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September 6, 2022 10:22 pm

Kashmir’s Wild Encounters Leaving Nomads Maimed For Life

Shameena sitting outside her makeshift tent in the Dardwuder forest of district Ganderbal. KO Photo by Abid Bhat.

Amid the escalating man-wild conflict in the valley, one wild encounter bleeding bakkerwalls remains the unreported aspect of Kashmir chronicle.

IN the walnut harvesting season, Shameena has freshly arrived on horseback in Ganderbal’s alpine hills for a fleeting stay. Her nomadic tribe has already begun their winter migration towards Jammu plains. But unlike her clear-minded caravan, she gropes in darkness after facing the least reported wild encounter of Kashmir.

Snaking through a small hamlet in the heart of Kangan displays an image where all life seemed to be in harmony with its surroundings.

The hamlet lies in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous trees, with fields of walnut trees and hillsides of orchards, where the cloudy sky of bloom drifted above the green land.

The blaze of colored tents—flamed across a backdrop of pine trees—enhances the settings. Everything is wrapped under an unexplained calmness, except Shameena, who looks modestly contagious with that dreadful sight of 18 long-gone years.

Shameena belongs to J&K’s Bakarwal community that has battled uncertainty for a fairly good time.

In 2004, like for the past several years, Shameena’s family was once again in Kashmir to evade Jammu’s blistering heat and to get grazing grounds for their livestock.

One day, while camping in the high pastures of the valley, she was brutally attacked by a wild bear that gouged around her head, trying to scratch her face. And it did.

Shameena’s face was left disfigured, one eye plucked out, and her vision gone, forever.

Shameena terms her ordeal as an ugly outcome of her nomadic lifestyle. KO Photo by Abid Bhat.

Almost two decades later, when the men step out to graze their livestock and the women of her clan try to find firewood in forests, the wounds of her past are revealed, forcing her into believing that she’ll be attacked again.

Shameena is one of the examples of the highly unreported case of how nomads are living a perilous life despite following an age-old tradition of the gypsy culture. It comes at a huge cost and for her it came at the cost of her sight.

“Since that day,” says jet-lagged Shameena, overwhelmed by her perilous past, “I’ve had anxiety issues.”

It’s more like separation anxiety, she continues with an expressionless face. “We’re a five-member family and let’s say, all are busy with something, I’ll be left all alone in my tent with my anxiety.”

Sometimes, she says, “I wish that bear would’ve killed me once for all. This life is a misery with no remedy.”

Zulfi and other tribe members have become eyes for Shameena. KO Photo by Abid Bhat.

In the deep jungles of Dard-widder—a high alpine jungle in Ganderbal district—Muneer is stalking around checking the undesired and wild movements in the forest. He’s positioned closer to Shameena’s tent. Looking at her condition, he says such cases are not uncommon.

“Every year when these gypsies come to the jungles, they end up losing their legs, sometimes their arms and at times, their lives,” says Muneer, a field staffer of the forest department.

For this skinny wildlife watcher, the dangerous animal remains the leopard—the man-eater already creating a massive havoc in major parts of the valley and escalating the man-wild conflict.

“If a bear attacks you,” Muneer continues, “it’ll disfigure your face, but if a leopard attacks you, it’ll kill you instantly.”

Such are the deadly instincts of different wild animals, he says. “These nomads have to battle them almost every day. Sometimes, the shepherd dog keeps such wild animals at bay.”

While following her tribe tradition, Shameena is yet to make peace with the wild encounter. KO Photo by Abid Bhat.

Back to her tent, Shameena is blankly staring at the jungle that snatched her sight. Her world now revolves around the familiar sounds of her younger sister, Zulfi.

The girl in her early twenties is a sprinted soul—acting as Shameena’s eyes to the world confined to woods.

Zulfi is someone who takes Shameena to places, takes care of her daily needs, washes and feeds her. But Shameena says such life is extremely complicated because her daily activities are very cumbersome.

“Life is already challenging for us,” Shameena says. “And these wild assaults have further dented it beyond the repair.”

It’s twilight and the fear of man-eaters has increased in the deep jungles of Kashmir. And the perilous past, perhaps, is once again knocking doors and haunting Shameena’s peace of mind.

“But such is our life,” says Zulfi, before guiding her sightless sibling back to her tent. “Be it wild animals or any other creature, we always remain at the receiving end.”

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Zaid Bin Shabir

Zaid Bin Shabir is a special correspondent at Kashmir Observer. He tweets @Zaidbinshabir