Bilal Ahmed thought he was battling for the freedom of his homeland Kashmir when he took up arms and slipped across the border to Pakistan to wage a war against what many deemed to be Indian occupation of the region.
That was then. Now, about 20 years later, he is still battling – but only to lead a normal life as a civilian.
In doing so, he finds the odds stacked against him.
India still administers the part of Kashmir that he came from, and Pakistan is far less warm to him than it used to be at the height of insurgency in the 1990s.
Having given up the arms that he once wielded, Bilal finds himself powerless – either to change the historical boundaries of the region or the course of his life. Currently, he rots in a refugee camp.
“I have been living here for two decades,” Bilal said of the camp in Azad Kashmir, the part of the disputed region administered by Pakistan. “This life has cost me everything… especially the grave family difficulties I have faced.”
Azad in Urdu – Pakistan’s national language – means freedom. But ironically, Bilal has had little of it in life. He hasn’t had the freedom even once in the last two decades to visit his parents who continue to live in Indian-administered Kashmir. Raising a family also is proving to be difficult as few are willing to employ an ex-fighter.
“Even though they say everybody is free in Pakistan, we are not,” Bilal moaned to Al Jazeera.
His plight is shared by thousands of other former fighters, who – fired by the ideals of freedom, fought against India only to be forsaken by Pakistan later.
Heart of hostilites
Kashmir had been at the heart of hostilities between the two nuclear neighbours.
When the British rulers partitioned the sub-continent, both India and Pakistan lay claim over the region. India took a slice while Pakistan took control of some.
But when Kashmiris on the Indian side rose up in revolt in the 1990s, Pakistan seized the opportunity and supported the fighters by providing them with arms, training and refuge.
“After I decided to start a new life, the difficulties were so excruciating that I went back to work with radical groups within Pakistan many times just so that I have enough money for food”
– Amir – Former fighter
The decades-long war has somewhat waned, and many former fighters find themselves trapped on the Pakistan side of the border.
Though official figures are not available, social workers at refugee camps estimate about 6,000 former fighters like Bilal are now living in Pakistan. While most of them continue to be associated with religious and radical groups within Kashmir and other parts of Pakistan, many – about 40 per cent according to refugee groups – have started a new life.
Those who had some money started businesses while others went to work for NGOs and private firms, usually at entry level positions.
“Despite government promises of financial protection and aid for former fighters, the money is rarely received by the people who need it,” says Bilal.
“After I decided to start a new life, the difficulties were so excruciating that I went back to work with radical groups within Pakistan many times just so that I have enough money for food,” Amir, a former fighter who is now a journalist in Muzafferabad, said.
Prior to getting work as a reporter, he had lost several jobs and was almost penniless. Critics of government policy say poverty experienced by former fighters often leads them back to work with radical groups like Jamat-e-Islami and the Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF).
Victims of their past
Many of the fighters blame Pakistan’s change of heart towards them for their misery.
“The government has turned its back on us,” says Aurangzeb, a multimedia journalist who once fought for Kashmir’s freedom from India.
According to him, problems of those who crossed over from India were heard and their issues addressed. No one went hungry in the refugee camps until mid-2000s. “But now, no one is taken seriously.”
Abdul Manan, a professor at the University of Azad Jammu & Kashmir, agrees. “The government does not openly talk about their policy towards these former militants, but the way the authorities deal with these men and their families is unusual.”
“From education, health, job opportunities, to their citizen status, these ex-militants who gave up their arms two decades ago are suffering at the hands of the same state, that had once called upon them and trained them to fight,” he says.
“Both governments of India and Pakistan… are responsible for this historical humanitarian abuse.”
But Mohsin Ali, a director of an NGO that supports child education in Kashmir, says the former fighters are victims of their past.
“These ex-militants are actually not easy to work with. They have had a background in militancy and I don’t think they are ever able to release themselves from their militant mindsets.” Ali thinks, hiring these former fighters to work in his NGO could cost him unnecessary trouble.
Scars aren’t friendly
Bilal, for one, agrees that putting his past behind him is impossible.
“Scars aren’t friendly, especially if they never go away,” he said, pointing to his artificial leg, which now substitutes the one he lost in an ambush when he tried going back to Indian held Kashmir.
“Sometimes I struggle to hide my past, but it’s difficult to explain the broken leg“
– Bilal Ahmed
He had trouble finding a wife as the tag of being a fighter in Kashmir was increasingly associated with “terrorism” by some. No one wanted to marry their daughter to someone who had once held a Kalashnikov. It was early in 2000 when Ahmed found his wife, a Pakistani local in Muzafferabad. They fell in love, and she fought and left her family to marry him.
But they did not live happily ever after. Abandoned by the state, he says he is denied jobs, despite his refugee status which should have given him a better chance of government employment due to a quota system. When he goes for interviews he says employers still categorise him as a terrorist and he never hears back from them. “Sometimes I struggle to hide my past, but it’s difficult to explain the broken leg.”
One of the identifier of ex-fighters is their scars. Because of these problems, he says he hasn’t been able to get enough money to lease an apartment or to properly educate his son.
The Pakistani government insists the former fighters are not discriminated against. According to Anjum Akhtar of the Kashmir General Administration department, “there are thousands of refugees who are living in Azad Kashmir and it is hard to identify which ones are ex-militants. We treat them equally.”
But Bilal, with his artificial leg, is certain to disagree. His life is simply limping along with no freedom in sight.