Stress And Suspended Lives

Women in Kashmir are the worst sufferers of conflict. Experts say women generally have less tolerance for trauma. Some Kashmiri women have devised their own methods of escape by often transporting themselves into the unreal world of television soap operas and others are not able to forget gruesome tragedies they witnessed.  Shams Irfan reports.

To stand outside the OPD ward in valley’s lone Psychiatric Health center at Rainawari, Srinagar is like being at the frontlines of a war-zone where everyday hundreds of people fight their way inside a small suffocating room to get themselves relieved of stress and trauma. With an annual flow of around 70,000 patients, this small place is among the busiest (of hospitals) in Kashmir valley.

According to the valley’s leading psychiatrist Dr Mushtaq A Margoob, a large number of cases remain unaccounted for, as people attribute traumatic disorder symptoms to other ailments and try to cure them locally.

Out of every five stress related patients four are women. They are the worst victims of this long running conflict which saw thousands of young men killed and several families devastated. “Women often suffer silently and in isolation as there is social stigma attached to such psychiatric ailments,” says Dr Margoob.

The conflict has left very few avenues of entertainment available to Kashmiri women. More and more of them have been spending time watching television at home. Lately, women in Kashmir have been socializing little, and rarely go out in the evenings with their families for a walk, or for a casual dinner. And to make matters worse, in their day-to-day life they witness atrocities, hear about custodial deaths, killings, disappearances, read about mothers still looking for their children among dead and missing. It all adds to the stress.

“They [women] have less resistance to exposure to disasters, accidents, family and social violence, assault, rape, wars, terror attacks, disappearances and killings,” Dr Marqoob noted during one of his recent lectures.

Kashmiri women have devised their own ways and means to fight stress amidst the ongoing conflict. Though bizarre in nature, but at least the new ways have worked for some and helped them forget their sorrows for the time being.

Sixty-year-old Zeba [name changed] is a typical example of the phenomenon.

A curious smile hung on her aged-face while she watched her favorite characters get married successfully after a few weeks of high-tension drama. Sitting in the corner of her small bedroom at her modest dwelling, just outside Srinagar city, Zeba tries hard to escape the cruel real world that lingers just outside her window all the time. One can see the remains of a freshly demolished bunker from her kitchen window, where Zeba and her two grandchildren assemble for daily meals. These girls aged nine and eleven, are the only other occupants in this small house where Zeba has crafted herself an entirely different world – the one where nothing ever goes wrong, where everyone returns home safe after a day’s toil.

Eight years ago, Zeba lost her husband and her only son to the conflict. They were killed a month apart from each other, shattering the old women’s small world forever. She remembers vaguely about the day when her husband was picked up by some unidentified men and abandoned lifeless near her house hours later. She could not even recall the events of the fateful day when her only son’s lifeless blood soaked body was shown through a small wooden door into a neatly maintained garden in front of her house.

The security forces allegedly killed him, apparently in a fit of anger after some militants ambushed their convoy. “They started firing randomly towards people and I saw her son freefall on the tarmac, trying unsuccessfully to escape the cruel hands of fate,” said an eyewitness who still wears a death-like look on his middle-aged face.

“She has been almost silent since,” revealed a neighbor who has known the family since they started living next door. “Nobody has seen her cry after that day, as if her eyes have dried all of a sudden,” adds another neighbor.

Since then, for Zeba the real world has lost its importance. She spends her entire free time in front of a small television set watching Indian soap operas. Ironically, for her, television is a medium of finding solace from the real harsh world outside.

“She seldom goes out”, said Manzoor Ahmad, one of her few surviving relatives who often visits her to make sure that she is alright.

“Whenever she goes out, she is reminded of her family and the life that has been cut short by the tragedy. For her the fictitious characters in a television serial hold more meaning than the real people in the real world.”

“She feels like there is an unsaid bond between her and the characters shown on television,” says Manzoor.

For someone who does not know she suffers from acute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD], Zeba would look like a mentally challenged woman.

“People who witness traumatic life events closely or repeatedly like Zeba often look for escapes to relieve their stress,” says Dr Margoob.

Zeba repeatedly talks about different characters, she would tell her grandchildren about them, about their likes and dislikes and other small details like she knew them personally. She is often fascinated by those exclusive family moments she knows she could never enjoy herself in real life – as if trying to live her incomplete life through these people.

“For first few years after her family members were killed she tried to put a brave face for the sake of her grandchildren, but when her daughter-in-law passed away, she lost it completely,” says Manzoor.

After that she started spending more time indoors in front of the television set. “First nobody suspected what she is suffering from, but when she stated talking about different characters from serials as if they were her relatives, we became suspicious,” Manzoor said.

On my way out Manzoor told me that Zeba would get sad if a character is treated badly or is in trouble. She rejoices their small joys and would often think about them after the show is over. She would wait for the next episode anxiously like one waits for a dear one. Now, for Zeba these characters are like her family.

Indian soap operas are highly popular among women in. Cinema and other means of entertainment were mostly ‘male only’ places in Kashmir. Even shopping malls, food joints or eateries are flocked by either males or couples. For an average Kashmiri family there is hardly any means of entertainment left except a marriage or a religious assembly.

For a Kashmiri woman television is like a wishing well, the moment she switches it on, she is instantly transported to a rosy world where big sets, fine jewelry, extravagant parties, engagements and marriages, high society gossip, women empowerment and all greet them.
Instantly, they forget about everything including the broken glass windows of their living rooms and the image of the CRPF men roaming outside seen through them.

They forget the death in the neighborhood, the atrocities that they might have witnessed only a few hours ago, they forget them all. They are taken to the fairy world where everything is peaceful and happy, at least. For them the morphine provided by the oppressor becomes elixir. And they surrender themselves to the supreme will of television like Zeba.

Meet Zia. When I first met her, she was holding a red polythene bag tightly against her chest, probably her only possession, which when emptied on my request revealed medicines of all sizes and colors, some paper money, a piece of leftover bread and a small bundle of prescriptions and an old newspaper. She was standing alone in a corner waiting impatiently for her turn to see the doctor at Kashmir’s only government run mental health center.

“I still see my son’s mutilated body after all these years. He was killed brutally,” she said angrily while seating herself on a wooden bench at the hospital canteen. “They could have shown some mercy even if they wanted to kill him, he was only 17,” she said while forcing her tears back. Throughout our conversation, she kept her eyes fixed towards the narrow entrance like she was waiting for someone.

I asked her, are you waiting for somebody? Yes, my son Altaf, she replied calmly. After every five minutes, she would ask me if I know her son. “Do you know my son?”

“No, I don’t,” I replied.

“You should have, he was such a lovely kid. Everybody called him Prince and loved his company. He used to treat me like a queen. But they [Army] took him away and now I am left without any support,” Zia said in a low voice while still looking curiously in the distance.

Sixty-five-year old Zia is now survived by three daughters [all married] and a bed-ridden husband whose lungs failed to function a few months ago. But it is not her husband’s condition that is worrying Zia, she only thinks about her son and the place where she saw him last. “He left late for work that day as if knowing that he would never come back alive. I wish I could have hugged him one last time,” she complained to herself. Her eyes reveal what her lisping tongue seems to be holding back.

“Everybody knows who killed him but nobody fought for my son. How can anybody be so cruel and torture fellow human beings like they are animals,” said Zia in a fit of anger.

She took out an old Urdu newspaper from her red bag in which a fading black and white picture of a seemingly handsome boy was placed next to the news story describing that some unidentified gunmen at Natipora, Srinagar, killed the boy. Zia looked at the picture for a long time and then said in a bitter tone, “God will avenge them. My only wish is to see them all dead before I die. They took my happiness away.”

It has been thirteen years since Altaf Ahmad Ganie, a butcher by profession was picked up by the army and later killed brutally, “he was killed for medals and money,” cried Zia.

She told me that it was one of the local STF guys who lured Altaf into hiding an assault rifle for him.  Altaf, being too young to understand his ill intentions agreed, as everyone in the locality feared the man.  Later, the same STF guy informed army about Altaf being a Pakistan trained militant hiding weapons. The same day he was picked up by the army, they tortured him brutally and finally killed him in cold blood.

“There were cuts everywhere on his body. They had tortured him with sharp-edged blades and knives. It was the most painful sight I have ever seen in my life,” she said while recalling the frightful image in her mind. “I could not sleep for an entire month. Whenever I closed my eyes, I used to have visions of my young son crying for help.”

Zia is among thousands of Kashmiri women who suffer from acute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD].

For last thirteen years she has been visiting the place where her son was killed, “whenever I come to this place I feel I am with my son. People say that I have gone mad, but ask me how it is to lose your young son whom I have reared with my blood and sweat,” she said while wiping her eyes clear. But according to doctors, unless she stops visiting the place where her son was killed, we won’t be able to cure her stress. It is like revisiting the tragedy every single day of her life.

Hope for patients like Zeba and Zia to recover are minimal, as they do not want to forget their loved ones. “We can only give them medications to keep their condition in check. But we cannot bring back what they have lost in last twenty years of conflict,” said Dr Margoob.

According to Dr Mohammad Aslam, a retired Neuro-psychiatrist, who now treats patients in his private clinic, it seems that the number of patients has declined over the past few years. However, women still are the worst affected. On an average, he sees around 30 to 40 fresh patients every day and most of them are women.

The two decade long conflict has left its scars on almost every single soul in Kashmir and its surrounding areas in the state where more than six million people live in constant fear of a militarized scenario.

More than 59 per cent of the entire adult population in Kashmir has witnessed or experienced events that are directly related to trauma and stress. “The prevalence of disabling PTSD in more than 7 per cent of the population is quite alarming by all means,” feels Dr Marqoob. The rate of depression among Kashmiri people is also high at 19 per cent.

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