Kashmir, Srinagar
 by Gabriele Torsello

    Balasubramaniyapuram, a small village in the south of India. Huts made of clay and palms. I light a fire for cooking. A few meters from my hut is an old well - lowering the rope I have got my bucket full of water. I wash my jeans on the rocks, the ash is for cleaning the dishes. Hens and turkeys eat the last rice grains. The neighbors smile and offer me a tea.

    The months go by. My flight is leaving from New Delhi in three weeks. Murughesh takes me to the Kenyakumari's railway station. I cross India travelling on free coaches. Inside them everybody is close to one another. We are trapped between wooden benches, sacks and human warmth.

    The journey is very long. I get out in Bangalore for a drink and after three minutes I go back to the train. There are people everywhere trying to get in. It's chaos, a mass of people assail the carriages. It seems impossible to get back inside, the speaker announces the departure. I am still outside. I panic for a moment, all my equipment is in the train. I throw myself in the human jungle, scrambling across the bodies. I don't know where I put my feet, my hair gets caught up in the ceiling. I feel like a savage. I find my wagon and more people. It is a train covered with men, the only free place is left for the fans. A couple of old people are stretched out on the luggage-rack, he is chewing tobacco, the woman offers me an orange.

    Different sounds of languages, looks and smiles. A man is smoking a beedi beside me. Someone ask me where I am going.

    "Kashmir, Srinagar" I reply.

    The smiles disappear. Faces look scared. The old woman stops eating. A man begins speaking very quietly:

    "...Kashmir is dangerous. It is a place where people get killed. There are terrorists and Srinagar is the heart of Kashmir. Don't go there or they will shoot you."

    The man lights another beedi and looks out of the window onto the fields. I want to understand what he said. Why is it dangerous, which people are killed and who are the terrorists? Nobody replies.

    The journey goes on, more stations, more passengers and the usual questions. Who are you, what are you doing here, do you want to eat, why don't you travel first class. I haven't got any money, and I don't really care about it. I am more happy living in the simplicity, in the freedom, eating rice wrapped in the leaves, walking barefoot and free from any formality. The ticket inspector doesn't come in these wagons, everyone travels free. Between us there is only a lot of understanding and respect. Looking in the eyes one can see the light of the purity or the dark depths of falsehood.

    After travelling for five days and four nights I get to Jammu, the end of the railway line. I eat two boiled eggs and drink a Pepsi. A man with a friendly face comes to me:

    ".. Are you staying in Jammu for a while? "

    "- No I am not. I want to go to Srinagar. "

    "- What? Are you crazy? It's a place very dangerous for tourists."

     "- I am an Italian freelance reporter."

    "- So what. In Kashmir the situation is bad, journalists are not allowed there. If you go in Srinagar you can be killed.."

    I was tired, listening all the time to the same thing without any explanations. Meanwhile I used my time to cut out the articles about Kashmir from the Indian press. I am walking in the streets of Jammu. There are many policemen and military trucks mixed among innumerable civilians. Markets, temples, tourists and refreshments. The air is quiet, an excessive number of uniforms, but everything is in order. I start to take some photographs: a leather shop with a brown bear embalmed as emblem, an old man with a long white beard climbed on the top of a bamboo, and some policemen on the road.

    A patrol is watching me, they come near and with authoritarian voices demand my passport.

    "....I am an Italian freelance reporter"

    They keep their eyes on my cameras, searching through my bags. The people watch the event. The soldiers speak Hindu, they want to take me away. I don't want to be blocked the first day. I put my press card in front of their eyes.

    " I am working for the Indian Government, I don't want all the people to know about me. I have to go now. Good Bye."

    I go away with my bag on my back.

    I see a large entrance, four soldiers with guns, another one with a big moustache and a metal detector. It is the entrance of a Hindu Temple. After an original search of my equipment (they shake the 180 mm lens) they allow me to enter the temple accompanied by a policeman who checks that I didn't photograph the soldiers encamped in the Temple. I leave, I am looking for movement. An Ambassadors car cuts off the way to a rickshaw-taxi. The driver shouts angrily at the Ambassadors car. The police arrive, straight away beating him violently. The taxi-man is lower cast, so he is wrong all the time.

    I have got 300 rupees, it's the money for the airport tax. I want to take a shower and a bed for sleeping. I rent a room and reserve a bus ticket for the day after.

    06.30 am I am the only westerner in the bus. Outside there are two children, they smile and give me a present: a small ring and an elastic band.

    " The ring is for your wife and the band for you, good luck man! "

    It is raining, the streets are narrow and winding. Mountains, rivers and forest around us. The monkeys are watching the bus, we are the attraction. Some stretches are blocked by landslide, some others by patrols. I've never seen so many soldiers in my life, big guns on the top of the jeeps, gun barrels coming from fortified cars, armored tanks on the bases and helmets camouflaged by leaves. They leave Srinagar every morning and reach Jammu for restocking. In the bus everybody is sad, they don't talk. Beside me a man has opened his eyes wide stretching and bending his finger. He tries to whisper something " "...Kashmir..kill...guns..army...kill...Srinagar.."

    We pass through villages, everything is gray, the doors are barred and the telephone-poles are pulled down. I don't see any kind of life. We get to Srinagar. It is not raining any more, the rainbow welcomes us. I feel life, power and energy. The bus stops close to the tourist center. A boy comes up with a tourist agent card in his hands. A tourist in Srinagar is like a mirage. With enthusiasm he asks if I have got any reservation, inviting me in his wooden house. I refuse.

    "-...Please, please sir." - I don't want any hotel, I will decide by myself. "- I have got a house boat on the lake vacant for ages. Come just for a look, you will enjoy it there - otherwise you can look somewhere else. OK, let's go."

    We arrive at Zero Bridge, going downwards past a military bunker. We pass another bunker with a big searchlight, this one is made of bricks, covered with netting and guns barrels protruding. We go down more steps and finally reach the river.

    "...My family lives here."

    His relatives come out and show me a beautiful houseboat. It is all in carved wood, there is electricity, a real bathroom, carpets, cushions and wooden furniture inlaid. Sultan offers me a cup of tea. On the table a big book is opened, letters left by other tourists. The last one was dated 1991. The words describe the beauty of Srinagar and the Kashmiri's hospitality. All the letters end with a:

    "...but we hear gun shots...."

    We reach the point: the price, they ask fifteen dollars. The houseboat is beautiful, but I can not afford it, I have got only two dollars and one walkman to sell.

    They introduce me to his father, mother, a small brother, the sisters and the grandmother.

    "...You can stay here, if we'll have food you'll eat with us. Remove the electrical cables before washing yourself, be careful on the roads and back home before the sunset."

    I begin walking around Srinagar. I see bunkers, military vans, fortified cars, guns and automatic rifles. They are everywhere, a constant presence. On the roofs, in the shops, in cemeteries, squares, golf courses, tourist centers, banks and post offices. They are the Indian Army. Every part of the city, even those you could never expect, are occupied by members of the Indian Forces.

    Srinagar downtown, the heart of Kashmir where the houses have been burned down and the districts destroyed. It is 7 pm and the curfew is in the city. Doors are barricaded, shops closed and lights switched off. A big road leading to the center, no-one is there. I can't hear any sound. A wheel is driven on the asphalt, an old fruit vendor is pushing the trolley.

    " Hello. I am looking for a telephone office. "

    "- No English. Military....Army." He looks around him carefully.

    I carry on. In the distance I can see some lights. It is only the neon of a petrol station.

    The silence is broken by a burst of gunfire.

    I arrive at the telephone office, it is a military bunker with guns gripped by soldiers.

    " Hello, I am an Italian reporter, I would like to use the telephone." They check my documents, opening my bag and looking for something in my lens.

    " It is not possible to phone, after 7 pm everything is blocked. I need to call Italy and this is the only public telephone in Srinagar. "

    " NO! "

    They are speaking Hindu and are moving the guns.

    " Go Away! "

    I am walking towards the lake, where my wooden house is. The moon lights up the road. I am going down the steps. Suddenly a wall of light in front of me, a gun barrel is pointed at me, someone is shouting in Hindu.

    " I am Italian, I live down there."

    He is still shouting. I speak in English and Italian, I avoid doing any ambiguous movements, I don't know what I can do. After a few minutes of confusion, I smile and turn, walking away. Finally I am in my bedroom wrapped in the sheets. Everything is quiet. A loud explosion wakes me up, and then some more. The rumble goes away. After a few seconds - bursts of gunfire.

    The sun is up now. I am walking downtown: narrow streets, mud on the ground, children, young women, house burned. I am quiet. Soldiers appear in front of me: one, two, three, four and more. I feel my heartbeat, my blood flow. I take a photo of two children, the soldiers are on their back. They stop me, they surround me, pointing the guns. They talk Hindu between themselves, they aim at me, gun in front of my eyes, his finger on the trigger ready to shoot.

    " Italian freelance, press card Indian Government. "

    One of them grasps my arm. I see the eyes of a scared woman, she is shouting something. The soldier takes me away. We leave the village, there is nobody on the road. Sound of footsteps on the mud. We enter a bunker: soldiers, army around me. I am afraid...

    Srinagar a day like any other, I am walking downtown. An old man comes near me:

    " Do you want to take some photos? Come with me. "

    We go into an old house. Steps, women, children, a room. Men are seated on the floor, they drink tea. A man with a white beard grasps my hand;

    " You cannot see, you cannot hear. Your press card is not valid. They know about you. You have another identity. Your passport will be burned together with your body. I didn't speak before. "

    I didn't say anything about me, even my name. I drink the tea and eat three biscuits.

    " Thanks for all, I go home before the night comes down."

    Patrols downtown. Military squads in the streets, they are looking for militants. 01 Minute to evacuate their homes. Time limit expired. The soldiers enter, bursts of gun fire. Entire families slaughtered. Flesh burned five, ten, fifteen bodies bleeding now while I am writing far away from Kashmir.

    The eagles watch from the sky, observing something new. The men advance with blinders afraid of thinking refusing to think about the consequences of his acts.

    ęCopyright Kash Gabriele Torsello


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