Bandipore, India-administered Kashmir – Farmer Abdul Majid Lone is a broken man.
As the afternoon sun shines over the ploughed fields in Badipora, north of Srinagar, the summer capital of India-administered Kashmir, the former Kashmiri fighter recounts the ordeal of his Pakistani wife.
“She was burning as if an effigy had been set on fire,” he said recalling how his wife, Saira Bano, had died after setting herself on fire earlier this year.
“The flames consumed her before we could do anything.”
In his late 30s, he looks older than his age and has grown weak – a shadow of the man who in 1993 crossed the Line of Control (LoC) that divides Kashmir into India- and Pakistan-controlled areas.
Lone was among thousands of Kashmiri youths who crossed to the Pakistani side to be trained to fight Indian forces determined to end New Delhi’s rule in the disputed Himalayan region – a source of tension between nuclear rivals Pakistan and India since 1947.
But once inside Pakistan-administered Kashmir (PaK), he decided to stay and started a poultry business before marrying Bano, with whom he has three children.
“I had a good time until my parents and siblings in Kashmir insisted that I come back with my wife and children,” he said.
Lone said his parents were optimistic about the rehabilitation policy announced in 2010 by Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of India-administered Kashmir, allowing ex-rebels to return with the promise of rehabilitation and training.
When he arrived last year, relatives and neighbours showered him with rose petals and toffees in a homecoming celebration that continued for days.
But the joy was short lived as his siblings and elderly parents were unable to support his family.
“In Pakistan I used to make good money,” Lone explained. “I had a motorbike to take my wife on pleasure rides, but in Kashmir I live in a tin shed. There are no jobs here. Poverty pushed my wife into depression until she committed suicide.
“I returned only to find that I had been caught from the free sky and put in a cage.”
Former rebels returning to India-administered Kashmir believe they were deceived about the promise of a new life and amnesty under the much-hyped “rehabilitation” policy.
Many former fighters wrongly assumed that the rehabilitation policy offered them jobs and impunity from prosecution, while activists say government officials and the media misled them.
The poor conditions endured by former rebels – many of whom now want to go back to Pakistan-administered territory – may now dissuade other fighters from returning.
“Under the guise of a rehabilitation policy, our lives have been ruined,” said Ahsan-ul-Haq, who spearheads a movement of former Kashmiri fighters demanding reintegration and jobs.
“We were deceived by politicians and reports in the local media.”
Stranded between the lines
Many of men, who had been fighting over the disputed territory between India and Pakistan, were either killed or arrested in clashes with Indian troops upon returning.
Some of those who had crossed to the other side changed their minds about returning home and now remain stranded. Indian officials estimate about 3,000 Kashmiri rebels are currently in PaK, many of whom have renounced fighting.
Others never thought of going back until they learned of the rehabilitation policy.
Since 2010, 268 fighters along with their families have returned after the “militant rehabilitation policy” was announced.
Ahsan-ul-Haq said the announcement of a policy that would include amnesty came at a time when the region was being shaken by serious civil unrest.
During protests against Indian rule in 2010 known as the “Kashmiri Intifada” Indian police killed more than 120 people, mostly youths.
“The government wanted to appease people since it was facing public agitation in 2010,” Ahsan said.
But a clause in the policy makes it clear that “no general amnesty is envisaged … and the returnees would be duly prosecuted in cases registered against them which are of a serious nature”.
Halted routes home
The government policy stated that former rebels should use designated entry routes. But all those who returned have done so through neighbouring Nepal, which means that the Kashmir state government does not consider their entry legal.
However, fighters say they avoided government designated routes as Indian and Pakistani authorities did not cooperate in the complex documentation process.
Many of them said they tried to cross the LoC, but were fired upon by the Indian army.
The Indian army told Al Jazeera that warning shots are fired, “if anybody attempts to cross the LoC other than the designated entry routes”.
Army spokesperson, Lieutenant Colonel Brijiesh Pandey, told Al Jazeera: “There is a proper government procedure for crossing the LoC. The returnees have to be handed over by the Pakistani authorities to Indian civil authorities at specific points on the LoC. Civilian authorities are present on those points and they do the rest.”
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah wants New Delhi to add Nepal to the official entry points for the ex-rebels, but federal security agencies have resisted the move.
Lacking travel documents or residency certificates the children of ex-rebels cannot get admitted to schools and colleges. Meanwhile, their job prospects have diminished as employers seek police checks to confirm that applicants have never been affiliated with a rebel group.
“We need police ‘No Objection’ letters to receive business schemes or loans, but police deny it in most cases,” said Ahsan-ul-Haq.
State officials however, have said that no special package for former fighters was ever announced.
“They can apply for jobs – but there is not a specific job or special package for them,” Kashmir’s home affairs minister, Sajad Kichloo, told Al Jazeera.
“The main aim of the amnesty scheme was to bring them back and allow them to settle for normal lives.”
A separate rehabilitation policy announced for the armed rebels in 2004 – and still in effect – carries cash awards: The government deposits $2,499 in a rebels’ bank account after their surrender and a monthly stipend of $33 is given for three years. Giving up an AK-47 assault rifle would fetch a surrendering rebel about $250 and a hand grenade, $8.
A life without dignity
Al Jazeera has learned that the impoverished condition many former rebels now find themselves in, may be dissuading others from returning. Only four families have made it to Kashmir this year.
“Nobody wants to live this undignified life,” said Mohammad Ashraf Mir, a former fighter of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) who lives in the Chattabal area of Srinagar.
“Pakistanis loved us. They care for us. They gave us shelters to live in and their daughters to marry,” said Mir, who returned in 2012 with his family.
He added: “We want the Indian government to give us a safe passage back to Azad Kashmir [PaK].”
Some former rebels told Al Jazeera that they are often seen as “deserters” in Kashmir, since they had not joined the armed struggle after being trained as guerrillas
“Living with the conflicting identities of a deserter and a Kashmiri has plunged our families, especially our wives, into depression,” said one former fighter in his mid-30s, who did not wish to be named.
Zeba, the wife of a former JKLF fighter, Abdul Rashid Khan, is a leading representative of Pakistani wives in Indian-administered Kashmir and regrets the day she arrived with her children.
“We have been reduced to beggars since 2011 – we continue to suffer financially,” she told Al Jazeera at her house in Kulangam.
“Our language is different. Our food is different. The way we are brought up in a particular tradition is different. We feel complete outsiders here.”