"After my father's death, I learnt that he was a militant. At that time, I was too young to know who a militant was. But very soon I understood the meaning when my mother and the rest of my family began to face difficulties. Why does the army harass us? We are not militants. Can't they be stopped?" asked Manzoor Ahmad, 16.
This innocent question posed by a school-going teenager from Srinagar silenced a packed audience in Delhi, which had gathered to interact with children from Jammu and Kashmir, Gujarat, Assam and West Bengal - states affected by militancy, terrorism and communal strife. Even Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Prakash Jaiswal, who was present at this unique initiative organized by Guild of Service (GOS), a Delhi-based NGO working for children, widows and women's empowerment, and the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), was taken aback.
But Manzoor wasn't about to leave without an answer. After all, this was what he and approximately 100 other children had come for. "The purpose of bringing the children here and giving them a platform to speak was that their stories be heard by a larger audience. We want them to have a normal childhood. We want to lessen their trauma and bitterness so that they can grow up to be normal citizens," said Mohini Giri, chairperson, GOS.
Although Jaiswal apologized for the trauma children like Manzoor underwent because of militancy, he said that people with vested political and social interests continue to fuel conflict. He added that the government was trying to wean back those who had lost their way and turned to militancy.
But it is not just the families of militants that have a hard time. The loved ones of those who have surrendered suffer a similar fate. When Nikhat's father decided to give up militancy, things did not really change for the better for the family. "My siblings and I faced problems in getting admission in schools. Teachers viewed us with suspicion and we were discriminated against only because our father was a former militant," said the 16-year-old.
Fortunately for Nikhat and Manzoor, they were able to find a way to pursue their education, thanks to an intervention by GOS. "Many of these children have seen their fathers being gunned down and, in the absence of proper education, they can be misled by anti-social elements. So we set up Rahat Ghar (Relief Home), a shelter home in Srinagar, to ensure that these children do not miss out on education. We believe that it is much better to ensure their healthy and safe development right away, when they are at a vulnerable age, rather than gunning them down 10 years later as terrorists," said Giri.
Almost two decades of militancy in the Valley has led to an alarming rise in the number of orphans in the region. Although there are no official statistics, a 1996 survey conducted by Yateem Foundation, an NGO in Kashmir, enumerated 15,000 orphans. Now, the number is estimated to be over 50,000.
Studies conducted by various NGOs have found that children in Kashmir suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD), which arise from being witness to the killing of a family member and/or destruction of homes and property.
According to the Indian army website (www.armyinkashmir.nic.in)