World

My Turn: Memories of Religious Terror in Kashmir

I am 11 years old. I am panting as I run alongside my parents through the dark, narrow, deserted lanes of my town in Kashmir. The carved-deodar windows and doors of the gable-roofed row houses on each side of the alley are shut. The thunder of the bombs is getting louder. The smoke of the gunfire is clouding my sight. The ground beneath my feet turns into a treadmill. The bang of explosions begins to wane, and we find ourselves at the steps of our home.

I cling to my mother's cold hand and watch my father wiping the sweat on his face with the sleeve of his pheran. The baby in his arms is sleeping peacefully. I pull open the heavy door with my little hands, but suddenly the sound of militants screaming for blood descends from the house. "Run, Daddy, run! You must save the child!" I slam the door against an insurmountable force.

I look at my father's face. He is torn and mute. The gunmen encircle us and invoke their gods and prophets raucously.

I whimpered and awoke.

I was in my bed in my New York apartment. My husband was kneeling next to me, reassuring me that I was no longer in Kashmir. It was only a nightmare. For once he did not complain that I was reading too much about Kashmir—the cause, he's said in the past, of my recurring nightmares. But this time, with the Mumbai terrorist attacks fresh in our minds, he didn't say anything.

For those who have lived through religious terror, it is never over, never escaped. It did not end with my displacement from Kashmir 18 years ago. It did not end with my migration to the States two and a half years ago. Terror, once experienced, transcends all real and unreal boundaries.

So even though I was not in Mumbai, I remain a hostage to the memories of jihadist terror. My nightmare traversed oceans and continents and returned as a lump in my throat three days after the Mumbai attacks. The violence there took me back to the first page, reanimating every memory that had been dormant, hidden by the euphoria of a normal life.

The starting point of religious terror may have disputed dates on the calendar, but in my life it is fixed in a specific time and place. It begins with the blood of the first Kashmiri Pandit (Hindu) murder I saw. Terror's image widened in the smoke rising from our home, which was burned by insurgents, in the bruises on my father's face when he was beaten up by our own state police, in the ruffled looks of my parents when they arrived in the refugee city called Jammu.

But for the children of conflict, terror also manifests itself as an adrenaline rush. There was a thrill when my cousin and I watched young insurgents lob gasoline bombs. And when my sister and I found shelter in an unknown neighborhood amid crossfire, or found threatening letters from terror outfits pasted on our doors. Nevertheless, the dream of settling in a new place away from terror became a secret among the neighborhood kids.

That dream faded as the reality of being homeless refugees hit. "Now live with it. I knew your secret dream," our mother told us, only to break down and sob. On our first 113-degree night in our small rented room in Jammu, sleeping next to 15 other family members, I had my first nightmare. I was caught in an encounter with the security forces and the gunmen.

Years passed. We lived in windowless rooms. Bathrooms had no doors. Snakes and centipedes roamed freely. We walked miles to school in the heat to save on bus fare. We were still privileged compared with the many who lived in the refugee camps. And at least we were free of terror—for now.

Thirteen years later, I went back to Kashmir as a journalist for India's largest-selling newspaper. I was to cover human stories, but all I wrote about was terror. A child killed by a car bomb. An old woman's house drenched in the blood of nine family members. Lashkar-e-Taiba's suicide machinery. Jaish-e-Muhammad's religious-terror demonstrations.

The stories were the same as those from my childhood; they had just broadened their horizons—in addition to the jihadist terror, there were now murders and rapes committed by the Indian security forces, too.

I continue to have nightmares. Now that I am far from home, I thought it was only Kashmir that brought the constant reminder of religious terror's presence in my life. Mumbai changed that.