While traveling from Kupwara to Srinagar, a sudden explosion rocked the highway. The sound deafened my ears as I tried to make sense of what was happening. Seconds later, the dismembered body parts of a 15-year-old suicide bomber landed on my Jeep’s windshield. He unsuccessfully attempted to blow up the security convoy near us.
KASHMIR, India — I run hostels for ladies in five districts of India. Each hostel houses 45 to 50 women, with 45 staff members to care for them. The work continues to grow, as I construct another five-story dormitory in Jammu for 300 more women. To fund my projects, I sold my parents’ home in Pune. To me, helping others remains my most important mission on earth. Regardless of what anyone else thinks or says, I will not stop. The things I have witnessed stirred something deep inside of me.
It started in 1999. While traveling from Kupwara to Srinagar, a sudden explosion rocked the highway. The sound deafened my ears as I tried to make sense of what was happening. Seconds later, the dismembered body parts of a 15-year-old suicide bomber landed on my Jeep’s windshield. He unsuccessfully attempted to blow up the security convoy near us.
The horrifying scene left me frozen in my seat, unable to utter a word. The images played over and over in my mind. The security personnel whose convoy the bomber targeted immediately began firing indiscriminately before I could gather my composure. I quickly dove below the seat of my car to protect my body from the gunfire.
Guards came and demanded to search our car, pushing us all out of the vehicle and asking for our paperwork. Traumatized, it took me a while to process his request. My delayed response angered the guard, who struck me in the face. I tried my best to remain calm and gave him my identity card. When they finally excused us, we resumed our journey.
Once in Srinagar, I struggled to sleep at night, haunted by the images. I stared at my ceiling and thought of the orphans I had seen, going through life alone after losing parents to unjust violence. Right then and there, I decided to stay in the city and help terrorism victims any way I could.
The year prior, in 1997, after my professor at the university in Prune suggested I travel to Kashmir to see the unrest for myself, I joined a group of 15 students on an 18-day excursion. While most of the group finished up their time and returned to Prune, two female classmates and I remained. For months, we talked to the people and asked questions. When our rupees dwindled, we strolled the streets looking for cheap lodging. Months had passed. Suddenly, a man approached us from behind and invited us to his home.
While visiting, he confided that he was a journalist. We spent the entire day sharing stories, and he provided food and shelter. The next day, he told us to travel to the Kupwara district to learn about the actual circumstances behind the conflicts and terrorist attacks. For two more months after, we went from district to district, witnessing many killings. It felt like a never-ending nightmare. After that, every year for months, I traveled back to Kashmir to provide humanitarian aid to its people.
Working with NGOs, I cared for migrants setting up camps, offering food and medication, and educating the children. Each NGO had its own goals to garner money or media attention. I felt exploited by everyone I met. When I finally joined UNICEF and a study on those impacted by war, I found myself in even more dangerous situations.
Members of Jamaat-e-Islami and other violent organizations threatened to shoot me, but I gained the trust of the people of Kashmir. They gave me a place to live and I started my non-profit Borderless World Foundation. I submitted the application on March 8, 2001 on International Women’s Day and exactly one year later, the Copy of Certification and approval arrived.
In November of 2000, around 6:00 p.m., a female student named Bharti Mamani and I finished passing out a survey in the Gushi village of Kupwara. We hopped on my motorbike to ride back to camp. Just before passing over a bridge, a person appeared out of nowhere 800 meters ahead. I slowed the bike to help when suddenly two men joined him.
By the time I realized what was happening, 11 militants with AK-47 assault rifles encircled us. Using a hushed voice, I told Bharti, “Sister, our days are over tonight. We will never get away from these terrorists.” Fear overwhelmed us, but we tried to remain calm. My heartbeat quickened so much, I thought I was having a heart attack.
“Do I get off my bike or keep going,” I wondered. Some of the men pulled in front of the wheel and grabbed the handlebars. The butt of an AK-47 struck my right knee. My hands flew off the handle and they slammed my head on the bike. Bharti screamed in terror, pleading for our lives. “We are social workers from Mumbai conducting a survey for UNICEF,” she pleaded. One of the terrorists asked in English, “Where in Mumbai are you from?” “We are students from Prune University,” she said.
None of the other terrorists could understand English, and we answered all the man’s questions. He told us he took courses in Swargate when his cousin died. On the way to the burial, amidst his grief, the terrorists brainwashed him. Finally, another man said, “You are moving in God’s footsteps,” and they let us go, taking nothing. They even kick-started my bike because of my injured knee. The entire scene seemed surreal. In total, I have been held captive 19 times.
The first four little boarders at my orphanage in Kupwara called Abode of Smiles were Jamila, Abida, Halima, and Dahida. I wanted to help Kashmiri girls by sheltering the orphans harmed by terrorism. These four girls’ parents died several months prior.
My attachment to them naturally grew and today, when I see how far they came, it warms my heart. One is a lawyer. Every day, I made them go to school and cooked their meals, running programs and offering activities. Some girls studied embroidery while others knitted, stitched, or made sanitary products. A few of the girls took computer courses.
The number of girls at Abode of Smiles went from 10 to 20, until 65 girls lived in the shelter. More than 700 women passed through this place, moving on to start their own lives. For 300 of them, when they married, I performed the ritual of Kanyadaan, or giving away the bride.
However, all this work kept me in the limelight. Having dealt with many terrorists, my fear reduced, knowing I could often talk my way out of it. When the Armed Forces personnel hauled me in, however, I faced something new. “Why do the terrorists let you off so easy,” they demanded. “Are you a covert operative?” I assured them I was not and invited them to search my home.
It seemed my humanitarian work made me a target of fanatics and they wanted me gone. They went as far as urging the public to boycott me; to stop supporting the shelter and offering me food. One magazine even called me a Satanist. Despite the threats from both sides, I continue to fight for the women and children of Kashmir. To this day, I staunchly refuse to back down.
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