KUNAN POSHPORA:The room is full of women with haunted eyes, and grim faces. One sits down not knowing where to start, conscious of not raking up the traumatic past. Hesitantly one asks how they are, and if any government or any chief minister or any legislator spoken to them, held their hands, and offered real help.

“We do not want help, we want justice,” a middle aged woman bursts out. “We are not looking for charity, we want the men who did this to be arrested and for people to recognize what has happened to us,” she said almost hysterically.

And the story came pouring out. Twenty two years ago, on the night of February 23-24, 1991, the remote villages of Kunan and Poshpora and settled in for the night. It was 11p.m., bitterly cold, snowing outside. There was no electricity in the villages that were in complete darkness. Suddenly, men armed with guns burst into the little hutments, threatening to kill the terrorized villagers if they so much as resisted. They soon realized that it was the Indian Army, a “crackdown” with soldiers hunting for militants. The men from almost every house were taken away with the women screaming and crying for mercy.

But no one expected what followed. Troops, they said, returned and barged into the houses, molesting and raping the women. Sara (names changed) says that she thought it was only happening to her, and it was only later in the morning when the men returned that they realized that women across the two villages had been brutally raped and gang raped.

“We could not shout, there was no help, no light, it was all dark and just these men,” Parveen shuddered with the memories. A woman in her mid-40’s sitting in the corner of the room did not say a word, but wept quietly, inconsolably, all through. The memories do not go away, the women said, it is as if it all happened yesterday.

Many of them---ten, 15, more….had to have hysterectomies after the brutal rapes because of infection and injury. The physical scars are visible for all who care to see. These wounds have healed, but the mental agony remains. The women are in clear need of psychiatric counseling and help, as their lives seem to have come to a standstill since that terrible night, over two decades ago. They have not been able to move on, instead are finding it impossible to regain lost status in a society that now looks upon them as “rape victims” and at Kunan Poshpora as “rape villages.”

Akbar (all names changed), was 38 years old then. He along with the others were taken out into the snow, then to a building where they were tortured he says. He can never forget that night. His legs have been almost paralysed as a result. His eyes mist over as he speaks of the rollers run across his legs, of the electric shocks to his private parts and temples.

Ahmad too shares the agony as do many other men, with at least 40 of them gathering to recount those days and the intervening years through which they have suffered in silence. The men were allowed to return to the villages after 10a.m. the next morning. Nothing had prepared them for what they saw. The village was in complete shock, their women were lying unconscious , others were weeping, and it was then that the twin villages realized that there women folk too had not been spared by the soldiers.

The stigma of ‘rape’ attached itself to the village. A young handsome boy, Khalid said quietly that he along with many of his friends have had to drop out of school. Why? “The other children still taunt us, asking us whether our mothers or grandmothers or aunts were raped, we cannot accept this so most of us are not studying, or if we are then its in colleges far away from here,” he explained.

Ironically, there is no anger either. The usual sloganeering, and angry demands and gesticulations associated with the youth of Kashmir is missing. There is just a quiet helplessness, and a traumatic resignation that there will be no justice or closure for the victims of that fateful night.

For two days the villages wept in silence. Some said that the troops had cordoned them off as well. After two days, the villagers decided to go in search of justice and went to Kupwara to file a report. The District Magistrate S.M.Yasin visited the village and in his report recorded, “the armed forces behaved like violent beats.” The soldiers belonged to the 4th Rajputana Rifles, the fact being recorded for the first time in Yasin’s report.

Some of the separatist leaders visited the villages, but only once. Some did not. No one from the mainstream political parties bothered to find out what had happened, and how.

Almost a month later, on March 17,1991 a fact finding delegation led by then Chief Justice Mufti Bahauddin Farooqi interviewed 53 women who had been allegedly raped, and tried to determine why a police investigation into the incident had never taken place.

Farooqi is reported to have said at the time that he had “never seen a case in which normal investigative procedures were ignored as they were in this one.” The women of Kunan Poshpora said that the unmarried girls who had been raped were not allowed by the villagers to come forward and file police reports.

As Shakina, who too had to undergo a hysterectomy later said, “they had to get married after all, and we did not want our daughters to suffer.” The women said that till date they were finding it difficult to get good grooms for their women because of the stigma attached to the village. Samina, wiping tears from her eyes, said that the girls even today could marry only relatives or others from the villages. “No one from outside approaches us for marriage,” she said. “Life has been a living hell,” she added while the others around her nodded in silent assent.

The then Divisional Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah led a team of army, BSF and police officers to Kunan Poshpora at that time. He spoke to at least 41 women concluding that there was need for a more detailed and thorough enquiry. His recommendations were deleted in the report published by the state government then, a fact that he has spoken of recently again to journalists. He could not determine the extent of the violence, but he did realize that something sinister and terrible had happened to the innocent village folk.

The incident made it to the international media two months later when in April the New York Times reported the rape under the headline “India moves against Kashmir Rebels.” The villagers were besieged with reporters from across the world for a while, and by international human rights organizations, as well as civil society groups.

The men recount this saying , “we are fed up. They all came here asking us questions, making us relive that night over and over again. And they all disappeared with not even a leaf here stirring, despite the promises.” Musavir said that the villagers had decided not to meet any ‘outsiders’ now, and were quite used to living in silence, isolated and alone.

The media furore resulted in a Press Council of India mandated investigation with veteran journalists BG Verghese and K.Vikram Rao descending on the villages in army helicopters. This was perhaps the most damning report for the villagers as it gave a clean chit to the soldiers, and allowed the political establishments in both Srinagar and New Delhi to close the case without a trial of any kind.

The women continued to fight with health issues, with at least 15 hysterectomies because of the injuries and infection of the rape. At one point, the state government distributed some cash to the survivors, unaccounted and unspecified so that the government would not have to officially accept that the gang rapes had taken place. The men in Konan Poshpora pointed out that this was just to “silence us” in the hope that the story will remain buried.

In October 2011, the Jammu and Kashmir Human Rights Commission was approached by the villagers, at the instance of local civil rights activists. After hearing them the Commission ordered the reopening of the case, recommended an enquiry by a special investigation team along with monetary compensation. More recently, this year on June 18, a Kupwara district court has taken cognizance of a PIL and asked for “further investigation to unravel the identity of those who happen to be perpetrators.”

Some of the villagers were happy that at least some progress has been made, but most of them appeared depressed and pessimistic. “Let us see if anything happens, “ they said. Sara spoke for all when she said, “what can they do for us now, we have lost everything.” But even so the younger people of Kunan Poshpora want closure, they want the stigma of rape to be removed, and they firmly believe that this will only happen once the testimonies of the survivors are honoured and justice is done.

((This report appeared first in Frontline July 2013. This was based on the findings of a fact finding team of women, politicians and intellectuals that visited the two villages at the time. All names used in the copy have been changed.)