Ready to Die for Kashmir

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Afternoon prayers have just ended. Some 250 youths, many of them teenagers, are gathered near a clearing in a pine forest at the foothills of the Himalayas near Muzaffarabad, capital of the Pakistani-controlled sector of Kashmir. Shading their eyes from the sun, they watch as a dozen comrades, bearing AK-47 rifles, machine-gun tripods and ammunition, climb uphill. They vanish into the darkness; moments later a remote-controlled bomb explodes--the signal for attack. Eight guerrillas race down the hillside, firing at piles of sandbags in the clearing. When they reach the bags, they set down explosives and dash into the forest. The attack is over in less than three minutes, well within the training deadline, but the observers are impassive. This is deadly serious business: they are, in effect, training to die for a cause, the liberation of the rest of Kashmir from Indian rule. Some 2,500 m above sea level, this camp--a collection of rough shelters and forest clearings--trains insurgents who slip into Indian-controlled Kashmir where, New Delhi says, they commit acts of terrorism. It is run by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Prophet), one of several groups that claim to occupy a line of Indian bunkers high in the mountains above the Indian-held garrison town of Kargil. It was the loss of these bunkers last month that sparked the most intense military activity between India and Pakistan over Kashmir in nearly three decades. In attempting to dislodge the intruders, India has lost two fighter-bombers and a helicopter, seen its main ammunition dump destroyed and had its troops trapped by strafing gunfire on inhospitable mountain slopes. Both sides opened fire with their long-range artillery guns. Ten schoolchildren were killed on the Pakistan side last week after shells landed on two schools, while an equal number of civilians were reported dead on the Indian side.

Pakistan says it gives only moral and diplomatic support to the insurgents and says they all come from Kashmir. India charges that they are foreign mercenaries, trained and equipped by Pakistan's armed forces. At the camp near Muzzafarabad, the volunteers, most of them between the ages of 14 and 24, come mainly from agricultural and urban working class families in Pakistan's most populous province, Punjab. All are graduates from religious schools known as madrasas, which have sprung up--with government backing--across Pakistan in the past two decades. The recruits have been rigorously vetted: each volunteer takes a three-week basic training course in guerrilla warfare. He is then sent home, where local representatives of the Lashkar-e-Taiba monitor his every action until they are satisfied he is prepared to die for his religion. Only then is he admitted to the training camp in the mountains for a three-month course.

When a volunteer joins us we ask him to smash the TV set in his home, says Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, 42, the group's self-styled supreme commander. If a person is not able to do this we doubt he will lay down his life for Islam. Most of the graduates do make the ultimate sacrifice. Says Abu Omair, another Lashkar leader: There are only a few mujahids (crusaders) who survive two to four years.

Martyrdom is more than sacrifice. The group provides welfare for the families of dead warriors and arranges marriages between surviving commandos and their colleagues' widows and sisters. Lashkar-e-Taiba was formed in the early 1980s by Islamic militants in Pakistan who wanted to join the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The group switched its attention to Kashmir in 1992 and set up training camps in the Pakistani-occupied sector. It is one of four groups--of 14 in Pakistani-held Kashmir devoted to uniting the disputed territory under Muslim rule--that train mountain fighters such as those who caught the Indian army off guard last month. Most of them recruit from across Pakistan, and many concede, privately, that they receive arms and supplies from the Pakistan military.

The groups are increasingly ambitious. Last year we decided to change our policy from hit-and-run to area-occupation, says Syed Salahuddin Ahmed, 48, chief of Hizbul Mujahideen, the only insurgent group made up entirely of native Kashmiris. For a year the group prepared its men to move into mountain areas around Kargil. Along with recruits from other groups, they infiltrated the area in small batches in late winter. As the ice and snow melted, they dug into the rock face along ridges previously held by the Indian army. It has been the most successful operation in the history of the Kashmiri struggle, says Salahuddin. That's one way of looking at it. Another is that it has brought Pakistan and India, the world's newest nuclear powers, closer to war than at any other time in the past 27 years.

Reported by Ghulam Hasnain/Muzaffarabad

Pakistan downs Indian jets and a helicopter as they attack insurgents in the disputed territory. The world holds its breath