Twenty-six years of armed conflict has resulted in a shocking increase in the number of orphans in Kashmir. A survey conducted by a Kashmir-based voluntary organisation in 2014 put the figure at 15000. Other sources say that the figure is as high as 100000. This is the story of children in an orphanage or, really, the story of Fatima who cannot get over the loss of her father. The story also focuses on some of the issues faced by children like Fatima in orphanages across the state and the woeful lack of proper therapy or counselling
One rainy afternoon, 25 girls fill a medium-size room at Markazi Falahi Masturat, an orphanage for girls in Anantnag, 56 km south-east of Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir are scribbling away on their notebooks. Shafts of light enter the room through two rectangular windows. The girls are keen to finish their homework before the light fades. In the midst of her work, Fatima, an orphan, finds herself particularly distracted.
Fatima is distinctly dressed in a black cotton dress – a traditional kameez shalwar – while a silken scarf drapes her head. The April rain brings with it a cold breeze, so girls wear a traditional woollen cloak called pheran. Fatima doesn’t. She appears hesitant to interact. I ask other girls about their lives and their families, how they came to the foster home, all the while hoping Fatima warms up.
When Fatima finally opens up, her sweet voice fills the room. “I love the wind touching my body and face. It makes me fresh and happy,” she says. What else makes you happy, I ask. “Playing cricket and singing”. I goad her to sing but Fatima is not sure if she should. The home warden, Latiefa Akhter, joins me and encourages her. “She loves to sing Kashmiri songs. Others sing along with her,” Latiefa says. “It turns into a chorus every night”.
Fatima is a talented singer – the home warden says her songs help bind the group of girls and the caretakers into one family. Singing is one of the few ways 11-year-old Fatima inspires girls here. For the staff and a few volunteers that work with the children aged between four and 16 years, she is ‘positive energy’.
As Fatima picks up a verse, her eyes light up and a smile adorns her face. Soon, other girls of the orphanage join in and repeat the verses after her. But her songs are not of happiness, they reflect the pain hidden inside her and, maybe, of all of the girls who have lost one or both parents.
Meaal wajan meal che yewan nazare… Yess ne aasan sue che rozan nazare…
(Fathers come visiting their daughters, those who have lost their fathers, remain waiting…)
“She remembers several Kashmiri songs by heart and we are surprised every time she sings a new song without a mistake,” Latiefa tells me.
Three years ago, when Fatima came to the orphanage, she had lost her father, a Hizb-ul-Muhahideen militant, in a gun battle. For the first few weeks, her classmates say she cried every evening. Saima Jan, 16, who is an orphan and had lost her father in similar circumstances, says that Fatima would sob till she fell asleep.
“I love humming, and one day when Fatima was sobbing I took her in my lap and started humming to her. She calmed down,” says Saima, the eldest among the orphans here. “Slowly, with time, she got used to all of us and started liking it here.”
Over the past three years, Fatima has adapted to the new environment so well that the staff sees her as the new frontrunner after Saima. Yet, she longs for time with her mother. As our conversation about life in the orphanage picks up, Fatima touches my face with her hands. A loving gesture perhaps to suggest she misses her mother. Away from home, she says she looks up to Saima for guidance. “We are all friends, but I am close to Saima and Shabnum.”
Under Article 20 (Clause A) of the Constitution of Jammu & Kashmir, all permanent residents have the right to free education. Although the orphans are admitted in different private and government schools, they need tutoring.
“Fatima is bright, good in Mathematics and Science, but at times she has difficulties,” says Saima, who teaches Fatima after school hours or when she needs help. “Both of us love Science and Mathematics,” Fatima says. “But when Saima is unable to help, there is no one else to go to.”
The Jammu and Kashmir Government’s Social Welfare Department had deputed two tutors to the orphanage but they stopped coming after the 2016 conflict. “They used to come here from the nearby village and teach these kids art and help them in homework,” says Latiefa.
Lack of parental attention and care is has impacted the children here. Article 21 of the Jammu and Kashmir entitles every child to a “happy childhood”, but most of the children here have some fear or the other – of heights, noise and darkness. No medical examination or check-up was conducted on the children here since 2013.
“These kids are suffering from different phobia – fear of darkness is mostly common. These fears generally rise when parents die in an accident, or due to violence. They have an idea that parents are in the grave, which is darkness,” says Rao Farman Ali, author of Kashmir: Orphans, Nurture and Challenges.
“Among the orphans of armed conflict, there is a different fear which later turns into hate. In psychological terms, it is known as ‘politicophobia’. It needs urgent attention – like group therapies, and community engagement. Sports activities are required in these orphanages to engage and help these children to come out of these fears,” says Rao.
Dr Arshad Hussain, associate professor at the Department of Psychiatry, Kashmir, says it is time that role of the orphanages is evaluated to understand whether the institutions “are making the life of the orphans better, physically and psychologically”.