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A lost generation in Jammu's refugee camps

By Anju Munshi

For 19 years, Kashmiri Pandits living in refugee camps in Jammu have seen no change in their poor living conditions. Riddled by disease, crammed into one-room tenements, and rendered unemployable by poor education and lack of employment opportunities, a whole generation has grown up angry, depressed and alienated

A small pale face with hollow eyes greets me at the entrance to Purkhoo camp in Jammu. The child looks unkempt, with a sallow complexion and a gaze that is forlorn and distant. The glow that one associates with childhood is missing. As my eyes travel around I see a group of young children, some just sitting and staring vacantly, others queuing up in a rush in front of a toilet with their mothers, waiting for their turn. Further on there is a squalid hutment with a dirty drainage tank in the middle with some toddlers playing around it, and beyond that, an open latrine with millions of flies swarming in circles. You feel your heart is sinking into a quicksand and the more you fight, the deeper you go in.   

Since 1990 more than 4 lakh men, women and children targeted by terrorist violence have fled their homes in Kashmir. Nearly 1.8 lakh of this internally displaced population stays in 11 camps in and around Jammu city. Away from their natural habitat, the children of these migrants have been living in alien conditions with their parents and dying of diseases like summer diarrhoea, viral fevers, diabetes, snakebites and heat stroke. A large number of children have also been rendered orphans and live with the trauma of their parents’ violent deaths. They suffer from guilt feelings because they survived while their loved ones perished. Many of them had become withdrawn and even violent. To the families who have lost their homes and all their possessions, and who are living in camps with their children for the last 19 years, the government gives an allowance of Rs 2400 and a ration of nine kilos of rice and one kilo of sugar for each member per month.   

Over 19 long years the situation of these people has remained the same. The dole is the same though the children have grown into young adults and a new crop of children is being introduced to this kind of life. Frustration, low self-esteem and lack of jobs in the absence of little or no qualification is driving this generation of young adults towards despair and depression, creating psychological problems for them and impairing their mental health. Problems of drug abuse and sexual violence in the camps are not unheard of.  

“There is depression and anger in the young generation that makes them resort to anti-social activities. In addition to this, the paltry amount is not enough for these migrants’ families to provide their children good education and good health,” says Prof K N Pandita, a long time human rights activist and general secretary of the Jammu based Friends of Kashmir International. Dr Apurva Kotru from the Jammu Medical Institute agrees. “The life in camp is a breeding ground for all negative activities for the holed up children, impairing their personalities. They are facing severe emotional and behavioural problems in the form of depression, anxiety, aggression, and sleeplessness.” He adds that “the diet pattern of the community has undergone a sea change. These young children look emaciated and many have retarded growth problems and complain of lethargy.” The Kashmiri community is mainly non-vegetarian and is fond of a protein based diet that comprises meat, fish, vegetable stews, yoghurt and rice. Owing to the paltry allowance they receive from the government, they are unable to provide nourishing diets for their children. Unless some drastic remedial measures are implemented on a war footing, we run the risk of losing a part of this generation. “Underfed children will not only perform poorly in studies, but there is also the high probability of incidence of disease and early death,” says Dr Girija Kak who is associated with the state hospital in Jammu and who has personally been treating children from the camps.  

Raghav, a 14-year-old school dropout was playing cards at home by himself while his mother was cooking lunch for the family in the same room. Asked why he did not go to school along with his friends, he said, “I don’t like it there. It is hot and I feel very sleepy. They make us sit on the floor and I get tired.” His mother Bina Kaul said that he often complains of headaches and nausea and has a poor appetite. A visit to the doctor revealed that he suffered from anxiety and attention deficit disorder, coupled with vitamin deficiency. Raghav lost his father during the relocation to the camps from the valley; he died of a heat stroke. Eleven-year-old Jharna has arthritis; it started with her fingers getting locked, and she now has difficulty writing and walking. Vikas, who is 15, suffers from juvenile diabetes.  

“Every time the issue of the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits has been raised, the Union and state governments are quick to point out the 'assistance' provided to the 'migrants'”, says Ashok Raina, father of two schoolgoing children in the Mishriwallan camp. The camp dwellers have to put up with humidity, with cold rooms in winter and hot rooms in summer, as four or more persons are crammed into one room. Families sit, eat and sleep in a single room. The children have not been able to grow up naturally and normally with their friends in an open environment with space to play in. “Cramped up in one single room/ hutment, with one parent smoking, inadequate ventilation, fumes from kerosene stoves adds to the problems of indoor air pollution that the children are subject to,” says Dr Kak.    

CRY (Children Rights and You), a non-government organisation, conducted a survey in 2007 of one of the largest displaced Kashmiri Hindu migrant camps in Purkhoo, which is about 13 km southwest of Jammu city. The study was confined to children below the age of 18 years belonging to displaced migrant families. The report found ‘very poor stability in the supply of drinking water in displaced migrants’ camps, which runs for one hour daily and is grossly insufficient to meet daily requirements. Add to this the regular power cuts that range from nine to 12 hours every day and make life intolerable in summer and during the rainy season.  

Group latrines constructed and maintained by Sulabh International are faulty; in Purkhoo camp there are 10 such latrines, which are improperly constructed causing leakages which flow into the open drainage system causing unhygienic conditions that impact adversely on the health of the inhabitants. Almost half the camp households do not have a bath or shower in their dwelling; as a result, skin disorders like eczema, bacterial diarrhoeas, water borne hepatitis etc are common. ‘The incidence of body lice was revealed by 36.52% of the children and almost 42.86% and 57.14% suffered from skin infections and relapsing fever respectively’ says the CRY report.  

Rita Kaul, a general physician who is attached to the Mishriwallan camp, says that one of the major health problems reported among children is diarrhoea in summer due to the poor quality of drinking water and soaring temperatures. The mental trauma and disturbance caused by displacement has seen an increase in diabetes among elders of the Kashmiri Hindu community. ‘What is ironical is that the children of the displaced community were no exceptions to this and 49.13% of the children were suffering from diabetes due to tensions, idleness and less mobility and 48.15 % from anaemia. Prevalence of malnutrition, exposure to sub-nutritional diet and experience of epidemic of nutritional related diseases were reported by 45.81%, 42.86% and 11.33% of the children respectively’, CRY reports.   

Basic medical facilities are supposed to be available within the camps, provided by one trained medical doctor. But most of the time this help is not available. Additional and regular health checks for the children are not conducted and there are no immunisation records. The CRY report found that all the children were vaccinated against diseases like diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus and polio, but none of them was vaccinated against hepatitis, mumps, etc. Though more than three-fourths of the children were desirous of getting those vaccinations, the reasons cited for not providing them was that they were too expensive or not available. 

Life in the camps takes a particularly heavy toll of children. There are schools but they are poorly equipped. “There are enough teachers, but overcrowded classes, not enough chairs and tables, no proper supplies like blackboards, chalks, laboratories, no support structure like drinking water, lavatories, recreation centres, libraries etc. Parents prefer teaching them at home and make them appear for their boards privately,” says Chaman Lal, who looks after the management of the Muthi camp.  

Inder Kishen, now 29, is an example of the tragedy of the younger residents. He left Vichar Nag, a small township on the outskirts of Srinagar soon after fundamentalist terror hit the valley in 1990. His education came to an abrupt end and he has been unable to get a job. His bitterness is evident. “We have been ruined,” he says referring to the many young people like him who had to abandon their education and struggle for a livelihood to support their families. The state government has not provided jobs for them. “In 1996, the state government made 40,000 to 50,000 new appointments in state services but not even 100 jobs went to the displaced Kashmiri Hindus,” says Prof K N Pandita.   

According to a report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), 10 primary schools and three high schools have been built for migrant children. “Who is to tell them that 10 primary schools and three high schools cannot meet the needs of 250,000 people?” retorts Madan Ogra, a senior citizens who has been staying in the Purkhoo camp since 1991.    

Dr K L Chowdhury, an activist and a doctor by profession, says that no international help of any kind is available in the camps. Some organisations have been in the news for delivering assistance to J&K, but Dr Chowdhury categorically states that “there have been reports of promises by various groups for providing nutritional, educational, health support as well as vocational training, career counselling sessions and job placement support, but in reality nobody has come to the camps of Muthi, Purkhoo or Mishriwallan in Jammu.” He says that there is a strong need for NGOs and counsellors to visit the camps.  

The Borderless World Foundation (BWF), a non-government organisation based in Pune, Maharasthra, has decided to intervene positively in a programme called Basera-e-Tabassum (Abode of Smiles). Two of its members, Tanvir Rifatmir and Adhik, volunteered to help the children orphaned during militancy in the border areas of Kashmir. Adhik, who visited the camps in Jammu, was aghast at the situation there and said that while “there are many organisations working for Kashmir, in my so many years of experience I have not seen even one organisation working in the camps.”    

Dr Falendra Kumar Sudan who is associated with the University of Jammu and was also involved in the study carried out by CRY, says that “the condition of the children in the camps is appalling.” He says he volunteered to help, but faced resistance. “The inmates were resistant to all our efforts to reach out as they had lost all hope and trust and were cynical in their approach.” When the inmates were asked about this, Ashok Raina from Muthi camp said, “It’s not that we are trying to misrepresent anything; it's just that we need privacy around a personal issue now; we want to create a secure boundary for ourselves and our children in order to feel safe and not get exploited.”  

Probably the parents have realised the futility of seeking help from the state and individual organisations and have taken it upon themselves to be small time providers for their children, using whatever meagre resources they have, so that when their children grow up they have at least some good memories of an otherwise deprived childhood. 

(Anju Munshi is an activist from Kashmir and writes on conflict displacement, especially in connection with the state of J&K. She contributes regularly to several major newspapers)  

InfoChange News & Features, June 2009