South Asia

The mystery surrounding Kashmir's graves

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Media captionKashmir unmarked graves to be investigated

"There's one, and another and over there, another…"

Ata Mohammad Khan squints in the harsh midday sun as he points out mounds of earth on a stretch of land by the side of a river. Each one of them is a grave that he says he was made to dig by the police.

Mr Khan is a grave digger in the village of Binyar, in Uri in Indian-administered Kashmir, close to the Line of Control that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

His graveyard is one of several sites that are now in the spotlight, after a report by the State Human Rights Commission on the existence of nearly 6,000 bodies in unmarked graves in north Kashmir.

It is the first time a government body has acknowledged what many Kashmiris have been saying for years.

'Bloodied bodies'

"The police used to bring the bodies, mostly at night," Ata Mohammad Khan says.

"Many of the bodies were covered in blood, they had bullet holes, some had broken legs. It's hard to describe, these were not normal deaths."

His testimony is one of several that is now in the Commission's report which has been compiled by civil rights campaigners.

"We made public announcements saying that if there were any unmarked graves people should contact us," says Khurram Parvez of the Coalition of Civil Society.

"We went to different districts, meeting police, grave diggers, community elders and documented the evidence that we have produced."

Maisuma is in the heart of Srinagar, once a volatile neighbourhood that was a major stronghold of the Kashmiri separatists.

At the height of the movement the security forces would conduct raids here, picking up anyone suspected of being a militant.

The family of Syed Anwar Shah live in a dilapidated old building, squeezed into a tiny room.

His mother weeps as she tells me how he disappeared 11 years ago.

"He left for work that day, I had packed his lunch. The security forces picked him off the street. We didn't even realise what happened.

"I've looked everywhere for him but I haven't found him."

Who is buried?

Over the past 20 years, thousands of Kashmiris have gone missing - many after allegedly being picked up by the security forces.

Image caption The potent issue of missing people in Kashmir has sparked demonstrations

Now the fear is that some of them may actually have been killed and buried in the unmarked graves.

"Our children were picked up by the army, the police, the special forces. Ask them where they are, ask them what happened to them," says Parveena Ahangar, who leads the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons.

But the chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, says it's unlikely that civilians ended up in the unmarked graves.

"We have evidence documenting the circumstances under which they died. They were militants from various parts of the world who were killed either while infiltrating or in encounters."

But bowing to public pressure, the government has ordered an investigation to try and determine who is buried in the graves.

Not many in Kashmir are confident of the outcome.

"The same people who are responsible for the unmarked graves are being entrusted with carrying out an investigation," says hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

"That's why we are asking the United Nations to set up War Crimes Tribunal to investigate this matter."

Whatever happens, the issue has ignited a fresh debate over India's conduct in Kashmir, a conflict zone that is still heavily militarised and in which more than 60,000 people have died in the past two decades.

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