HGrowing up in the troubled Indian region of Kashmir, photographer Showkat Nanda knew what it was like to be “a child of conflict,” the name often used to describe generations of Kashmiri youth since the 1980s. This picturesque region The Himalayas has been a source of conflict between India and Pakistan for decades, with several wars fought over the territory, and since the 1990s it has been home to a strong Indian military presence and a long-standing separatist insurgency with loyalty to Pakistan. .
Yet while it is militants, soldiers and politicians who dominate the headlines about Kashmir’s problems, Nanda’s gaze has often turned to the most invisible victims, in which he sees himself: the children. from Kashmir.
Nanda had already been working on a long-term project documenting the emotional and psychological trauma experienced by youth in Kashmir when the Magnum Foundation approached him seeking proposals for a photo essay. Her thoughts turned to a photo she had recently taken of two girls sitting together in the waiting room of a psychiatric hospital where they were being treated for depression, and what they had been through since 2019.
While the blockades have been a reality for the world since the beginning of 2020, for the people of Kashmir, their blockade began seven months earlier. It was in August 2019 that the Indian government decided to unilaterally revoke Article 370, which had given Kashmir, one of the few Muslim-majority regions in India, a semi-autonomous status for almost 70 years. Kashmir was completely under the control of the central government of India, led by Narendra Modi, and the entire state was subjected to military repression.
Kashmiris were confined to their homes as thousands of troops entered, politicians were arrested, telephone lines were cut, the internet was shut down for more than six months, and all schools were closed. Then, to add more to their fight, in March 2020, Covid-19 struck India and a nationwide lockdown was imposed.
“I wanted this project to be a continuation of what I was already doing: photographing these children, who have already gone through a traumatic childhood due to the conflict that is raging in the region, but were then affected by two years of confinement. , first from the military siege in 2019 and after the pandemic, ”said Nanda.
“I became interested in this because as a child growing up in Kashmir, I experienced many of the things that these children were experiencing now. In a way, he was not only telling his story, but also mine. “
But after visiting one of the girls at their homes in the small town of Baramulla in February 2021, Nanda learned that, for the first time in more than a year and a half, the schools were about to reopen. For this 15-year-old, the excitement was palpable.
Not only had she been denied an education for 18 months, but the closing of the schools had also meant the separation of her group of 11 friends, all girls who had been friends for as long as they could remember. This period of two confinements had been the longest they had been apart since they were in kindergarten.
“It was then that I had the idea to make this a hopeful story, to photograph this reunion and make this a photo essay about these 11 girls who are using this reunion as a form of healing,” said Nanda.
The girls participated voluntarily, although some asked that their faces be hidden, and it turned out that their school principal had gone to school with Nanda, so he trusted him with unusually open access.
“When I went to their school, I could see that the girls were happy and playing together and I could also feel that some of the girls who really struggled with depression and psychological problems during the confinement were being helped by these friends. They were almost healing companions for each other, ”Nanda said.
Even though the girls were from a relatively remote village in Kashmir and lived fairly strict lives, Nanda found that they were highly engaged and curious about the world around them. “They were very outgoing,” he said. “They talked about everything, they talked about movies, they talked about technology, they talked about politics, they even talked about American politics as well.”
It turned out to be spring, and in addition to documenting them in the classroom and on the playground, Nanda photographed the 11 friends as they played together in the fields, picking bunches of wild tulips and sitting under the almond blossoms, capturing what he hoped for. let it be the beginning of a new period of freedom and rejuvenation for these girls.
However, it was not. Less than a month later, a devastating second wave of Covid-19 swept across India and schools in Kashmir were closed once again. Once, the girls were locked up and isolated from each other.
Moving her photo essay from one of hope to one of frustrated expectations, Nanda decided to end up photographing the girls in their homes, capturing them as they gazed sadly out the window, their uniforms hanging limply from a hanger. With schools closed and crucial exams facing cancellation, girls feared for the future.
“I was in a WhatsApp group with all of them, and there was a message that came up over and over again: ‘Do you think there is a chance that the schools will reopen’?” Nanda said. Four months later, they are still closed.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism