Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – In a central park in Kashmir’s Srinagar, relatives of the disappeared gather for a day of remembrance and mourning.
Some burst into tears as they hold photographs of their lost loved ones, some of whom have been missing for years and whose fate remains unknown.
It is the International Day of the Disappeared and these families have one simple question: are their loved ones dead or alive?
They have waited years for any sign of them.
They have visited graveyards, morgues, prisons and torture centres, but found no trace of their missing kin.
The families were brought together by Parveena Ahanger, a 55-year-old woman whose own teenage son disappeared in 1990.
Ahanger heads the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and tells Al Jazeera that the group will continue to protest and appeal to the international community until they are informed about their missing relatives.
“We want to ask the government what they have done to our sons,” Ahanger says. “Have they been killed in fake encounters or are they buried in unknown graves?”
The APDP says that at least 8,000 people have gone missing in enforced disappearances by Indian government forces since 1989.
Zareefa Bano, from Kupwara district, was nine months pregnant when she last saw her husband in 1990. Ghulam Rasool had herded his cows into a forest. He never returned.
“Who knows about the disappeared?” says Bano, a wrinkled-faced mother of two daughters.
She travelled more than 130km from her village home to Srinagar with her 26-year-old daughter, Zahida, who was born days after Rasool disappeared.
“I never saw him,” says Zahida. “Life is very difficult without a father in the family. My mother cannot do all those things which our father would have done. We have been broken all these years.”
‘We cried so much our tears have dried’
Abdul Aziz Pir’s only son, Farooq Ahmad Pir, was a college student when he disappeared in the summer of 1994. Pir says his son was detained by the army and never returned.
Pir, who looks older than his 60 years, has not stopped searching for him for the past 23 years.
“We have cried so much all these years that our eyes have now become dry,” he says.
Officials in Indian-administered Kashmir deny charges they are involved in capturing young men from their families.
Paul Vaid, Jammu and Kashmir police chief, tells Al Jazeera that the question about their whereabouts should be “asked to Pakistan”.
“Those who were killed on border, I cannot say anything about them. But many people went to Pakistan and other countries,” he said, implying the missing had left to join groups fighting for the separatist cause.
Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since the end of British colonial rule in 1947.
Nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan each administer part of Kashmir, but both claim the Himalayan territory in its entirety.
Separatist groups have been fighting since 1989 for the Indian-administered portion to become independent or merge with Pakistan.
Nearly 70,000 people have been killed since the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.
Back at the park, 65-year-old Rehti Begum reflects on her quiet life in Chaki Kawoosa village of Budgam, before her only son went missing.
Begum said Muhammad Ramzan was detained in 1994 by the army. He was never seen again.
“There is no one around with whom I can share my pain,” she says.
Her husband died months after their son disappeared and she has since worked odd jobs.
She searched for Ramzan for two decades, even as age took a toll on her health.
“I went to every village, every mountain, every police station and every jail, but I could not see a glimpse of him.”