Collateral Damage

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At police headquarters in Srinagar, the walls of the Inspector-General's office are lined with mug shots. The faces on these cut-and-paste wanted posters belong to young men who are called terrorists by India and freedom fighters by Pakistan. They are militant leaders from Kashmir and Pakistan who are trying to wrest this part of Kashmir from Indian control. Whenever we eliminate one of them, says Inspector-General P.S. Gill, pointing out gaps in the line-up, we take down his picture.So it goes in Srinagar, a city that once was among the most attractive tourist destinations in all of Asia. War between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, of which Srinagar is part, has driven up the tension rate and driven out the tourists. Beyond the walls of the barricaded police building, squads of paramilitary commandos in Rambo-style black bandannas roam the city. Armored vehicles patrol Srinagar's center, and brick sentry boxes and checkpoints stand at key street corners. After dark, people tend to stay in their homes, fearful not just of militants but of trigger-happy security forces who sometimes demand bribes at their roadblocks.

Tourism was the first casualty of the limited war Pakistan and India are fighting near Kargil, 200 km away on the forbidding heights of Kashmir's 5,000-m-high mountains. The day India launched air strikes in Kargil, 20% of our bookings were canceled, says Haji Gulam Qadir Khar, president of Srinagar's Houseboat Owners Association. The Head of Kashmir's Tourism Department, Muhammad Ashraf, says the government made things worse by temporarily closing Srinagar's airport to commercial aircraft at the start of the conflict. It scared away many intending visitors who thought there was war right across Kashmir, says Ashraf. This impression has stayed, and there is little we can do to dispel it. For a while, hopes were high that the tourist boom of the mid-1980s, when 700,000 people visited Srinagar every summer, would be reignited. By mid-May, arrivals for the year totaled 200,000. Since June, however, they have slowed to a trickle.

Despite the trappings of war, Srinagar is in fact calmer than it was a decade ago. Back then, a local uprising by disaffected young people and a subsequent military crackdown ripped apart this fabled valley deep in the Himalayas, causing the deaths of some 30,000 people. These days the city is moving toward normalcy. According to Gill, the militants now are confined to the mountains away from Srinagar. Along Boulevard Road, scores of houseboats rest gently in the shallow waters of Dal Lake, ready for the tourists who don't come. The gondolas that would ferry visitors to the boats are tied forlornly to iron brackets on the embankment wall.

War in the mountains; peace in the valley--the schizophrenia is manifest across Kashmir. Its status has been unsettled since 1947, when a newly born Pakistan and a freshly independent India squared off over the area. The scars of the insurgency, or militancy, as locals refer to the vicious armed struggle for self-determination, are deep. At Kashmir University, once a center of Kashmiri radicalism, students have stopped discussing politics. It is a self-imposed ban, says Mohammad Ishaq Khan, a history professor. The problem, he says, is fear of violence from both sides. And while everyone wants peace, there is sympathy ultimately for Pakistan. When Islamabad shoots down Indian war planes, the populace quietly cheers. On the other hand, when orthodox Islamic practices are demanded by fundamentalist militants, Kashmiris reject them. In a part of the world that has been fought over unendingly for half a century, identity often becomes a problem. People wonder about their nationality: Are we Indians? Are we Pakistanis? Are we Kashmiris? In New Delhi they know the answer. In Islamabad they know it, too. In Srinagar they are not so sure.