SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR – Kulsum Dilawar, 16, stands up nervously before sitting back down on the edge of her bed, her eyes gazing down at the floor. Wearing a simple outfit and a printed scarf covering her hair, she flips through the pages of her notebook.
“Can we talk outside?” she mutters.
There are many girls sitting in the spacious room lined with twin-sized beds and big, iron cupboards at Gulshan-e-Banat Orphanage in Budgam district. The orphanage, located about 10 kilometers from Srinagar, the state’s summer capital, is home to 110 girls.
Dilawar walks slowly into the next room and gives a sheepish grin.
“Thank you,” she says.
She tries to muster more, but nothing comes out. Her lips move as if in silent prayer.
Away from the other girls, she talks voluntarily. Still, her voice is choked with emotion as she recounts witnessing her father’s murder.
“I have nothing to lose,” she says. “But whenever somebody inquires about Baba, I feel the same helplessness and pain that I felt when I became an orphan.”
Dilawar is from a village in Baramulla, another district in northern Kashmir.
Her father, Dilawar Ahmed Rather, was a famous singer in the Kashmir Valley who had his own band. But he was also a suspected fighter associated with an armed group. His family and other villagers assured his innocence, but the army would still routinely drag him to the police station and then release him on bail.
On a cold, rainy morning during the winter of 1997, Dilawar’s father, who was 30 at the time, and younger brother Adil were taking a nap upstairs in their home. Dilawar was sitting in the same bedroom.
“They were sleeping, and surprisingly, two men in civil clothes wearing pheran came inside the room and asked, ‘Where your father is?’” she says. A pheran is a traditional Kashmiri long gown. “I told them he is here sleeping.”
She breaks into tears.
“They took pistol out, and without saying anything, fired bullets and killed my father,” she says. “He died while sleeping.”
Her mother was busy with household chores and didn’t know that anybody had entered the house. As Dilawar screamed, the other family members ran upstairs and villagers gathered around the property. Meanwhile, the men escaped. How they managed to enter the house undetected remains a mystery.
“I still remember their faces,” Dilawar says. “I can never forget them. They fired the bullet without any voice. It was just like a creak of a stone. Whenever I close my eyes, the images of the killers come before me. The horrific memories will haunt me forever.”
Her mother now had four daughters and two sons to raise on her own. Dilawar, the youngest daughter, says that her older sisters used to help to look after the family. But now they are all married.
Dilawar’s mother, a housewife, had no livelihood to support her and her brothers, so she sent them to the orphanage. There, the children could have food and shelter and also obtain an education.
Dilawar and her two brothers came to stay at the orphanage in 2003. Dilawar lives in the orphanage for girls, and her brothers live in the one for boys. She is in grade 10 at Banat Insititute of Education, the school for girls next door to the orphanage. Her brothers are in grades 3 and 10 in the school for boys.
When Dilawar first came to the hostel, she was disturbed, sad and vengeful, staff members and peers say. But over the years, she has grown up into a mature girl, known at the orphanage for her brave heart and tomboyish character.
“She is outspoken, intelligent and hardworking,” says a smiling Kounsar Yousuf, Dilawar’s friend at the orphanage.
When Dilawar started school here, she was demoted from third grade to first grade. But now she is one of the top students in her class, scoring 99 percent on a recent exam. She is also good at sports, such as cricket, and enjoys reading Islamic storybooks.
“We have almost every facility here,” she says.
They must follow certain rules at the orphanage, such as waking up early, eating their meals on time, offering prayers, helping the younger children, washing their own clothes, serving food and going to bed on time. But Dilawar says that they also have time for recreation.
“We go daily out for a morning walk and for picnics more than three times in a year,” she says, adding that the patron of the trust that runs the orphanage has become like a father figure. “Papa Ji spends quality time with us. He is more than a father. Every time I see him, it reminds me more of Baba.”
She starts to sob when she remembers her father but acknowledges that life here is good.
“Our life is full of facilities here within the four walls,” she says. “All we miss is our family and the natural environment.”
The students get to see their families once during the year. But Dilawar says that they have also made a new family at the orphanage.
“We go for holidays for 10 days in a year,” she says. “The other girls here are just like a family. Whenever we are idle, we sit together and talk for hours.”
Dilawar wants to become an engineer and says that this is the place to fulfill her dream.
“I don’t want to shift back to my village after completing 12th class,” she says. “I want to stay back to pursue my further studies.”
For children who have lost one or both parents in regional conflict, orphanages provide a place for them to obtain food, shelter, education and a sense of belonging. But experts in various fields worry that this is not a long-term solution and that orphans will be vulnerable once they enter the real world, recommending community-based rehabilitation instead. Orphanage administrators agree this is a better solution but say that society does not currently offer the support that orphanages do. Another obstacle is removing the stigma attached to being an orphan in Kashmiri society. The state government has implemented policies to improve care for orphans, but financial support is lacking.
Conflict over the disputed region of Kashmir in recent decades has left a heavy death toll and many orphans in its wake. About 4.4 percent of children under 18 in Kashmir are orphans, according to a 2010 estimate by Save the Children, an international nongovernmental organization. Conflict is a main reason for this.
Ayesha Nighat, the warden at Gulshan-e-Banat Orphanage, says that the number of orphans is on the rise in Kashmir.
“The number of girl orphans entering into the institutional child care system has been constantly rising, especially due to the conflict,” she says.
Jammu and Kashmir Yateem Trust established the free orphanage in 2002. Girls ages 16 and younger come to live here not only when one or both parents die, but also when parents can’t afford to take care of them.
“Even parents who would have never been willing to send their children to orphanages had to because they cannot feed them, let alone educate them,” Nighat says.
Zahoor Ahmad Tak, patron of Jammu and Kashmir Yateem Trust, says that the orphanage aims to do both.
“We don’t take girls just to feed them,” says Tak, whom the girls endearingly call “Papa Ji.” “Our main goal is to educate them. They should have a good IQ. We can’t leave them high and dry. We will guide them until they will become responsible, mature adults.”
Qurat-ul-ain Masoodi, a social worker who runs Aash, or “Hope,” a nongovernmental organization that helps orphans in the state, says that girls also benefit from the opportunity at orphanages to bond with other girls in similar situations.
“The girls don’t feel alone or suffer silently and gets proper education and care in the most crucial and growing stage of her life, unlike residential care,” she says.
Saleema Bano is a sixth-grade student who came to the orphanage in 2003. She says she has a better opportunity to receive an education here than in her home district of Kupwara.
“My home is beautiful, but there is no education,” she says. “Here, we have good food and clothes to wear. We go to school every day, and in the evening hours, we recite Quran.”
With wheat-colored skin and a scarf covering her head, Saleema is shy and reluctant to talk. The other girls and staff members say she never talks about her father, who died when she was just 15 days old.
“We always wonder if she ever dreamed about her father, or did her heart ever ache for him?” says Aabida Jan, another girl who lives at the orphanage.
Her father was killed as a fighter, according to staff members, but Saleema doesn’t know this.
“I don’t know anything about it,” she says. “Mama says he was ill. The rest I don’t know.”
Her mom has had mental health issues since her husband’s death. Saleema wants to gain an education so that she can help her.
“I want to become doctor,” she says, beaming. “I want to serve my village. I want to look after my mother. Her health would be fine as soon as I’ll make her proud.”
Besides her mother, Saleema says she only remembers two aunts and an uncle from her childhood. She has instead formed a new support system for herself at the orphanage.
“At this hostel, I have many sisters and friends who take care of my necessities,” she says. “They are very friendly.”
She and her neighbor, Shabeena Badr-ud-din, 13, were brought to the orphanage together by a local villager. They have been told they are cousins.
Shabeena, who is in seventh grade, is silent. She is also hesitant to speak about why she ended up in the orphanage.
“I couldn’t see a glimpse of my father,” she says, her gaze low. “He left us before my birth. I was in my mother’s womb when the army killed my father.”
Like Saleema’s father, he was also a fighter.
“Every time I remember him, it brings more guilt in me,” Shabeena says. “It was a misfortune.”
Her mother suffers from vision problems. At the orphanage, Shabeena’s basic necessities are met. She also receives an education, which is important if she is to achieve her dream of becoming a lawyer.
Tak says that the orphanage staff does its best to care for the girls.
“It is a Herculean task to look after the girls in an orphanage,” Tak says. “They need to be cared in a special, decent and secure way.”
But various experts are against the growing number of orphanages in Kashmir. They say that institutionalized care is not a long-term solution to the problem. Moreover, they insist that growing up in an orphanage can have serious negative consequences.
“There is a crisis situation inside the orphanage system, as the orphans are not adapted to live an independent life in society,” says Saika Wani, an education researcher. “There is no parental care, and the emphasis is not on an individual approach and on cushioning and solving personal tragedy.”
A.R. Hanjura, a renowned social activist, agrees that orphanages are not a long-term solution.
“The orphanages lack sustainable support,” he says. “There is no everlasting relationship where an orphan can be a benefit in the longer run and become a success story.”
He says that society needs to look collectively at the matter and support community-based rehabilitation, where community leaders and stakeholders take responsibility for integrating orphans into society.
“Everybody is looking for short-term solution in the shape of orphanages,” Hanjura says. “The biggest roadblock is that funding agencies do not support adolescent care, and thus after attaining the age of 18, an orphan is again thrown back into the impoverished setting.”
Asiya Nayeem, a senior counselor who works at Kashmir Lifeline, a mental health services helpline, says that girls are especially vulnerable.
“Girl orphans are most vulnerable, as they don’t grow in a social setting, and they are picked up from the social moorings and put in a dependent environment,” she says. “They live their life within the confines of an orphanage without any basic development and exposure.”
Tak agrees with experts that community-based rehabilitation is preferable to orphanages. But he says that society does not yet offer this, making orphanages the best alternative to ensure children care and education.
“Our society is hardly concerned in getting indulged to help these orphans within the society,” he says. “So under special cases, it becomes necessity and as an only alternative.”
Some argue that orphans are better off in orphanages, where they receive food, shelter and an education. In society, these basic necessities aren’t guaranteed.
Shamima Tancha, 19, lives in the hills of Srinagar. She has two sisters and two brothers. Aside from the youngest, they all had to drop out of school after their father disappeared.
Her mother, Begum Jan Tancha, says that the army took her husband away in 2005, and he never returned.
“That day, the army said he will come back home tomorrow,” she says with tearful eyes. “That tomorrow never came.”
She struggles to care for her children on her own.
“We have no source of shelter,” she says. “I have to beg sometimes to feed them.”
She says that various orphanages have offered to take the children in, but the family refuses to separate.
“I can’t keep them away, as they are my only hope now,” the grief-stricken mother says.
Aisha Tancha, the youngest child, goes to a nearby school. Her older siblings support their mother by collecting firewood in the forests and doing the household chores.
“We want to live and die together,” Aisha says.
Her siblings agree that they’d rather help support their mother than receive an education at an orphanage.
“There is no regret that I couldn’t continue my studies,” Shamima Tancha says. “All I regret is that we are still not sure whether our father is alive or dead. We are surviving to live, as we even don’t get charity, let alone other facilities.”
Education aside, experts in the field say that society must pay more attention to the psychological needs of these orphans. The trauma they have witnessed causes physical stress, which could manifest itself in various ways, including depression, anger, anxiety and nightmares.
“These children feel worthless to the world,” says Masrat Allaqband, a clinical psychologist. “They feel hurt. We always make them feel they are orphans. They always have a sense of feeling that when their own people shy away and didn’t became responsible, why should strangers?”
Insha Jan, a staff member at Gulshan-e-Banat Orphanage, acknowledges the psychological detriment of lifetime labels such as “orphan” and “destitute.”
“The children who grow up in orphanages to carry labels imply that they are different from those who have parents,” Jan says.
Bashir Ahmed Wani, executive director of the Jammu and Kashmir State Rehabilitation Council, says that measures to support orphanages are lacking.
“There are 20,707 orphans of civilians killed and 5,389 orphans of fighters since 1990,” he says. “The State Rehabilitation Council gives no aid.”
But the council does pay tuition and hostel fees for orphans of fighters outside of orphanages.
The state government has endorsed Save the Children’s guidelines on care for orphans. This policy change will help 100,000 children, according to the organization.
Originally appeared in Global Press Journal