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Suffering orphans and widows: The story of in Kashmir villages near the border
To feed her three children, Saleema Begum, 31, a widow, cleans houses in her native Dardpora village, near the Line of Control (LoC) in north Kashmir's frontier Kupwara district. The children – sons Asif Ahmad, 8, and Faisal Ahmad, 7, and daughter Mubeena, 6 – stay in the family's muddy house with their ailing grandmother, Sarwa Begum, 60, and wait for their mother to return from work in anticipation of eating dinner.
"My children are facing starvation-like conditions and often remain sleepless due to hunger," Saleema said. "I clean houses of neighbours and help them in other household chores to earn a few bucks, but [its] often insufficient to feed them properly."


Her husband, Jamal-u-din Poswal, once earned a respectable living as a carpenter. But he took up arms with the banned Hizbul Mujahedeen (HM) in 1998, and was killed in an encounter with Indian army troops in December 2006 in nearby Chowkibal forests, leaving his ill-fated widow to fend for her broken family.


"Being a militant, my husband was destined to get killed or jailed for life," Saleema told. "He chose a wrong path in spite of stiff opposition from me." Dardpora Village, around 127km from Srinagar and near the LoC, has earned the dubious distinction of being the "village of widows and orphans" over the past two decades. It has around 300 widows and nearly 760 orphans.


As difficult as it is for the widows, it is the fatherless children who suffer the most. Many never go to school due to abject poverty and mental stress.


"Like other children, I want to go to school, but my mother says I will be sent to school next year," an emotional Asif Ahmad said. "My father would have sent me to a good school, had he been alive." Begum's only brother, 20-year-old Nisar Ahmad, was forced to abandon education in class eight. Daily, he goes out in search of work to help support his widowed sister.


Sarwa Begum, mother of Saleema, told, "Initially for a few months after the tragedy, village elders lent a helping hand. But soon everybody, including the government and non-government organisations (NGOs), forgot me and my children. A team of government officials visited us in 2009 and promised to provide financial assistance for the education of orphaned children, but we have not received a single penny to date."


Kashmir Social Welfare Director Bashir Ahmad Bhat told, "In a bid to help educate victims of violence, including the children of deceased militants, the department provides students' cash assistance up to post-graduation level". The monthly assistance ranges from Rs 1,000 ($18.46) to Rs 1,500 ($27.68), depending on the level of the student, he said.


"Cases of Dardpora victims will be looked into and monetary assistance provided to the victims, who have not been covered so far," he said.


Hajira Begum, 47, has been a widow since 1996, when her husband, an HM militant named Sharwali Khatana, was slain. Educational assistance will not ease her plight. "I sold a major portion of land to educate my elder son till graduation," Hajira Begum said. "He is now a teacher in a private school and earns Rs 2,000 ($36.90) a month. That is all the family has to contend with," she told.


Her other son Mohammad Iqbal, 17, is a mentally-ill 10th grade dropout, on medication for the past seven years. "Most of times, I fail to afford medicines for him, which aggravates his illness." She has borrowed money for medicine from relatives, she said, but has not yet been able to repay it.
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