REGIONAL CONFLICT WORSENS THE PLIGHT OF KASHMIR REFUGEES
^By ZOLTAN ISTVAN@<
^National Geographic Channel@<
^c.2003 National Geographic Channel@<
^(Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)@<

Seven miles outside Jammu, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir,
India's northernmost state, a slum has risen _ Nagrota refugee camp, home
to about 5,000 Kashmiri Hindus known as Pandits.
Nagrota is just one of scores of other camps in the Jammu region that
house as many as a quarter-million Pandit refugees. The Pandits trace their
heritage back 5,000 years. Until the late 1980s, when Islamic militants
began to force them out, they lived in the Kashmir Valley, only 50 miles
away.
To the Pandits' dismay, the camps are developing into a permanent
community, complete with postal addresses.
At Nagrota, just off the Srinagar-Jammu national highway, the Pandits
live in cramped, two-room concrete dwellings built by the Indian
government. The roads are dirt, and trash is everywhere. Running water and
electricity are uncertain.
"It's a far cry from our former lives, where we had money and owned
farms and large houses," says Bansi Rania, a Nagrota resident since 1991.
"I don't know when we'll get back home. I don't even know if our homes and
farms are still there."
Kashmir remains one of the world's most volatile areas, contested by
two nations with nuclear weapons. And of course Afghanistan shares a border
with Pakistan.
In the Kashmir Valley itself, almost all the remaining Hindus are
Pandits _ less than 20,000 of them, according to Michael Scott, policy
analyst at the U.S. Committee for Refugees in Washington. Though the valley
is in Indian hands, the Indian army can't fully protect the Pandits there.
"I'm afraid to go into the valley," says Janak Smjh, a truck driver who
once lived in Srinagar _ the heart of the Kashmir Valley _ and now a
resident of Bhour, another refugee camp. "I'm afraid to even drive through
it. You never know when someone will shoot at you or throw a rock at you."
The outbreaks of violence dim the Pandits' hopes.
"If the Indian government can't assure the safety of the Pandits in the
valley, then it's doubtful the people will be able to return anytime soon
to their homes," says Vijay Nagaraj, director of Amnesty International
India, in New Delhi.
Scott points out that the conflict in the valley has taken on a life of
its own. "Whether or not the people are pawns in the struggle between India
and Pakistan may be subject to debate, but there is no doubt that they are
victims of that struggle," says Scott. "They may fall victim as well to
even broader geopolitical struggles, as repercussions from Afghanistan and
the end of the Taliban regime in Kabul are felt in the region and the
valley."
The roots of the Kashmir dispute go back to 1947 when Britain
partitioned India and Pakistan, largely along the lines of religion.
Kashmir, with its Muslim majority, became part of India. War followed _ and
Kashmir was divided between India and Pakistan. China controls a small
section of eastern Kashmir.
From 1989 to 1991, Muslim militant groups, fearing absorption by India,
drove the Pandits from their homes.
Rania remembers the horror. "The violence and the threats in the valley
were getting worse every month," he says. "People were told by Islamic
terrorists to leave their homes in two days or be shot."
The horror continues, and the refugees' plight deepens. "Very little
has been done for refugees in the Kashmir conflict, either by the Indian
government or by international governments," says Chand Ji Khar, a Pandit
and president of Vitasta Samaj Seva, an Indian social organization in Jammu
that works for the welfare of Kashmiri Pandits.
"Most of the efforts of Vitasta Samaj Seva are spent on trying to
rebuild our lives and communities here in Jammu _ not on getting back home
anymore," Khar says. "There is still too much violence going on in the
Kashmir Valley for Hindus to live there safely."
The memory of better times lingers for a Kashmiri Muslim houseboat
owner on Dal Lake in Srinagar (who didn't want to give his name for fear of
reprisal by Islamic militants).
"I'm appalled by what's happened to the Kashmiri Pandits," the
houseboat owner says. "I'm appalled by this whole war. I hope the Pandits
can soon return home and that the extremists will leave them alone. For
centuries the Kashmir Hindus and Muslims lived in peace. I hope we can do
that again."