Hashia Akther can barely see but has spent most of her days since mid-November standing at the doorstep of her home in a remote village in India-administered Kashmir.
She has been watching a narrow, muddy, winding road ahead that bends toward her family’s tin-roofed hut, which is framed by towering Himalayan peaks, waiting for her father to come home.
“I can’t see well. But I can recognize my father’s silhouette from afar, even in a crowd,” Hashia, 18, told BenarNews as she wiped tears with her headscarf.
Her father, Ghulam Jeelani Khatana, a 42-year-old laborer from the village of Dardpora in Kupwara, a district village in the disputed region of Kashmir, allegedly left home on Nov. 17 with an Indian soldier who “offered him a job as a porter for the Territorial Army (TA),” she said.
More than a month has passed since Khatana, the sole breadwinner of his 11-member family, vanished.
“He is a friendly man, who always carries a smile on his face. He has a great sense of humor and would always make people laugh with his jokes. There is no question of animosity with anyone,” Hashia said.
A soldier in the army, Manzoor Ahmad Khawaja, was arrested on Dec. 9 and charged with being involved in the disappearance of Khatana and two other men – Mir Hussain, 53, and Ali Mohammad Sheikh, 35.
They come from the same district where a massive combing operation to flush out alleged militants has been underway in recent weeks. On Monday, Khawaja was sent to judicial custody until Dec. 30.
Muslim-majority Kashmir has been the focus of a bitter territorial dispute between India and Pakistan since the Indian subcontinent was partitioned in 1947. Kashmiri separatists have been waging an insurgency in the Indian-controlled part of the region since the late 1980s.
Hussain, who belongs to the same village as Khatana, and Sheikh, a resident of Trehgam, some 20 km (12.5 miles) away, have also been missing since Nov. 17, when Khawaja allegedly took them away on the pretext of hiring them as porters, according to their families.
So far, four suspected militants and a soldier have been killed in the operation that has continued for over a month in the dense forests of Kupwara.
As news of alleged militants being gunned down by the Indian military spread, the families of Khatana, Hussain and Sheikh feared that security forces might have killed their men in a staged encounter, in which members of the security forces may have passed the missing men off as dead militants.
But those fears were dispelled when the police showed the families photographs of the slain terrorists, who bore no resemblance to their loved ones.
Last week, the Indian army launched a probe into the disappearance of the three men.
“We have ordered an inquiry into the case and if the role of the army is established, action will follow,” Lt. Gen. Satish Dua, commanding officer of the Srinagar-based 15th Corps, told reporters.
“The army is committed to zero tolerance on human rights violations,” he added.
But the families of Khatana, Hussain and Sheikh are skeptical about this – and for good reason, they say.
In April 2010, three Kashmiri youths – Shehzad Ahmad, Riyaz Ahmad and Mohammad Shafi – were taken away from their homes by the Indian army with promises of jobs.
Days later, they were dubbed Pakistani terrorists and shot dead in a fake encounter in Kupwara district’s Machil town, along the border with Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
The killings sparked widespread protests in the Kashmir valley, resulting in the deaths of more than 100 civilians over five months.
In September, a court convicted six army officials of staging the encounter and sentenced them to life in prison.
According to figures released by the Indian government in 2012, more than 2,300 people from the state of Jammu and Kashmir have gone missing since the separatist insurgency broke out there in 1989. However, statistics compiled by the Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) indicate that the figure is closer to 8,000.
‘I am sure he knows everything’
Hasina Begum, 30, Sheikh’s wife, undertakes an 8 km- (5 mile-) journey on foot every other day from her village, which has no roads for motorized vehicles, to the Trehgam police station to inquire about her husband.
She returns home disappointed every time.
“I understand the police will inform me when they find him. But until then, what am I to do?” Hasina told BenarNews, adding that her husband’s mobile phone had been switched off since he vanished on Nov. 17.
Police have given her several possible explanations for her husband’s disappearance, including that Sheikh might have crossed the border into Pakistan to spy for the Indian army voluntarily.
“I don’t believe that. My husband would never leave without informing me. The police should put more pressure on the arrested soldier to make him reveal what happened to our men. I am sure he knows everything,” Hasina said.
Aijaz Ahmad Bhat, the police chief in Kupawara district, told BenarNews that the investigation was on-going and police were “probing all possible angles.”
“Nothing can be said for certain at the moment,” he said.
For 42-year-old Saleema Begum, Hussain’s wife, her worries for her husband’s safety and their children’s welfare grow with each passing day.
“He is the only earning member of our family. Since he left, we’ve barely managed two meals a day. I worry that something terrible might have happened to him. I worry about the future of my six children,” she told BenarNews.