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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Getting Stuck in Someone Else's Conflict - Chapter 2

We woke up slowly.
Meandering with the early morning chores as the Turkish coffee made its way out of everyone's backpacks. Not everyone was as keen as I was to hear the news and get an update on the situation, so I took to twitter privately.
There was still a gap between what we were being told and the story I was beginning to see. "No No, just a little balagan," Shagoo said reassuringly, "some people want protest not feeling safe in India, so go throw rock at streets for attention of India for more security." People don't go and randomly throw rocks at cars because they want more security, I thought to myself, but it wasn't my conflict, so maybe they do things differently here.
"10 Dead in Aftermath of Wani Killing," the headlines from local news agencies roared, "Ambulances pelted by stones with dozens of injured en route to hospital. Twenty thousand people and counting at militant's funeral." This morning I was beginning to wonder whether the Ismail Haniyeh analogy - the current political chief of Hamas, may have actually been downplaying it. While international news were slow to respond to the beginning of a mass casualty event, the local news continued to display outrage.
I found myself opening multiple wikipedia pages from distant history to current affairs: Hizbul Mujahideen, India-Pakistan Conflict, The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) - which "legitimizes the presence and acts of armed forces in emergency situations."  I scoured through local news, Pakistani and Indian news, piecing together the narratives.  The problem was that I wasn't even sure who was the one making me unsafe.  Pro-Pakistani news were calling Wani a freedom-fighter avenging the death of his brother, and the protests being an act of legitimate outrage over his killing, while pro-India news outlets were pleased with the outcome of another dead terrorist. The event had occurred 80 km from Srinagar, and I figured the distant valley where the base of separatist support had been would provide ample buffer.
I updated our status to being in the middle of the tourist district in Jerusalem, since Haniyeh was based out of Gaza, and there are very few touristy areas nearby.

We were told to stay put for the day, and were complacent about the verdict. Almog and Nimrod had taken the situation with a stride, while Michal was beginning to come to terms with it as well.  She had come to India to escape the balagan she was used to in Israel - an ailing grandmother, a tuberculosis scare and a slew of tests. She recently got a relatively easy new job as an accountant, which was a recent lifestyle change from the long hours and low compensation of the previous entry-level grind.  She had met Ze a few months ago in Israel, and confided in me that he was indeed part of the reason and highlight of coming to Srinagar.  "Everything about this flight was up in the air until the last minute," Michal explained the irony of the situation. "I rushed to the first plane, only to have it delayed on the tarmac, only to run to just barely catch the second flight to Srinagar. I never run to planes, but this time I did." "And then you arrived straight into this" I added, stupidly re-acknowledging the already stated. The other two people who were supposed to arrive at Shagoo's house that day, Israelis as well, had decided to cancel and another two friends who were supposed to arrive by motorcycle, were told to postpone their trip. "Tomorrow, Tomorrow" Shagoo returned to the mantra he had begun chanting yesterday melodically, "tomorrow we see.  Today, have fun and go ride a Shikara around lake."
Ze seemed concerned and afflicted by our "situation", and struggled more than Shagoo to put on the pretty face of what-to-do and "sometimes bad shit happens".  He was a Kashmiri by nationality, but had been living most of his life in London, Vienna, Goa and Israel most recently.  He would visit every year, but was gradually becoming a tourist in his own home, and was pondering the gravity of the situation, mostly concerned for Michal.  It was not exactly what he had planned for them, he mentioned in passing while sneaking a drag from his cigarette so his mother wouldn't see him.  "My Ima Sheli..." he referred to his momma in half English and Hebrew as he smiled gently and raised his shoulders to a mid-halt, but never completed the sentence. The main problem with living in his Ima's house for a longer period than he had anticipated was not only the sneaking of a cigarette puffs. He had also brought Michal to Srinagar and it what not Ima's first round with an Israeli girl.  Shagoo, the youngest of the three brothers, had also found an Israeli lady-friend several years ago and they had a child together. His baby-momma had been from an Orthodox family, and her and Shagoo could not settle on where to raise their child, so she was doing it by herself in Jerusalem. And while Michal was a 33 year old Tel-Avivian and a "salt of the earth" type of Israeli, Ima was still reticent to allow her fully in. Michal, still trying to figure out what she had got herself into, gravitated towards whatever felt comfortable in the increasingly closed confines of Shagoo's front porch. "I probably should start eating with the family more," she said to me, beginning to foresee that she would be spending more time around a potential mother-in-law on her trip than she had anticipated.  But it is what it is, we agreed pliantly, laughing half heartedly once again.

We went to the lake for a quick swim and came back. The lake had come to a standstill compared to the days before.  The few tourists who hadn't hastily escaped on the quadruple-priced airfares to Jammu and Delhi, were also passing time and waiting for a calm. We asked Ashraf to come again, only to be informed that he only had chicken left. "Good business day?" I asked him as he waited for us to finish eating, and he grinned slightly in response, then quickly withdrew the smirk. He knew he was capitalizing on a bad situation and was reluctant to indulge in it too much. Ghunom came by early and convinced me that I must come see his jewelry store, which was on the same platform as ours.  He reveled in the powers of his ornaments - "This is Shiva, The Destroyer. And look look, the wheel of life," extending every syllable as if there was hidden meaning in the very words themselves. Mixing elegantly Buddhist and Hindu traditions, morphing each drawing and jewel to have a mystic or erotic meaning, he promised me that the very act of bringing these artifacts into my home would ensure health, prosperity, and apparently great erections. I ended up buying a drawing of the wheel of life in the hands of some god whose name I can't remember.
When the evening arrived and the neighbors began arriving it seemed like a natural occurrence. The guests, their stories and lives had all been revealed in the previous nights, and our dynamic had fully become a casual hangout. There was Bashir, the houseboat owner from across the "street" whose son, Suhil, had come for a swim with us earlier. They were both snickering intermittently at Ghunom's English.  Hijaz, Shagoo and Ze's older brother, sat silently in the corner, smoking, swallowing with each inhalation in search of breath, only to ignite another a second later. And of course Ghunom, who was justifiably concerned for his mother-in-law and family, who were in the contentious Gulmar district without contact for two days. "Why people fight? Why fight?" he would raise the question rhetorically every time the silence became overbearing,"We are all people. I give you everything I can.  Here, you want this. Take. I don't care."  His eyes would light up with every joint that began its round, yearning for his flotation device to take him off the wretched lake he was stuck on. But not to his wife, but to Goa, or Manali, or wherever the fuck he could go that wasn't his here and now.
Our here and now.

And time began to take a different pace than before. It ceased to be a resource to be used sparingly on a short adventure. But instead hours came and went. Then days did the same.

The situation had been deteriorating gradually, and the escalating cycle seemed eerily familiar. First the events begin with a trickle - protests, followed by extra-judicial killings and more protests. And then people try to capitalize on the escalation, calling on officials to respond to the events. Twitter was at first inundated only with local activists pushing hastag campaigns of #Pray.With.Kashmir and #Azadi - the Kashmiri call for freedom. But by the end of the second day, it attracted bigger voices like the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, and local security forces calling for a calm. The instigators on each side were digging in their heels, with Indian nationalists insisting on calling Kashmir "an integral part of India," or the Pakistanis who cleverly called "simply for the well-deserved plebiscite" while hoping to play a larger role in the future independent Kashmir.
The news began to flow more freely, as reporters and newspapers reeled in to the scene. Pictures of masked teenagers pelting stones at police officers, paramilitaries and the CPRF - an arm of the federal government given emergency powers through the AFSPA to restrain civilian unrest. 8 more CPRF companies were announced to be arriving in the next few days to assist the exhausted forces. Then there were pictures of bodies being lunged into ambulances, eyes and backs bloodshot by hundreds of pellets - the standard non-lethal crowd control weapon used by the authorities.  A policeman had had his car tossed into the river by an angry mob, while he was in it, and drowned.  A 16 year old girl, an innocent by-stander, was severely wounded while walking to help her grandma who had run out of groceries. Several police stations had been ransacked, at least one in a coordinated attack, and over 70 assault rifles had been stolen.
By the third day the op-ed pieces had begun to pour in, bringing analysis to the events and indicating that it had shifted gears. Higher level Pakistani officials were continuing the instigations, while Lashkar-e-Taibe, a group with links to Al-Queda and ISIS, announced that it would send support to the area as well. Activists were accusing India of a complete blunder in their handling of the situation, and Human Rights Watch was in the process of issuing a report.  The local and federal politicians were sending condolences to the families of the fallen police officers, vowing to "eradicate the terrorist threat of radical Islam from India."
Everyone was beginning to tie the events to their more expansive agenda, ensuring that no detail would go unregistered, while it was becoming clear that the next global event, some terrorist attack or coup in a more strategic location for the west, would distract globally and leave only the strife and tragedy of the well documented events in the scarred hearts and minds of the people who would remain. The Shagoo's  and Bashir's of Srinagar who worked tirelessly to bring back tourists to the "Switzerland of India" had seen their peak season go down the drain.  Cancellations had become standard and even the airlines had ensured full reimbursement for all travel plans to and from Srinagar. Thousands of Hindi pilgrims of the Amaranath had been stuck in their hotels for days longing to escape. The bustling lake and restaurants had come to a complete standstill, while people from afar were pouring into the tourist area for supplies.
And Ashraf didn't even have any chicken left for dinner.

Shagoo's melodic mantra about the promise of tomorrow had blurred itself with a yesterday and today that were still the same. We didn't even ask about the news anymore each morning, and instead Shagoo, Ze and even Ima had begun to look to me for more recent updates. We had already cooked shakshuka once and several other meals, but the lethargy and boredom of the situation were starting to take its toll.  Cracked smiles and empty words of encouragement would accompany yet another trip to the store's dwindling supplies. We fluctuated wildly from satisfying cravings for cookies and chips, to appeasing our hibernating sense of buckling down by over-consuming basic commodities - like buying 5 kg of flour. And so we made chapati, and pancakes, and even suggested blinches but never got to it.  We un-ironically watched This is The End, a movie about a stoner crew who was facing the apocalypse and managed to survive through the healing and sometimes magical power of ganga.  Almog stated casually that the movie cheered him up a little, and was very appropriate for the situation. It really was, sans the whole demonic parts.
Ima even offered to cook for us, since she saw we were not cooking with the same passion as before, and Michal volunteered to enter the kitchen with her, only to be ridiculed for cutting the paneer, an Indian chesse, too small.  Like she was supposed to know. But it had brought the first genuine smile to Ima and all our faces in a while, so we all continued the joke at Michal's expense. "Michal no cook paneer, she make shishlik size, ha ha" we would all joke with Ima as she crossed the front porch.  She would crack up once again at just the thought of paneer cut so small.  Ima rectified the situation by cooking us some real paneer the next day.

And as the congregants of Shagoo's "play-room" convened once again, it became evidently clear that we needed to start thinking of a plan to move on.  We would not get a chance to see the Mughal gardens or the ganga fields, and we wouldn't get to see Aru or the famous mosques. We couldn't just wait this one out. We needed to get out.

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