Muzaffarabad, Pakistan-administered Kashmir - For Usman Ali, the decision to flee his home and take up arms against the state came not at the end of a gradual process of conversion, but all of a sudden, in a rare moment of clarity.
It was a chill winter's night in 1992, and a then 16-year-old Ali was asleep in his shared room, rain and hail falling on the village in Indian-administered Kashmir's Karnah district.
"It was 3am, when suddenly we heard some disturbance outside. We thought some people must have been moving past. But then we heard some women screaming. We thought it must be the army," he told Al Jazeera.
|Usman Ali, 37, says he decided to take up arms against India after seeing the "cruelty" and "oppression" of security forces [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]
Army officers kicked the door down, beat him and his roommate and then dragged them both outside, he said. He was ordered to join the rest of the villagers, being questioned as they lined up in a clearing.
"There was a woman there who had just given birth, hours earlier, at home... It was cold, but the soldiers didn't care at all... This went on for about three hours, and in that time they questioned or beat almost everyone.
"In this process, the child died in its mothers arms. It was her first child."
The woman started screaming, pleading for help, Ali says, and she soon got the attention of a soldier, who asked her why she was making such noise.
"Let it die," Ali recalls him saying when she told him.
A few weeks later, Ali says, he heard about the rape of 22 women in his village - allegedly by Indian security forces.
"That was the turning point for me. I thought that forget life, forget parents - I decided that I must go to Pakistan, get training there, and fight against this. Whether I do it with stones or guns. This was oppression, this was cruelty. And who will stop the oppressor?"
Ali, now 37, recalls how he crossed the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border between India and Pakistan in the disputed territory of Kashmir, under cover of darkness, expecting to receive training from armed pro-independence groups and to return to fight Indian security forces.
It's been 21 years, however, and Ali was never able to find a way to go back.
"I didn't enroll in school here because when I came, I didn't come for school. I came to take part in the struggle for independence. I felt that if my life here was difficult, I was doing it for my family who was suffering over there. There should be some reason I came here. But after staying here so long, I have lost out."
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Ali is unemployed, and has been for most of the past two decades. He survives on a monthly stipend that the government of Pakistan-administered Kashmir provides to him and his family.
His story is not atypical. Since an armed movement against Indian rule over Kashmir began in 1989, thousands of refugees such as Ali put their lives on hold when they crossed into Pakistan - whether fleeing the ensuing security forces' crackdown or to take up arms against India. They now live in Pakistan, most without jobs, citizenship or even identity cards, and struggle to get by on what the government provides.
The government of Pakistan-administered Kashmir - known as Azad Jammu & Kashmir, or AJK - provides each of the 34,812 registered refugees to have arrived in Pakistan since 1990 with a monthly stipend of Rs1,500 ($14), or about Rs9,000 ($86) per month for a typical family.
The government also provides land for the 24 refugee camps that it operates, housing 22,773 people. The rest live in various areas and cities across AJK, officials told Al Jazeera.
Whether in camps or outside, however, most refugees continue to live in makeshift dwellings - shanty houses made of mud, brick and corrugated iron for those lucky enough to afford it, while simple tents give shelter to thousands of others.
One of 'the disappeared'
For those now in AJK, the memories of the homes and lives they left behind on "the other side" - as the Indian-controlled side of the LoC is known here - bring a mixture of longing and pain.
"When we came here, we didn't think that we would go and study, start a business, make something of ourselves - we thought that we would come, help out in the cause in whatever way we could, and when Kashmir was freed, we would go back," says 37-year-old Chaudhry Mushtaq, who lives in the Manak Payan refugee camp in Muzaffarabad, the capital of AJK.
Mushtaq fled his home at 17, after both his father and brother had been imprisoned by Indian authorities on suspicion of being part of the pro-independence movement.
"At the time I was very young. I was scared and didn't know how to [cross the LoC]. But the pressure and cruelty on the other side was so much that all day, every day, the army men would come and bother our family. So it was my mother who said that I should leave, no matter what, so that I avoid my brother's fate," he told Al Jazeera.
It has now been 19 years, but neither he nor his family have heard a word about what happened to his brother and father. They have become, he said, members of "the disappeared".
Uzair Ahmed Ghazali, 38, came over in similar circumstances.
|Uzair Ahmed Ghazali, 38, from Kandi in Indian-administered Kashmir, came across the border 23 years ago
[Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]
"[In 1989], Indian forces began carrying out more raids, arresting young and old alike, imposing curfews, curtailing people's movements. Shooting people wherever they found them. So in that situation, I received reports that I was also going to be captured. The elders in the village told me that intelligence agency and security forces personnel were roaming in my village. So out of fear, like others, we ran away here to Azad Kashmir," he told Al Jazeera of his flight as a 15-year-old boy from the village of Kandi.
India's government denies it carries out unwarranted arrests or detentions, saying those arrested were suspected of involvement in the armed anti-state campaign in Kashmir, and the detentions are legal under Indian law.
The fate of refugees in Pakistan bears a striking similarity to that of the tens of thousands of Hindu refugees - known as "pandits" - who have fled Indian-administered Kashmir for other parts of India since 1989, citing direct threats made against them by armed Muslim pro-independence groups.
For both groups, there are stories of families divided by the conflict. Ghazali, for example, has a brother, two sisters and his mother on "the other side". In late August, he went to the de facto border by the banks of the Neelum River to meet his mother, but neither Pakistani nor Indian authorities would let them descend to meet each other.
"We just waved to each other from across the river," he said. "At least I could see her properly - she's 75 years old and couldn't even see a few feet ahead of her."
Hope of 'martyrdom'
Just as many have had their families cleaved in two by the conflict, they have also started new ones in Pakistan.
Mushtaq married a Pakistani in 1997, and now has five children who live with him in his small hut. Caught in a bureaucratic legal limbo, they are neither allowed to be Pakistani citizens, nor do they have the ability to return home.
"Our children have grown up here, and they ask us what is our future? We are very upset by that. How do I explain to them?" he asks.
It's a sentiment shared by Chaudhry Qamaruddin, a former fighter with the armed movement who would cross the border frequently during the early 1990s, but finally fled to Pakistan for good in 1997 "to save [my] life".
I'll go across the border and fight for my country. Even if I am killed, I accept that.
His family in the Lolab Valley area of Indian-administered Kashmir was persecuted because of his involvement in the armed campaign, he says. After his wife and child were killed and his home burned to the ground, he left the area for good.
"Our children interview us [about our homeland] the same way that you are doing right now," he told Al Jazeera. "They ask who we will live with, where we will stay, what will we do? They ask who their family is over there. For them, they were born here, they only know here. So they will not return so happily, I think."
Qamaruddin says he still holds "the hope in my heart that I will be martyred" while fighting for Kashmir, and promises he will teach his five-year-old to fight for Kashmir's independence, too, if it is required.
"I'll go across the border and fight for my country. Even if I am killed, I accept that. I will always be with the freedom movement… We responded to their oppression by fighting against them... The oppression has only increased and we have fought them in response to that."
Others just want to return home - not to fight, but simply to be reunited with their family.
"I don't feel like this is my home," says Zareena Begum, a 42-year-old refugee from the village of Amrohi in Indian-administered Kashmir. "My home is there. Right now, I just wait for death.
"I miss my mother, and my father died three years ago. I couldn't go for the funeral because I only heard about it three months after it happened."
Smiling only slightly while looking at her husband, a former member of the armed movement, she says - using a dialect he is not conversant in: "I curse to the grave the person who brought me here."
Families such as Zareena's do have the opportunity to return under a new policy instituted by Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir. The "rehabilitation policy", put in place three years ago by the Indian government, allows former members of armed groups to return home by travelling via Nepal (they cannot go via Pakistan because that country's government has consistently denied that it aided or allowed armed groups to function on its territory).
So far, the Indian government says at least 300 people have returned under the policy.
We have seen thousands raped, arrested, interrogated. Houses and markets have been burned. But the world? The world talks of the rights of birds and animals, but it doesn't see humanity in Kashmir.
There has been widespread criticism of the programme by those who have taken part in it, however, mostly over the surveillance and strictures they are subject to once they return home.
"They call us back with money and programmes, but it's all a trick. They are trying to get us back, but we will not be free there," says 45-year-old Hakimuddin Sheikh, the former fighter who is Zareena's husband.
"Going back [under the policy] would mean surrendering to [India] - it would mean accepting their rule," says Usman Ali, the refugee from Karna. "I would prefer death to that."
The lack of people crossing the LoC is not just because of distrust of the new policy. Many refugees told Al Jazeera the process for getting family visit permits - involving intelligence agency approval on both sides of the de facto border - takes months, if not years, to complete.
Many feel the only way to return would be with a resolution over Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Recently elected Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has made normalising ties with India a key part of his economic platform, promising a new trade regime with the regional economic giant. He is due to meet with Manmohan Singh, his Indian counterpart, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on September 29, where the two leaders are sure to discuss a recently heightened state of hostilities across the LoC by both country's militaries.
In AJK, however, there is little hope among refugees for the peace process.
"I have lost faith in the United Nations, in the Security Council, in rights organisations, in world powers, in the India and Pakistan talks process," says Ghazali. "We have lost hundreds of thousands of lives to this struggle... We have seen thousands raped, arrested, interrogated. Houses and markets have been burned. But the world? The world talks of the rights of birds and animals, but it doesn't see humanity in Kashmir."
The refugee from Kandi says he has "lost faith in the people of this world. But I have faith in God that this can be achieved".
It is that faith in God, rather than man, that keeps the hope of one day returning home alive in Ali's heart, too.
"I still have hope that I will go home. Without that hope, I cannot live for a single day."
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim
Source: Al Jazeera