Refugee Crisis Worsening in Western Kashmir

March 13, 2003

On the eve of what could become a new war-generated refugee crisis, an old one worsens in western Kashmir.

Azad Kashmir is a territory of Kashmir under Pakistan's jurisdiction. Twelve miles (19 kilometers) outside of Muzaffarabad, capital of Azad Kashmir, the mountains once were green and empty. Now they are speckled with white tents. More than 100 refugees have just moved into a new camp there above the Jhelum River.

The refugees, Kashmiri Muslims, are trying to rebuild lives ravaged by the decades-old Pakistan-Indian Kashmir conflict. The newcomers join the 17,000 other refugees who have made Azad Kashmir their home—some since 1989.

"Many of them have fled out of fear for their lives from the Indian forces, as well as the destruction of their houses," said Hiram Ruiz, director of communications for the U.S. Committee for Refugees in Washington, D.C., who has witnessed the situation firsthand.

The region of Kashmir, divided among China, India, and Pakistan, represents a melting pot of ancient cultures against the backdrop of some of the world's most striking landscapes: the Kashmir Valley and the Karakoram Range, including K2.

The on-again, off-again conflict over Kashmir, which erupted in war between India and Pakistan in 1947, has resulted in more than 33,000 deaths just since 1989. Nuclear arms in the hands of both India and Pakistan have only stepped up international concern about the region.

Atrocities of War

The war headlines overshadow the refugee problem in Kashmir. More than 350,000 refugees have flooded other parts of Kashmir.

Sheikh Bashir Ahmad, a human rights activist, professor and chairman of the Association of Applied Social Services Network in Muzaffarabad, recently visited the new refugee camp above the Jhelum River.

The war's worst atrocities show starkly among the camp's torn tents and dirt paths. About 150 refugees have moved in. Many have little to eat.

"These people used to have farms and houses," Ahmad said. "Now they have nothing. And many have lost family members."

In 1999, the latest group of refugees began a slow mass migration to Azad Kashmir from villages near the Neelum Valley, which straddles the Line of Control between Indian and Pakistan Kashmir.

Continued on Next Page >>




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