women who left home for a day's work were not sure they would return, thousands did not. Graveyards began to spring up everywhere, and marketplaces were scarred and charred buildings. People always seemed always to be talking about the border and crossing the border; it had become an obsession, an invisible presence.

    "Thirty-seven words is all you need to be a reporter in Kashmir" an editor once told Basharat with a weary laugh: fear, arrest, prison, torture, death, Indian security forces, separatists, guerrillas/militants/terrorists, grenades, assault rifles, sandbag bunkers, army installations, hideouts, crackdowns, search-and-destroy missions, frustration, tension, anxiety, trauma, democracy, betrayal, self-determination, freedom, peace talks, international community, mediation, breakdown, despair and rage.

  2. "Curfewed Night" by Basharat Peer; Scribner, 2010