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The Rediff Special/ Ashok Banker

Profiles in Courage: The Women of KargilProfiles in Courage: The Women of Kargil

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Arifa Iqbal knows what an exploding Pakistani shell looks like, sounds like, and even how gruesomely effective a killing device it can be. She sees them falling like rain every day on her way to school. Once, a shell fell near her schoolbus, close enough to rock the entire bus from the side to side. She held on tightly to the back of the seat in front of her and tried not to scream like the other children. But when shells began landing close by her school, she could no longer hold back the screams.

Just a few months ago, a shell fell right into her school compound. A teacher standing outside was severely injured in the chest and is still struggling for his life in a Jammu hospital. Another teacher in a ground floor classroom was badly hurt too. Another 9-year- old girl's nose was sliced off by a splinter. But a boy sitting in the extreme inner corner of the classroom -- the safest place possible, you would think -- was the only casualty. Hit by a splinter in the neck, he died instantly.

And yet, even today, Arifa Iqbal goes to school daily. She dons her pristine white uniform, takes her schoolbooks and pencil box and boards the bus. Shells whine and boom all through the 45 minute bus ride to Minjhi, where her school has been relocated. Studying in Std IV of the Pioneer Public School, originally located at Kargil, Arifa is no ordinary student here. She's the class-topper, a bright-eyed, quick-witted, silver-tongued child who always tops her class.

"She is gold," says Mr Habibuballah, Arifa's science teacher. "Always first to answer questions, very sharp, very bright." Even when shells fell around the school, the dust from their explosions drifting into the classrooms, Arifa still applied herself to her studies with the same brightness.

How does a nine-year-old continue to concentrate on her studies while surrounded by death and destruction in a war zone? For Arifa the answer is simple: she loves studies. Loves science in particular. She wants to be a doctor. And she knows the only way to do this is to study hard. Besides, she also knows that all the violence erupting around her is caused "by Pakistan, because they want to capture Kargil."

Does she understand why our neighbours from across the border are so hell-bent on this goal? "Because they are our enemy," she answers simply and directly in everyday Urdu. "They are bad people. They harrass us, kill our people, try to take our land." And like the rest of her proud Ladakhi people, Arifa refuses to bow down to this brutal coercion. Like the Indian armed forces, she chooses to fight against it, in her own way. And her weapons are the pencil and notebook, her battlefield the classroom, her victory that 1st ranking she has secured year after year despite the last three years of heavy shelling.

Arifa is just one example of the silent heroism and courage of tens of thousands of Ladakhi women. Despite the war-ravaged times they live in, these women go to work daily, whether in the fields, government jobs, or school and college classrooms. Proud, strong women used to rugged lives and hostile geography, Ladakhi women are not easily scared or threatened.

Unlike their Kashmiri Muslim counterparts, Ladakhi Muslim women are not divided in their loyalties between India and Pakistan. They are fiercely and aggressively Indian. "If they give me a gun, I will fight Pakistan to save my land," says a 11-year old girl in another public school in Kargil district. She has reason to feel this anger: Her elder sister was killed when a shell directed at an army truck exploded on the Leh-Srinagar highway to the west of Kargil town. The two soldiers received only minor injuries, but the 19-year old college girl, still carrying her books, was killed instantly.

The women of Ladakh are unusual in every way. They are not the house-bound, male-intimidated, silently suffering type some visitors expect. Ladakhi women, used to working besides their men in the fields during the brief four-month season during which crops grow on the dessicated plateaus and peaks of this remote mountain state, are tall, slender and strong, and used to heavy labour and travelling long distances. After all, this is a region that is ice-bound for almost eight months every year.

In places like Dras district, the coldest place in Asia after Siberia, the snowfall mounts as high as thirty feet! Almost all Ladakhis depend on either cattle or farming for their livelihood, and can work only during the four tenable months of the year -- after the April thaw and before the September freeze. Their lives, and the survival of their livestock, depend on their ability to work long, hard hours on difficult terrain. Until a few decades ago, the average life expectancy of a Ladakhi woman was barely 25 years. Today, it is perhaps twice as much, but still lower than the Indian average. That is how hard their lives are.

After the onset of regular shelling about three years ago in Kargil district -- in areas such as Kaksar, the shelling has been going on for over a decade -- this delicate balance of life and livelihood has been rudely disrupted. With Indian army garrisons and camps stationed bang in the middle of civilian areas and near villages, the shelling often takes more civilian lives than military ones.

Hamida Khan, 43, mother of two young sons, one of whom is a college graduate, recalls a particularly terrifying day in July 1999. A resident of Dumel, a town close to Kargil "city", the main township, she and her family were gathered together in their house for the evening meal. Shells were falling all around them, each one coming closer and closer to the main town, as if the Pakistanis artillery from across the LoC -- just a couple of kilometres away -- were getting more and more accurate.

Then, a shell landed directly on their two-storey house. It crashed through the roof of the modest structure, setting fire to the bales of hay stacked for the horses and goats's winter fodder. Hamida and her family heard the impact and the shocked screams of the family above them. Then to their horror, the shell fell through the upper floor (their ceiling) and landed right in their midst, imbedding itself two feet deep in the floor.

But it never exploded. Later, the Indian army sappers took it away and exploded it in the hills at a safe distance. It was one of the rare duds. Had it exploded as it was designed to do, both families in the structure would have been killed. Today, Hamida and her family laugh at the memory everytime they sit to a meal. She urges them all to eat with greater relish than before, reminding them that they have been given a second chance. Small wonder then that Hamida wishes her two sons to join the Indian army to fight for their country. Sadly, the army has not heeded her requests -- and the requests of virtually every Ladakhi -- to set up a Kargil Scouts unit for the specific protection of the region.

Fatima Ahmed, 32, mother of two young children, was one of many residents of a mountain village near Matayen in the Dras district. One of the closest regions to the LoC, the village is actually within sight of the Pakistani artillery positions. Fatima could see the shells not just when they landed, but when they were fired from the Pakistani howitzers across the river! Despite this, she and her people were reluctant to abandon their homes.

This was in May 1999, and the crucial four-month farming season had just begun. If they left their crops, they would have no food, fodder or firewood stocks during the harsh winter. But when her village suffered heavy casualties from repeated shelling, they were forced to evacuate. Travelling by foot -often barefoot -- over the mountains, they reached the highway near Dras, where they waited en masse for a J&K State Transport Corporation Bus to arrive. These buses, the only means of transport in Ladakh, usually pass through eight or ten times a day. But due to the heavy shelling at that time, most drivers had refused to ply.

Fatima and her two small children had to wait three days and nights on that highway, with insufficient food and water. Not knowing when, if ever, a bus would arrive. Finally, a bus did arrive and she managed to climb aboard with her children. Her destination was Zanskar in Kargil district. Burdened by the small children, the only two things Fatima carried was her 7-year old daughterís schoolbag, and a pressure cooker.

"The schoolbag is because she must study, because that is her future." And the pressure cooker? "So that I can feed my children a good meal tonight."

Yangchen Dolma, 27, despite her appearance, is not a Ladakhi local. She is originally from Tibet, but was a resident of Bangalore until March 1999. She and her husband were both teachers there and were looking for a change of job. He met a monk who said there were vacancies in a monastary in Ladakh and they should go soon. They arrived in Ladakh a month or so later but the roads were still glaciated and the only way to get to the monastary -- at the foot of a glacier -- was by helicopter. While Yangchen and her husband waited for the helicopter, they met someone who told them there were teacherís vacancies in a school in Kargil. So they came to Kargil instead.

They secured jobs at the Pioneer Public School and began their tenure. But almost immediately, the intense shelling began. Yangchen, an ex-Indian army volunteer who had undergone 3 years training at the Signal Corps in Dehradun some years ago, had heard of shelling before. But to experience it first-hand was a nightmare come true.

"It was terrible," she recalls. "The children used to cry and want to go home. Sometimes they used to hide under their desks." It was her job and the job of the other teachers of the school to not only continue to teach under these circumstances but to protect and shepherd the school children from morning to night. Every day, Yangchen would ride the bus with the children to school and back, making sure every child got home safely. Only then would her day end.

Yangchen recalls the summer of 1999 as the worst months of her life. But already, she and her students are making up for lost time. "We fell 2 to 3 months behind in studies, some parents stopped sending their children to school, but now we are catching up. We are having extra classes on holidays also, to finish the portion." But as I left her teaching a Std II class in the makeshift open field near where the school had relocated, shells were beginning to fall closer and closer with each passing hour. What would they do if and when this area also became a target zone for Pakistani artillery? Probably go on anyway.

When an Indian jawan goes into battle, he is bolstered with months or years of intensive training, supported by a huge military machinery providing medical aid, air evacuation, food and supplies. He is armed with lethal weaponry and able to fight back when attacked.

The women of Ladakh have no training, no support systems, no weaponry. When they die, they receive no state funerals. While they live, braving daily shelling and the imminent danger of being shot down by a stray bullet from across the LoC, they receive no military support. For their courage in continuing to work, study and live under the grim shadow of death every day, they receive no citations, no commendations, no Vir Chakras or medals.

Yet their courage and strength are an inspiration to anyone who wonders what we are fighting for in Kargil. When you see little Arifa Iqbal stick out her chin and answer a question in class with her bright-eyed, cheeky confidence, you realize the meaning of patriotism. She is India. And she is well worth fighting for.

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