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Paynesville Press - August 27, 2003

Guest Editorial

A battle between pens and guns

By Shujaat Bukhari

India journalist Shujaat Bukhari I have a thump of fear, each time the phone rings late at night at my home. It is not a normal state like any other Indian state, but one of the flashpoints in the world.

Only recently, Richard Armitage, said in Sydney, "Kashmir is a dangerous place." So everyday for a journalist in Jammu and Kashmir state in northern Himalyan region of South Asia is a new challenge.

I have grown up as a journalist in the strife which came to center stage in late 1989. I wanted to be a journalist, as at a distance it looked like a thrilling profession. My thoughts were of normal times and not based on the stories of bloodletting.

Sometimes, when provoked, I would have second thoughts, but at the same time, the experiences of the new day would hold me back.

"Why you cannot switch over to a normal job. It is hard to see you in the center of trouble," one of my close relatives asked me when I came home with my bandaged arm and limping leg. I was beaten by the security forces while covering an incident in a central Kashmir township on a sunny May day. I had nothing to say. In Kashmir the journalist is in the eye of storm from all sides.

Early days of militancy were too tough. If a press release by a militant group would not carry the meaning in the paper, it was hard to convince its leaders. The covering note would always carry a threat (in words) and sometimes it would translate into reality.

And that was not far away but happened in early 1990 when a local editor was gunned down by "unknown assassins." His death is still a mystery, like 11 others, who paid their lives for us, but his editorial comment was seen as the immediate provocation.

A journalist in Kashmir has failed to keep the warring sides happy. If an atrocity by security forces is reported, he may be dubbed as "anti- national" and highlighting the misdeeds of militants or extra-political activities of separatists would mean that he is "anti-tehreek" (anti-movement). A sword hanging over his head in both cases.

The killings in the initial days had a strong impact on my mind but with the passage of time, it started changing. I found myself stronger in taking the lead to have a look at a row of 17 dead bodies shrouded in coffins after a military-militant standoff.

But it certainly would change into tears, when a young photo journalist was crying after a parcel bomb exploded in his hands. Within minutes, it was blood all over. He died after three days in hospital.

Again, in August 2000, I had a close shave. A devastating car bomb exploded just near my office. I rushed, saw my coulleagues already on the spot. It was just a reprise of terror stories I had been reporting for a decade.

Before I could move ahead, a deafening sound threw another lot of bodies towards the road. A dismembered human body dangling from an electric pole, dripping blood was not another civilian for me but a visiting photo journalist from New Delhi. He was a friend of mine from Hindustan Times. I had met him an hour ago and could not believe him becoming the theme of yet another gory picture.

"I could have been there," I asked myself. This was the new phase in reporting Kashmir. The deadly suicide bombing started taking a new toll.

In Kashmir, every scribe has a story to tell. Yusuf Jameel, a well-respected journalist who was working with BBC and Reuters, escaped several times. The parcel bomb that claimed Mushtaq's life was meant for him. His office was attacked with grenades. Threat was a permanent feature of his life. He was awarded an International Press Freedom award by New-York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Habib Naqash is a photo journalist, who has made a record of not missing a single incident in which journalists were beaten by either side.

Things have not stopped as yet. Last year a young reporter survived an attack in his office. Doctors said it was a miracle how he is leading a normal life. Bullets pierced through his nose but the nervous system skipped. The last victim so far was Parvaz Sultan, editor of a local news agency, who was gunned down in his office, apparently for reporting a feud between the two factions of a militant group.

I am unable to recall the trauma when a group of journalists was taken hostage in South Kashmir by a pro-government militant outfit - Ikhwan. I was among five, who were locked up in a room and the "self styled commander" of the group thundered, "I want bodies of these five tomorrow." We came out safely, but it was unbelievable.

For a small community of journalists (not more than 100 people) to lose 11 members is a big price. And it is difficult to exist with recurrent, harassment, and intimidation. But amid the daily grind of violence, life goes on, of course with a difference. It is stressful and sleep is difficult. Who knows about tomorrow?

Shujaat is a visiting journalist from the Kasmir region of India. He works as a special correspondent for The Hindu, an English national daily newspaper in India. . A journalist with 13 years of experience, he covers the conflict in Kasmir, where the current round of violence started in 1989 and has consumed over 70,000 lives so far.

He is visiting America as part of the World Press Institute, based in St. Paul. He recently spent a week in Paynesville visiting a local farm and a smalltown media outlet.

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