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The Filmmaker from Kashmir

Iffat Fatima. Photo: Ingvill Aalborg

In the Indian part of Kashmir, Iffat Fatima risks her life in order to tell the story about men who have disappeared. For six years Fatima has worked on the film “On a Trail of Vanished Blood”, which had its first public showing here in Oslo in connection with this year’s Films from the South festival. “Making films in Kashmir takes time,” Fatima says to FOKUS.

23.11.2012 By: Ingvill Aalborg. Translated from Norwegian by Gundel Krauss Dahl

The filmmaker has worked with the organization APDP, Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, and she has cooperated with and received support for the film through FOKUS’ partner organizationIAWRT, International Association of Women in Radio and Television.

 Fear of being abducted

The larger part of Kashmir officially belongs to India, while the rest lies in Pakistan and China. It is a heavily militarized area with 700.000 Indian soldiers and many military camps, known to the locals as places where people are being tortured and “disappeared”. Fatima consistently uses the expression “to be disappeared”, a phrase which is commonly used in many places where people disappear without trial and court cases, but where everyone knows that someone has taken them. Fatima says that she herself has been afraid of being taken by the Indian army, and that she has been arrested on several occasions.

“I once went to an area which had formerly been farmland, but where there was now a military camp. I filmed in the village and talked to people who complained that the military had taken over the land where they had always been farming. The military had also built lavatories on the hillside and the water and wastage flowed down and polluted the farmland below. Some of the women in the village came with me to show me that area. None of the men wanted to come. They were afraid the military would think they were complaining.

We went out on the beautiful yellow mustard field, but on the other side was the big camp and there the earth was quite dry and barren. I left the cameraman behind and interviewed the women from the village while we went. I filmed with my camera hidden in my lap. I knew we were being watched, though I couldn’t see anyone. When we came to the end of the field two soldiers suddenly appeared and said the major wanted to see me. I asked why, but they just told me to come along. At the camp a superior officer asked to see my ID papers. At first he refused to accept them since they were issued in Kashmir, but when I showed him some more papers he finally changed his mind. Even so we had to follow him into the camp. They took pictures of us but then let us go.”
Though they had accepted her papers Fatima had to stay in the camp for several hours.
“It was quite scary, for this was one of the camps where people were being tortured and disappeared,” says Fatima.

Fatima’s footage was destroyed and she was told they might file a case against her. She was going to be taken to the police station, but on the way a miracle happened.
“They had taken our telephones, but on the way to the police station I was allowed to phone some friends. They phoned others and on the way the message reached the police station.

“You see,” she says with a smile, “the army is from India. They are outsiders. But the police are mostly locals. You can talk with them.”

They let Fatima go, but she has since been under surveillance. She knows that someone can come and take her camera at any time, and she has got used to the situation.

To be a journalist in Kashmir is a risky profession. According to Fatima male journalists in particular are at risk and can be arrested, beaten and have their equipment confiscated.  And foreign journalists are no exception; they too can risk the same.
The sources can be in danger too, and Fatima does her utmost to protect them.
“My sources have become like an extended family for me, and I feel an enormous responsibility for them and for the way I use what they have told me.  I try very hard not to show anything that can be dangerous for them.”

Fatima has spent much time to get to know the people she shows in her film.
“Many are afraid to speak to journalists,” she says. “They know it can be dangerous to be recognized. It is also quite usual that the army and the police send their own photographers to take pictures of people who take part in demonstrations in order to be able to single them out later. People therefor often act in a very negative way when they see a camera.”

Women without men especially at risk

In the film we hear the stories of several women who have lived for many years without knowing what has happened to their husbands. One of the women says that before he disappeared her husband had asked her never to marry again. Another woman says she tried to open a shop from her home, but had to give it up since it was looked upon as inappropriate for a woman in her situation.

“The men are definitely the main providers in these families, and without them the women have to manage on their own,” says Fatima. “It is difficult for them to take care of their children and have them sent to school, and there is not necessarily a welfare system to help them.”

APDP, the organization Fatima cooperates with, has done a lot to help these women. They have collected money in the local community and had many children sent to school. The head of the organization, Parveena Ahangar, has become quite a well known person through her active protest.

“People listen to her, and the organization has received much support. But it is difficult for individuals. Many of these women are very vulnerable, many are young attractive women and it can be  tough for them, particularly in a job situation,” says Fatima.
The woman in the film who said that her husband had asked her not to marry again was only 24-25 years old when he disappeared. With her three small children she wandered round to the military camps and the prisons to look for him. She got other family members to come with her, but was told by the military that she must come back without them, so that they could be alone with her.

“A young woman in such a situation is very vulnerable,” says Fatima.  ”Sexual harassment is common in Kashmir, rape, torture and all kinds of sexual violence. When the military go into a village they get all the men to assemble in one particular place, the women are left behind, and the military can then enter and do as they please. There are villages where all the women have been raped.”

In the end the woman in the film gave up her search.

“She felt she must protect her own honour,” says Fatima. They started coming to her house under the pretext of making a search to see if she had weapon in the house.  She could not go on; she had to concentrate on taking care of her children, now that she was alone with them."

She still does not know what happened to her husband.


Hard times for journalists

More than eight thousand men have disappeared in Kashmir. It is these violations of human rights and their consequences Fatima tries to document in her film. Tactics and good luck have helped her succeed in her risky project.

“I try to dress and to behave in a way which makes them not take notice of me, and I do not go round with other journalists when there are demonstrations. They often go round in groups and are easily recognized. I prefer to cover myself with a shawl, hide my camera and be a part of the march with the other women.”

“I suppose I have been lucky, but I also think it is an advantage to be a woman, because they don’t consider me to be as threatening as a man,” says the human-rights activist.

The International Day of the Disappeared. Iffat Fatima together with women from APDP. Photo: Valerie Lew.
The International Day of the Disappeared. Iffat Fatima together with women from APDP. Photo: Valerie Lew.