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Women face dilemma in a war zone: risk the blasts or sexual assault

NEELUM VALLEY, Kashmir — There is another lockdown underway, forced by falling artillery shells rather than invading viruses. This one also requires frightening choices between bad options.

Cross-border shelling between Pakistan and India has intensified in recent months along the Line of Control in Kashmir, sending more families rushing to community bunkers when the alarm sirens ring, particularly on the Pakistani side.

But some families will be leaving girls and young women behind in their vulnerable homes — choosing to risk the falling shells rather than face the sexual assault that is epidemic in the cramped bunkers.

One of those staying home is Mehnaz, a 25-year-old, who says she will not be going back to a bunker unless things change.

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When mortars started slamming into her village in the Neelum Valley on the Pakistani-held side in August, Mehnaz and her family fled to a musty bunker owned by her neighbor, she said. Dozens of people were crammed in for hours until the shelling subsided.

“One of the men began touching me,” said Mehnaz, who like others interviewed by The New York Times asked that only part of her name be used because of the stigma of sexual assault. “It was dark, and all the parents were concerned about the shelling. No one was paying attention.”

She spent fearful hours trying to swat away the man’s groping hands and failing all too often. When the firing stopped and her family returned home, Mehnaz told her mother what had happened.

“She said she could not do anything,” Mehnaz said, angry. The man who molested her owned the bunker. Mehnaz’s mother worried that he would cut the family off . . . if they complained.

“I now stay inside our house with my sister and sister-in-law,” she said.

In the absence of government support, affluent families from villages and towns across Pakistani-controlled Kashmir build their own bunkers. Poor families like Mehnaz’s have to rely on their neighbors for shelter, making them easy prey for sexual predators who own shelters and expect to buy the silence of the victim’s families in exchange for using the refuge.

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Sexual violence often goes unreported in Pakistan, as victims risk being cast out by their parents, are forced to marry their rapists, or are killed over the perceived injury to their families’ honor. While it is impossible to estimate how widespread the problem is in the bunkers along Pakistan’s border, interviews with more than two dozen men and women suggest that it is prevalent.

“Sexual harassment in bunkers is a critical issue facing women in the border regions, but the local community is in denial and do not want to acknowledge this gender-based violence,” said Amina Mir, a Kashmiri researcher and scholar.

“There is no institutional support available for women to seek help in these situations,” she added.

Divided between India and Pakistan and fought over for 73 years, Kashmir has seen some of the worst cross-border shelling since August, when the Indian government stripped the autonomy from the portion of Kashmir it controls.

Since January, 45 attacks on the Pakistani side of Kashmir have resulted in nine deaths and 60 injuries, according to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, an independent research group.

Pakistan has only recently started acting to make more bunkers available to civilians on the Pakistan-held side of Kashmir, known as Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

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Nasreen was raising her children alone in Athmuqam, a border town, when the mortar shells started flying around her home in 1998, while her husband, a truck driver, was on the road. She gathered her five children and ran into a nearby bunker, five other families crammed into 32 square feet; shoulders, backs, feet pressed together in a suffocating mess.

“We spent entire days and nights in the bunker with no light or ventilation,” said Nasreen, who now chooses to stay at her home when the shells slam into her town.

In that cramped shelter, her eldest daughter Ayesha, 13 at the time, was molested by a man twice her age, Nasreen said. He pounced at night when everyone went to sleep or when Nasreen and the other adults left the shelter to fetch food and water for their children during a lull in shelling.

Ayesha told her mother the man was touching her but out of fear and shame did not tell her about the rape.

Nasreen had a painful choice to make as a mother alone with five children. Despite Ayesha’s pleas, she forced all her children to continue going down into the bunkers where her daughter would see her tormentor, whom Nasreen tried to keep at a distance.

“I had no other option to keep my children safe from shelling than to return to that bunker each time firing began,” Nasreen said. “There was no other bunker nearby for us to shelter in.

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“All I could do was tell Ayesha to keep her distance from him.”

A few months later, she would find her daughter vomiting and running a fever. When Nasreen suggested a hospital visit, Ayesha looked terrified. At the doctor’s office they were told that Ayesha was three months pregnant.

“Ayesha kept sobbing,” Nasreen said tearfully, hunched over in pain. “When she finally spoke, she said the man who she had complained about . . . had pinned her down and raped her in the camp.”

Ayesha said the man had threatened her with a dagger and told her he would kill her if she did not cooperate or if she told anyone. She said he raped her several times after that day and for many days thereafter, as mortar shells shook the ground they sheltered in.

While the family wanted justice, a community gathering judged that Ayesha should be married to her rapist to save what remained of her honor. Nasreen said they accepted the decision as the will of God.

A few months later, Ayesha died during labor, her body unable to handle the birth and doctors unable to stop her from hemorrhaging to death. Her son, born premature, died a few months later.