Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Safiya Azad, 43, dreads forgetting her husband. She doesn’t know whether he is dead or alive.
Every day, for the past 26 years, she has tried to remember him.
On a Spring afternoon in April 1993, Humayun Azad, a businessman, disappeared after he was picked up by Indian paramilitary forces a kilometre away from his home in Indian-administered Kashmir‘s main city of Srinagar.
Under the banner of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), on January 15, Safiya and a group of other Kashmiris whose relatives have disappeared launched a calendar with sketches and stories of their missing family members.
Parveena Ahanger, now 65, started the APDP when her son disappeared in the early 1990s.
“This is a unique way for them to keep remembering and looking for their family members as they await their return,” she told Al Jazeera.
“The dead dies, he has a grave. The disappeared, they do not let us mourn properly. They ache in us every moment,” she added, through tears.
The calendar features 12 disappeared people – one for each month. A blood stain marks the day of their disappearance.
Among the missing are a student, farmer, labourer, tailor and a driver.
I even saved a half-burned cigarette that he had smoked on the morning of his disappearance. Until a few years ago, his clothes remained hanging in the wardrobe.
Safiya Azad, wife of missing businessman Humayun Azad
The case of Humayun Azad, a broad-faced man with a thin moustache, is highlighted in April.
Next to his sketch are the words: “I buried you, again and again, in my heart once, in my soul twice and in my memory every once in a while.”
According to Suhail Naqshbandi, the artist who sketched the missing men, “it was an emotional experience.”
He told Al Jazeera: “The pictures were very small and blurry. And the existence of these young [men] seems to be blurry too. I had to imagine and guess the details. You do not know what has happened to this man.”
|Safiya Azad, centre, said she kept her husband’s half-smoked cigarette from the day he went missing [Shuaib Bashir/Al Jazeera]|
Human rights groups say at least 8,000 have disappeared since 1989.
Some were picked up by paramilitary forces, according to witnesses, and others simply left their homes and never returned.
Most disappearances, the rights groups say, took place in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the armed-conflict was at its peak in the restive region.
People like Safiya have been seeking answers for more than two decades.
“I was 16 when I got married to him. He was 24,” she said.
Their son, Dawood Ahmad, was six months old when Humayan went missing.
“From police stations to jails … I looked for him everywhere,” she said.
She now lives at her in-laws’ home in Srinagar.
“It might have happened 20 years ago or more. It might not be a story for people to hear any more. But for me, everything is so fresh in my memory.”
A “half-widow” , a term specifically for women whose husbands have disappeared, Safiya was married for two years before Humayan went missing.
On that day, a neighbour told Safiya that her partner had been taken away.
“After that, we never saw him.”
She clung to hope when some prisoners said they saw her husband in an infamous interrogation centre in Srinagar known as Papa 1.
The centre had been used to extract information from rebels in the 1990s when the armed rebellion against Indian rule began in the disputed territory.
“It elevated my hope that he was alive. I went to the torture centre every day. I sat there from morning to evening. I would take grapes for him or something else and hand it over to the security guards at the gate to give him. But I never got a glimpse of him,” said Safiya.
Once, she sent him a packed suitcase.
“I sent him clothes, toothpaste, soap, a towel, slippers. He was fond of chewing gum and I sent a pack of chewing gum too,” she said, “but I do not know whether it reached him.”
She claimed that a legal case she filed offered no results, so she joined APDP.
Every 10th day of the month, relatives of the disappeared hold a sit-in protest, demanding the whereabouts of their loved ones.
“Until 2000, I would get a message from someone, saying that they saw him in the torture centre. Then the messages suddenly stopped,” said Safiya.
Despondent, she wrote poetry and letters to her husband.
“I lost all of my writing when the flood hit Kashmir in 2014. I even saved a half-burned cigarette that he had smoked on the morning of his disappearance. Until a few years ago, his clothes remained hanging in the wardrobe. With me, everything at home waited for him,” she said.
Safiya worked at a nursery, which provided income and an education for their son, who is now in his twenties.
“In all these years and today, I still have only hope that [Humayun] is alive and will return.
“I have kept my son away from this struggle because it consumes a person.”
Whenever there is a knock on the door. I feel it’s him.
Safiya Azad, wife of missing businessman Humayun Azad
Khurram Parvez, a Kashmir-based human rights activist and chairman of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFID), blamed the government for inaction.
“Cases linger,” he said. “In many cases, the perpetrators have also been identified but no justice has been delivered.”
But Vijay Kumar, adviser to the governor of Jammu and Kashmir state, told Al Jazeera: “There is a proper system in place in the administration if someone has a complaint or asks for an inquiry.
“There are always set mechanisms in the government of India and other places to monitor some of these cases. Many cases have been enquired.”
In June last year, the United Nations, in its first-ever human rights report on Kashmir, said: “There is also almost total impunity for enforced or involuntary disappearances, with little movement towards credibly investigating complaints, including into alleged sites of mass graves in the Kashmir Valley and Jammu region.”
While families face a long legal struggle, Safiya said the more challenging battle is emotional.
“Whenever there is a knock on the door,” she said, “I feel it’s him.”