He was just 19 years old when he crossed over to Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK) for arms training,at a time when militancy was at its peak in the Valley. Twenty-two years later,Ashraf Gilkar,accompanied by his wife and four children,has made his way home one of the 40 former militants who have reportedly returned to Kashmir,via Nepal,since January this year.
I feel relaxed here and can smell peace in the environment, says Gilkar. Everything has changed here. When we left,there was gunfire everywhere in the Valley. Today,there are tourists and shops remain open till late in the evening.
With the help of a loan from his relatives,Gilkar has started a small business of his own selling old clothes. He has enrolled his children in private schools and is hoping the state government will help with the rehabilitation,as part of its policy. Whatever I earned in PoK was spent in arranging safe passage to the Valley, he says.
In PoK,I spent some time in a training camp,but soon got fed up with militancy. In 1993,I married a girl in PoK and opened a shop. Though the shop did well,I always missed my home and parents. I was always looking for an opportunity to return, he says. In the last two decades,Gilkar has lost both his parents.
Gilkar recalls how he and another Kashmiri family prepared Pakistani passports and arranged air tickets to Nepal. The Pakistani officials stopped up at the Islamabad airport,but they allowed us to leave for Kathmandu after a lot of persuasion, he says. On their arrival in Kathmandu,they contacted an agent who arranged for their journey to Gorakhpur,after taking Rs 50,000 for 11 men and women.
From Gorakhpur,we took a train to Jammu,where the relatives of another person who was accompanying me,were waiting. We then came to Srinagar and surrendered before the police, he says. They all got bail from the court within a few days.
Many Kashmiri boys who had crossed over to PoK are now eager to return, says Gilkar. He adds that his wife,however,misses her family in PoK. But I have told her that we can go,through the Kaman post after preparing the necessary documents.
Irfan Ahmad,who belongs to a prosperous family in the Valley,also took the Nepal route to return home in February. I crossed over to PoK in 1994 when I was 17 years old. But I left the training camp,and went to Islamabad,where I worked as a salesman at a grocery store there, he says.
The journey home was difficult. At Islamabad airport,we were stopped by officials. They only allowed us to leave for Kathmandu after we showed them business cards and samples of garments, he says. I want to live a peaceful life now,and the government should help us. His friend Fayaz Ahmad,who accompanied him on the return journey,says he wants to forget the past. I want to start a new life, he adds.
A senior police officer said about 40 militants and their 60 family members,including some top commanders have returned from PoK via Nepal since January. Last year,60 militants and 65 family members returned. We are hopeful that by the end of this year,over 200 militants who are staying in PoK and other parts of the Pakistan will return, he says.
In fact,the state government has received over 1,100 applications from former militants under its rehabilitation policy.