Ali Shan: ‘a Forgotten Soldier’

Ali Shan is an 90-year-old Kashmiri who spent five years in Burma fighting against the imperial army of Japan for the British.

Aki Shan with his family

I was greeted with a strong hand shake from him at his family home in Sparkbrook where the former soldier lives with three generations of his family.

He was wrapped in a traditional Kashmiri shawl, and wore thick glasses through which he inspected me for a minute.

Originally from Pootha in Pakistani administered Kashmir, Ali Shan says he is the last surviving member of his village that had served in Burma.

He told me that there were another eight or nine people from his village who served in the British army in Burma.

Fierce Japanese fighters

Almost deaf, Ali struggled to hear my questions but, when he did, he replied with youthfulness and a vivid sense of reminiscence in his voice.

British forces in Burma

The war against the Japanese in Burma lasted between 1942-1945.

Reflecting on his training he said: “First we learnt how to fire a rifle while in the frontline of attack.”

Then his voice fell silent as he gazed past me for a moment then, in a lower tone of voice, he continued: “We saw many dead…. many dead people, children and men.”

Ali remarked that many of those who served the British were from very poor families.

His army career in Burma lasted five years without returning to his family in Pakistan.

Problems with communication

“It was difficult,” he reminisced. “The Japanese were fierce fighters,” he added with respect.

“There was no mixing between the white officers in charge and the Indian soldiers. How could we learn English? We were not even allowed to speak to the white soldiers.”

“The only English word I remember is attack!” Ali shouted out the word: “Attack!”

Ali feels let down and that these soldiers from the Empire are not remembered, feeling their contribution and valour is little recognized in modern-day Britain.

“The British of those days saw themselves as very superior beings and had little regard for inferior ‘natives’ such as us,” Ali reflected ruefully.

In the context of a debate about “Britishness” Ali may not be considered as being very “British” by many.

Medals for valour

He speaks very little English and dresses in traditional Pakistani attire but he did give five years of his life fighting for the British against the imperial army of Japan.

The Burma Railway Memorial

The Burma campaign cost more than 200,000 lives on both sides

Ali saw the justice in the war he was taking part in and when I asked him if he would have taken part in the war against Iraq or Afghanistan he replied: “No, that war was different. This present war is not the same thing.”

Ali Shan received eight medals for his valour. The medals are kept in his home village in Pakistan.

In his youth, Ali Shan was a traditional arm wrestler in Kashmir and was well known in his region for his strength. He came to England in 1954 where he worked in a factory for 23 years.

Hope for recognition

During the Second World War there were 2.5 million Indians who fought for the allies under the British flag in Asia, North Africa and Europe.

Thousands were killed and as many as 80,000 were taken prisoner. Black and Indian soldiers also saw action during the First World War.

Ali still lives in the hope that he will receive something from the British Government in recognition of his contribution to the British Empire.

Read the original article published in BBC on 13 November 2010

Welcome to Palestine: A First Hand Account of Arbitrary Detention

I saw the green Israeli military jeep speeding down the Israeli road towards us, the roar of its engine had alerted the Palestinian farmers who had taken cover under a tree, but there were two fences between us. They’re probably just coming to see what we are doing, I told myself. The two soldiers got out of their vehicles M16s in hand, helmets on their heads and their bullet proof vests fastened. They opened the gates and entered the buffer zone between the two fences, and then they opened the second gate and entered Palestinian territory.

Some of the British students taking a walk through the farm, looking at the ancient olive trees, ran as soon as they saw the soldiers. One of the soldiers ran towards me and grabbed me, he attempted to twist my arm behind my back, pushing and shoving me, I resisted. “Stop!” he shouted in my face, all the time trying to twist my arm into some sort of lock. Some of the students protested, but the two soldiers had already grabbed the two brown people in the group and were quickly trying to push us into Israeli territory.

As I resisted mildly, the soldier showed me a small white container that he held in his right hand, “I will use it!” he shouted. I assumed it was CS spray and I did not fancy getting sprayed with it so I had no option but to comply with what their demands. In a matter of minutes a midday stroll through a Palestinian farm, looking at the ancient olive trees with their thick intertwining trunks, trunks that generations of Palestinian farmers have rested against, had turned into an Israeli incursion onto Palestinian territory to snatch a British journalist and five students. The Israeli road serves only the settlement, perched high on the hill top, shaped like a medieval fortress, looking down on the Palestinians, serving as a constant reminder of the inequality they face.

Six of us were dragged into Israeli territory as more jeeps arrived, rushing down the road, soldiers dismounted, M16s in hand, fingers on the triggers, steely eyed and intent. We tried to explain that we were British citizens and that they could not do this. “This is Israeli territory,” said the soldier. “Yes it is, but we were just in Palestinian territory until you dragged us here,” I protested, the soldier just looked away. “You damaged the fence,” said sharply a blue eyed soldier, he looked Eastern European but I could not be sure. We had got close to the fence, but damaged it? That was stretching it, nevertheless this was the official reason they were using to hold us. The soldiers captain arrived, an older man in his mid-thirties of large build. He said his name was Munir, an Arab – Israel regularly recruits Bedouin Arabs from the northern Sinai.

Munir began to ask us for our passports, we told him that we did not have our passports on us – we were not going to hand our passports over to the Israelis, especially since the cloning incident and the foreign office advice not to give our passports to the Israelis- the last thing we wanted was for our names to show up as would be assassins in some foreign country.

Munir questioned me again and again as to my nationality, he found it hard to believe that I was British- it must have been my permanent sun tan. He spoke to us in Arabic, but when we said we did not speak Arabic he asked again but louder, “Are you sure?” he said in Arabic repeatedly. Telling them that I spoke Arabic would open up another barrage of questions that I wanted to avoid.

We were taken to a checkpoint as the sun beat down on us. One soldier was kind enough to bring us a bottle of water, two of the women were taken to a toilet when they asked. We waited in the sun, sitting on the floor using the curb as a seat. We realised that the Israelis had a problem. They had just carried out an incursion onto Palestinian territory that under the Oslo agreement the Palestinian authority and snatched six British citizens. The Israelis may have thought that two of us, being of Asian origin, were Palestinian, but they had made a mistake.

Munir, the captain, got in his jeep and drove away. We waited and watched as another army jeep turned up and they began to empty out the content of one jeep to another. We thought they were emptying out for us, to transport us to another location. By this time we had rung the British consulate. The consulate told us that there was not much that they could do and would give us some names of some lawyers but we had to pay and that they would get back to us the next morning! Good old British foreign service.

A soldier wearing a skull cap came over and asked for our names, we gave them, he did not ask us to spell them. Then, just as we had suddenly been snatched, they escorted us to the gate, and the huge gate opened, “Welcome to Bethlehem,” said the soldiers. We were free. Relieved, hot and tired, we had just tasted and had a very small insight to what it must be like to be a Palestinian. Throughout our time at the checkpoint we could hear Palestinians at the gate and now we had seen the wall from both sides. Welcome to Palestine.

The Israeli Occupation: The Bubble Has to Burst

The Israeli occupation of Palestine has forced Palestinians to live in isolated bubbles, cutting off their struggle from those outside of the major cities, where life has become bearable since the Oslo agreement but has resulted in Palestinians being cut off from each other as settlements criss-cross Palestinian land cutting off one village, one town, one city from another. Profound parallels to Bantustans of apartheid South Africa can be seen.

Lavish houses can be seen in the Palestinian administered territories, three stories high, large front gardens, gated entrances, and nice cars to match. The city of Ramallah is a busy bustling city where the Palestinian administration is based. Round the corner from the tomb of Yasser Arafat a shepherd watches over his sheep on a small patch of green area.

Sulaiman is 80-years-old and reminds me that he is still strong and healthy, behind him, in the distance, stands a tall apartment building. Sulaiman is the old face of Palestine – still resisting in whatever way he can in the face of the new wave of money pouring into the West Bank. However, the acceptance of foreign American cash comes at the cost of accepting the occupation in exchange for American money. People here are talking of a third intifada, but there seems to be no appetite for it from the Fatah controlled Palestinian authority.

Settlements are increasing, not only in East Jerusalem but around Palestinian towns, settlements that will prevent the growth of Palestinian towns, settlements that are built on Palestinian land, settlements that are linked by Israeli only roads that Palestinians are not allowed to travel on, settlements that have stolen Palestinian water delivered to them, whilst Palestinians cannot get permission to even dig a well and have to deal with intermittent water supply for five times the cost, settlements whose inhabitants are armed and have, in the past, used their firearms to kill Palestinians.

So as Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Prime Minister, formerly of the World Bank, pro-western and unelected, appointed by Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian National authority president, lavishes in his lush surroundings and is rushing to declare some sort of state within two years, but what kind of state is he going to declare? A state with no control over their borders, air space, a state with Israeli military checkpoints outside their cities, a state whose people are cut off from each other by an illegal wall?

There are refugees who have been living in camps since 1948, camps like Belatta in Nablus. After the Nakba or catastrophe, this camp initially housed 5,000 refugees on 1 square kilometre of land, but now, more than 60 years later the population has grown to 25,000. Yet the population has increased with now second generations of Palestinians living here the land on which they are housed has not grown – they still live on the original square kilometre the camp was established on. The air in the camp is close and the alleyways are claustrophobic. There is no privacy or room to move, the children play in alleys rather than playgrounds. Moving out of the refugee camp is not an option, it would mean an acceptance that the refugees of 1948 do not have a right of return, that they cannot return to their villages, homes, farms that their grandparents once farmed, that they as children once played on and continue to pray that their children will return to.

“The Next Intifada Will take place Between the Villagers and the Settlers”

Salam Fayyad has set his sights on securing foreign investment for Palestine, American and others. The streets have ‘US Aid’ bill boards telling people of the importance of US aid. But outside cities like Ramallah and Nablus talk of the third intifada is rife. Whilst many Palestinians are living in the bubble, sometimes even forgetting about the 400 checkpoints, new settlements are popping up, and expansion in East Jerusalem villagers continues.

“The next intifada will take place between the villagers and the settlers,” a student at Al Najah tells me, who did not want to be named. We are whisked around Al Najah University by the administration, the pro-Fatah administration, showing us their new gym and swimming pool, but students look on in surprise as they have never seen the facilities opened before, they are just for show. Recently the university had elections for its student council, Fatah students won, simply because all other political groups had been banned and then decided to boycott the elections, information the university administration keeps from me, but students are keen to share.

For a university that was at the heart of resistance during the occupation, it has become increasingly repressive to those that are not towing the Fatah line. The university was closed during the first intifada – between 1988-1991 – as tanks occupied its premises, and lecturers were forced to conduct their classes in houses, mosques and even cars. It seems that people have forgotten that at one time the Israeli military arrested people that carried books in the streets, because they had realised that the military order to close the university was not enough to stop Palestinians trying to gain an education.

This is the reality of the past and the present. Villagers are seeing their land taken away, even as Fayyed belly dances around the west asking for handouts so that the Palestinian authority can consolidate its power. A former Israeli prison in Nablus is now a prison run by the Palestinian Authority, where no doubt political opponents are now housed.

Every year droves of tourists visit places like Jerusalem and think that all is fine, you will see soldiers but people will think that is to be expected. But the bubble needs to burst, the bubble that the city Palestinians are living in, the bubble that the Palestinian Authority has created, the bubble the Israeli government is counting on, so that it can further its actions of annexed land, increasing settlements and continuing the occupation of Palestine.

Rafah Border crossing- Aid workers on hunger strike

Rafah border crossing

As medical workers went on hunger strike today at the Rafah border crossing into Gaza in Egypt, Israeli jets could be heard flying overhead, the sound of explosions and vibrations could be felt on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing.

No mercy was shown by the Egyptian authorities, who kept the border closed, not even sick Palestinians were allowed through back into Gaza, they were simply told that the border was shut. However there was a great deal of activity at the crossing with military vehicles passing through all day. There were some ‘VIPs’ crossing the Rafah crossing, but it was unclear who they were as the vehicles had blacked out windows and travelled well protected with armed soldiers at the front and rear.

For most of the day the Rafah border has been quiet, only the sound of birds can be heard disturbed by Egyptian military and police vehicles entering the border compound, but everything is periodically drowned out by the piercing screams of Israeli jets as they fly over Gaza.

Reem al Tahloot, 26, arrived from Cairo after receiving treatment for a brain tumour but was told that she could not go home to Gaza as the border was now closed. She was asked why she did not come earlier by the guards even though she had been in hospital and had left at the first opportunity.

70 year old Salaha Skeyg arrived with his 65 year old wife Salma at the Rafah crossing at 6am in the morning, only to be told that it was closed. Salaha Skeyg had been in hospital in Cairo suffering from kidney stones but could not afford for the operation he required to remove his stones that had blocked the passage between the kidneys and bladder and was therefore forced to return to Gaza. Now they wait in the blistering sun of the southern Sinai, sitting, waiting for the Egyptian authorities to show some mercy to allow them back home to be with their family in Gaza.

Meanwhile aid workers continued their hunger strike in protest at the Egyptians not allowing urgent medical help through to the Gaza Strip. British reconstructive surgeon Sonia Robbins-Bolos and her Greek husband Dr Nikolos Bolos of Mercy Malaysia have been waiting to enter Gaza for 40 days, with no avail.

“There have been issues around entering Gaza before, it has always been difficult but nothing like what we are experiencing right now,” said Sonia. Sonia and Nikolos are members of the group of aid workers that have entered into a hunger strike over the Egyptians refusal to allow them entry.

Dr Omar Mangoush a cardiac surgeon from Hammersmith said, “We are trying to enter Gaza, we are doctors, we have a humanitarian mission to carry out but we are being prevented from doing that by the Egyptians and the lack of help from the British consulate.”

Two Irish medics were allowed through into Gaza this Monday which suggests that the Irish consulate has put pressure on the Egyptians to allow their citizens through into Gaza, something that the British are reluctant to do.

The Egyptian intelligence agency is making it as difficult as possible for the hunger strikers, even forcing the local shop at the Rafah crossing to close, where the aid workers were purchasing water and phone cards.

For now the aid workers and Palestinians are waiting in the searing heat of the southern Sinai for the border to open so that they may cross into Gaza, to help and return to their families.

Salama Skeyg pleads with the guards, asking them to let her and her husband pass; her husband has a bag attached to his bladder. She cries out, the sound of her cries drown out everything, the wind, the vehicles and even the Israeli jets. The Egyptian authorities look on, unmoved, untouched by the plight of this old couple who do not even have anything to sit on except a small dirty wall. The police sit on chairs provided by the local cafeteria, but they prevent the owner from allowing anyone else to sit on them.

Oktay Balci an aid worker from Belgium asked the police, “Do you not have a heart? What If she was your mother?” At this the officer looked them straight in the eyes and said, “It is not our decision, we do what we are told.”

Egypt and the rest of the Middle East can be summed up like this. It is not their decision; they do what they are told, whether it is from their governments or foreign powers like America and Israel. But the Palestinians refuse to do what they are told, refuse to accept decisions made by others about their future, and refuse to give up their hopes; this is why they must endure so much punishment at the hands of everyone.

Aid workers to enter into hunger strike at Rafah-Gaza border

British, Belgian and Greek doctors, nurses and aid workers will go on hunger strike tomorrow over the Egyptian Authorities’ refusal to allow entry into Gaza.

After constant attempts aid workers, doctors and nurses, have been refused entry in to the Gaza strip by the Egyptian authorities. Some doctors have been waiting for forty days. Out of utter desperation and witnessing the treatment of Palestinians by the Egyptian authorities, aid workers and activists have been left with no choice except to go into hunger strike and stay at the Rafah crossing until they are allowed through into Gaza.

Although the Egyptian authorities had said the border was open for two days the fact is that non-Palestinians were not allowed to enter, even though some were Palestinian but held different nationalities.

Contact Dr Omar Mangoush
Tel: 0020193764783

Journey to Gaza, so far

Journey to Gaza

Journey to Gaza





I have arrived in Cairo and have spent the last 24 hours running around meeting people, trying to get contacts and trying to formulate some sort of plan to get me into Gaza. It is looking very difficult.

I attended a conference today on Palestine; the place was swamped with police in full riot gear armed with shotguns, pistols and dogs. They moved me on, and would not let me take pictures of the protest that started the conference outside the centre for journalism in Cairo. I took pictures nevertheless, however discretely.

I turned up a bit later got into the conference and mingled gaining valuable contacts in trying to help me get into Gaza. I have unfortunately missed the deadline to join a convoy travelling from Italy. The names of the people travelling on this convoy have already been passed onto the foreign ministry, so even if i was to join it, i would not be allowed to enter Gaza as my name is not on the list. I will try nevertheless.

I have also been exploring other non-conventional ways of crossing the border; I think most of you know what i mean.

I also need a letter from the British embassy that says that they have warned me of the dangers of entering Gaza, which the British seem not to want to give out, but is vital as the Egyptian border guards will not let me pass without it. The embassy is closed for the ‘weekend’ and will be open for business on Sunday.

Tomorrow i will be travelling to a hospital to see Palestinians injured in the recent war on Gaza.

Hope to speak to you all soon

The challenge for Pakistan

Challenge for Pakistan

Pakistan’s tumultuous relationship with the West has put the country at the forefront of the so called War on Terror.With violence flaring in the North West Frontier province and the recent attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, many analysts are predicting Pakistan’s future as a failed state.


Since former President Musharraf signed up to America’s so called “War on Terror” the country has been spiralling out of control.The violence in Afghanistan has spread south of the border into Pakistan.The Pakistani military, once respected and admired by Pakistanis, is now engaged in a war against its own citizens, that has resulted in large civilian casualties and thousands of internally displaced refugees from the Bajour Agency ,in the North West Frontier Province, and neighbouring regions.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 thousands of students from religious schools in and around Pakistan and Afghanistan were encouraged to take part in ‘jihad’ against the Russian occupation.These mujahedeen fighters were trained and financed by both the Americans and the Pakistani military to fight off a common enemy.After the withdrawal of the Russian troops however the mujahedeen fighters turned on each other, and a bloody civil war ended with the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan.

Let us think outside the paradigm of the so called war on terror, outside the common narrative that we have just read above. What is really taking place?

War on Terror

The so-called “Pakistani Taliban” have been mounting attacks not only against the Pakistani military but also against ordinary people living in the region.If you ask people in Pakistan including in the provincial capital of the North West Frontier Province, Peshawer, people tell you “these militants are not Taliban”.There is the belief in Pakistan that the so called Pakistani Taliban have no links to the Taliban in Afghanistan. This is in fact supported by a statement from the Afghan Taliban that the so called Pakistani Taliban have nothing to do with them.The ‘militants’ in Pakistan seem to be jumping on the Taliban brand name to gain both religious and political legtimacy.They are well funded, well equipped and trained well enough to battle the Pakistani army.

Possible Balkanisation?

Professor Michel Chossudovsky, director of the centre for research on Globalisation, recently wrote in his article the destabilasation of Pakistan, “Washington’s foreign policy course is to actively promote the political fragmentation and Balkanization of Pakistan as a nation” along ethnic lines.Pakistan faces the breakup of itself as a nation, which could lead to an independent Pashtunistan, made up of the NWFP and border regions and also independence for Baluchistan.Pakistan would be left with just the states of Punjab and Sindh.
Challenge for Pakistan

Far fetched? Well not if you consider the strategic location of Pakistan in the light of American and Chinese interests.China has recently signed a deal to develop the port of Gawadar in Baluchistan; this will be the largest Chinese construction investment outside of China.Chinese access to the Indian Ocean is making both India and the United States uneasy.While America does not want China anywhere near the Straits of Hormuz.India has had a continuous military rivalry with Pakistan, and the presence of China, a close military ally of Pakistan, could be seen as a potential threat to India.

Pakistani Government

The Pakistani government, currently led by the Pakistan Peoples Party, has lurched from one embarrassing incident to another after the end of President Musharraf’s rule in 2008.Apparent splits in the government began to emerge after the attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, with conflicting reports being given regarding the nationality of one of the alleged terrorists.This culminated in the sacking of the National Security Advisor, Mahmud Ali Durrani, by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.

However the biggest embarrassment to Pakistan and its people was when the Hilal-i-Quaid-I-Azam was conferred on Richard Boucher, US assistant secretary of State for central and South Asian affairs, by President Asif Ali Zardari for his ‘services to Pakistan’.Zardari has shown he is reluctant to break with the same governments that had favoured Musharraf.He has ignored the will of the Pakistani people and their anger at the war in Afghanistan and the consequences it has for Pakistan.US drone attacks and US troops carrying out operations on Pakistani soil which have resulted in huge civilian casualties have been met not with protest, but with the awarding of Pakistan’s highest civilian award to Boucher. The award was met with shock and criticism by politicians and media alike.

The latest crisis to grip Pakistan’s beleaguered government has just ended in a significant climbdown for President Asif Ali Zardari.The crisis began when the Supreme Court barred opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, and his brother, Shahbaz, from elected office. The government of Pakistan’s most populous state, Punjab, led by Shabaz was duly dismissed.Sharif then threw his weight into the lawyers’ movement that has been active for the past two years following the sacking of the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.Despite a government clampdown on protestors and attempts to place Sharif under house arrest, the protest gathered strength and thousands of supporters, determined to take their grievances to Islamabad.Zardari’s crackdown even went as far as to shut down independent news channels, which lead to the resignation of the Information Minister, Sherry Rehman.In the face of this Zardari was forced to step down, and to reinstate Chaudhry and other judges sacked by Musharraf.He was also forced to order the release of the political activists who have been arrested over the past week.People have been drawing parallels with Musharraf’s rule and have taken to the streets to demand change, and in doing so, they have shaken Zardari’s government.

Regardless of the incompetence and corruption of the government and the emerging threat from ‘militants’ and any future American plans for Pakistan,the Pakistani people seem to be holding together.On the streets of Pakistan, from Lahore to Islamabad, from Karachi to Peshawar, people seem to be in a defiant mood, and have no appetite for a fragmented nation.

On the busy streets of Peshawar lies a memorial for those that fought the British in the early 20th century.The same people will fight any occupier or any one that wills Pakistan harm.The Pakistani people are strong and will fight intellectually, verbally and if need be physically to defend their country against any oppressor.However, Pakistan’s biggest threat may come from within.

Refugees and the War on Terror

Refugees and the war on terror

On the edge of Peshawer, capital of the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan, lies a sea of white tents that is home to thousands of refugees who have been internally displaced as the Pakistani military carries out operations against so called terrorists in Bajour Agency in the region.

Since the summer, Pakistan has been waging a war against its own people as it collaborates with the American military.  American attacks have targeted so-called terrorists on Pakistani soil, as it expands its field of operation from Afghanistan to the border regions of Pakistan.  According to the UN 190,000 people have been displaced as a result of the fighting.

The site of the UNHCR refugee camp was previously occupied by Afghan refugees fleeing the NATO bombing of Afghanistan.  The Afghan refugees have since moved on, spreading throughout Pakistan and the rest of the world, some have even returned to their homes in Afghanistan.  The people who reside here now are Pakistani citizens.

The tribal areas have been the site of fierce fighting between the Pakistani army and so-called Islamists since former President Musharraf signed up to Washington’s agenda in the region to root out Taliban support and stop fighters crossing the border into Afghanistan and mounting guerrilla attacks on NATO forces.

The children that play in this maze of tents do not have adequate clothing for the harsh winter weather. Their faces are dirty with the brown dust that seems to permeate everything, as it is kicked up by donkey carts passing by.  There are no toys, so the children play with anything they can get their hands on. Some of them use as wooden cart to pass the time, pushing it down a dirt road that separates the tents.  Other children help with their family’s chores, washing dishes and carrying water.  Still others can be seen collecting rubbish that they will use to earn money.

A metal mesh wire fence surrounds the camp, but sometimes the entrances are too far for the children to walk to, so they make holes in it, crawling through to gain access.

There is a cricket match taking place just outside the camp between children from the camp. Rocks are piled up as improvised wickets while the metal wire fence serves as the boundary. The game provides a distraction from the harsh reality of life in the refugee camp.

Residents of the camp voice their objections with the US and Pakistani government policy of bombing targets in the region. Ibrahim Khan says “The only people that were targeted by the military were civilians, women and children. We did not even see who was bombing us.  They bombed us from the sky.  I did not see any terrorists. Our homes were destroyed as we fled, we left everything, and now our children do not have adequate education and we have been left with no livelihood.” The people’s concerns here are for their children, “We want our children to gain an education. It will take 50 years before the psychological affects of our displacement are removed from these children’s minds.  We have no grievances, grudges or problems with anyone, we are a peaceful people.  We want to be able to live our lives.  We are Muslims, terrorism is against our religion.  This is our message to the Pakistani government and the International community.  We want to go home.  Stop this war that you have started.  We are not terrorists!” exclaims Ibrahim.

Abdul Wali, whose two month old son was born in the camp, speaks of the difficulties he faces living in the camp “We are coping, but it is bitterly cold.  The UN is helping us but it is not sufficient for our needs.”  As he speaks, his voice carries a tone of resignation to his fate in the camp.

Refugees and the war on terror

A little girl wanders the camp attempting to hide her face with her red scarf.  No sooner do I take a picture of her, she disappears into the maze of tents.   The other children told me the shy girl’s name was Fatima. Samiullah, a boy no more than four years of age, stands languid, his head leaning against a wooden pole with a look of dejection on his face.  The trauma of the flight from his home to brave the bitter winter cold of the camp is evident in his eyes.  An entire generation of children have been traumatised by a conflict they know nothing about, took no part in, just collateral damage reduced to statistics for aid agencies to deal with.

Refugees and the war on terror

These are the victims of the so called war on terror.  Caught between the Pakistani and American military and the so-called militants, the civilians live with the consequences, forced to leave their homes to become refugees in their own country.

Report from a refugee camp in Kashmir

Refugee camp in KashmirIn Pakistani-administered Kashmir this small refugee camp is home to some 600 people who have fled Indian-administered Kashmir, 16km from the line of control. This is the line of the world’s most militarised zone. Since the Mumbai attacks and continued Indian allegations of Pakistani involvement tensions are once again forcing people to fortify their bunkers as they brace themselves for a potential confrontation.

Kashmir has been a disputed territory since both Pakistan and India’s independence in 1947. The two countries have fought three wars over the region. The green metal rope bridge shakes as the car mounts. The bridge is what separates Pakistan and Pakistani-administered Azad Kashmir. One vehicle at a time, some passengers walk across the shaky structure as the collective weight of the passengers and vehicle may be too much for the bridge. Down below flows the dark and murky Jelum river.

We enter Azad Kashmir and head towards Kotli district an area close to the line of control. The road twists precariously and snakes its way up, climbing steep gradients and slopes around the mountains of Kashmir. Numerous pot holes marks the tarmac. Clumps of green trees and bushes peer over the side of the narrow road, grey igneous rocks lie at the sides. The car shakes and jolts around, making its participants look like dolls, with their heads wobbling as their hands clinch tightly to the handles inside. One wrong move here and it is a sheer drop down the mountain – there are no safety barriers.

It is therefore not surprising to hear every now and then the grim reports of vehicles going down in this tortuous terrain often without survivors. Kashmir is a beautiful mountainous and green region, scenic, with its amazing views and fresh air. As we pass through villages and towns on our way to the refugee camp we can see evidence of the wealth earned in Britain spent on development of the area from money sent in by Kashmiri families in Britain, home of the world’s largest Kashmiri Diaspora. Large mansions, with a clash of colours – red, green, and brightly painted white is the common design in this region. Huge pillars holding up the three-storey homes, with four-wheel-drive SUVs parked in the driveways.

As we dismount our vehicle, which is now covered in thick dust, the number plate barely readable, we walk the rest of the way to the refugee camp. After traversing mountain paths, and jumping over rocks while taking in the scenery, we are stunned to see the lLine of control which the locals call the Line of Divide that separates the people of Kashmir is visible from here. My guide points to a mountain top in the distance. “There it is” he says confidently. And then he points to a green hillside within a stone’s throw of us, and adds “Shells land there when India fires its guns”. With an uneasy feeling, we head extremely close to the LOC that separates two nuclear armed nations and what remains a volatile flashpoint.

Over the years the tents in the refugee camp have been replaced by small houses and even a mosque and a small State run school teaching children up to the age of ten. These children play in the narrow alleys that separate their homes in what looks like a labyrinth of narrow passages. A little girl works the water pump trying to fill an old metal bucket. Her clothes are scruffy and face dirty from the dust. As we settle in we begin to talk with some of the residents here who fled Indian administered Kashmir.

Hasin Din, who is 25 years old, says: “I worked for 200 rupees a day (two pounds) as a labourer” to support my two children aged five and two. “Whatever we had we left behind, our homes, our families our land and livelihoods.”

I asked many of the refugees if they wanted to return, and without exception they they said “If Kashmir (Indian administered) becomes azad (free) tomorrow, we shall return”.

Peering through his metal spectacles, sixty year old Navi Baksh, is eager to share his story. A story that rings a familiar bell with the others heard in the camp. “We ran for our lives across these tough and forested mountains under the cover of darkness with my wife and my children” Navi says wearily. “It was a difficult and dangerous journey but we had no option, the Indian army gave us no choice, and they made life unbearable for us”. “We left with nothing but the clothes on our backs”.

Everywhere you go, everyone you speak to will tell you harrowing tales of their escape from what they say is the clutches of the Indian occupation forces. Muhammed Munshi remembers the ordeal which will be indelibly stamped on his mind:

“They killed my uncle and two nephews without any reason, then they took the bodies to the forest to burn them, but we realised what was happening and raised the alarm, all our village coming out to protest. Then they surrounded my house. The Indian army said we were helping Pakistani based militants, so I fled taking my three children and wife. We left one son behind along with my older brother. My son was 14 years old when we left. My son was taken into custody”. His grandchild now sits on his lap, and Muhammed holds him tight, close to his chest. The hurt is clearly evident on his face and pushing back the tears he continues:

“The Indian army used to come into our homes and force our women to undress, saying they were helping militants and could be carrying bombs! In our own homes?” he questions. “We were helpless. The Indian army are the ones with the power. We took our respect, dignity and honour and fled, we could not live under such rule or be subject to humiliation and oppression”.

The Pakistani government has provided some help for these people. Vehicles were provided for refugees to bring them to the camp. Small pieces of land were allocated for each family so that they might pitch up a tent. Each family receives 1000 rupees a month, approximately ten pounds. People told me that they are in debt, and it has been four months since the have received anything from the Pakistani government. There are thousands of refugees scattered throughout this region, victims of the conflict in Kashmir. These people are far away from the politics of Islamabad and New Delhi, even further away from Mumbai. If there is a war between the two nuclear-armed nations, it is people like those of Kashmir that will be the victims, long forgotten by the world and international community. Munshi hopes to be reunited with his son one day and return to his home. “Azadi” he says, freedom, one day.