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Pakistan's latest move to highlight human right abuses

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    Pakistan's latest move to highlight human right abuses

    Orphans the new pawns in Kashmir conflict
    By Muddassir Rizvi

    ISLAMABAD - Orphans in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir are the latest weapons in a bitter war of words which has been raging between India and Pakistan in recent weeks.

    ''The government will provide shelter and safe custody to the Kashmiri orphan children until the Kashmir dispute is resolved according to the UN resolutions,'' announced Dr Attiya Innayatullah, a member of the Pakistan's National Security Council.

    This decision by the military government's highest decision-making body may alleviate the suffering of hundreds of children languishing in refugees camps along the live border, but there's no denying that it is motivated by political concern. Islamabad, unmindful of its own poor child rights record, is keen to highlight human rights abuses in the Indian-controlled Kashmir, where it says the refugees have come from. Foreign Office officials said the government is preparing to issue an international appeal for the safe evacuation of orphan children and other vulnerable groups from Indian-held Kashmir. ''Pakistan is ready to provide safe refuge to these children in line with its policy of diplomatic, moral and political support to the freedom fighters,'' said the Foreign Office official.

    Muslim-majority Kashmir has been a bone of contention between the hostile neighbors since its partition in1948. Their troops, massed on either side of the border, regularly exchange fire, often hitting civilian targets. India accuses Pakistan of arming and aiding a separatist insurgency, raging on its side of the border since 1990 - a charge denied by Islamabad.

    Pakistan says that as many as 20,000 children have been orphaned as a direct result of Indian military action against the ''Kashmiri freedom fighters''. ''We are offering safe refuge to all orphan children, and also to thousands of widows and the destitute living a miserable life in the Indian-held Kashmir,'' said Innayatullah.

    Already Pakistan has a large concentration of refugees. There are tens of thousands of Afghans, and refugees from Kurdistan, Iran, Iraq and famine- or war-hit African countries. Almost half the refugee population is children, according to the Islamabad-based Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC). A 1998 estimate put the figure at 315,865. SPARC says that refugee children in Pakistan face a bleak future. Its latest ''State of the Pakistani Children'' report says they lack education and health facilities and in many cases are forced to work to provide for their families.

    Although the exact number of refuges in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir could not be obtained, an official of the region's Department for Rehabilitation of Refugees said that 90 percent belong to vulnerable groups. ''A large majority of refugees comprise older people, widows and orphans - most of them belong to bordering areas on either side of the Line of Control and are the victims of the brutalities of the Indian security forces,'' the official said.

    Though most orphan children are accompanied by their mothers or other family members, there are many, the authorities say, who had to run away, leaving behind their mothers and other family members in Indian-controlled Kashmir. ''The Pakistani government's initiative is a strong expression of solidarity with the freedom movement in Kashmir, and it will ensure better upbringing for these children,'' said Mushtaq Wani, a Kashmiri journalist and political worker.

    On February 5, when Pakistan observed Solidarity Day with the ''Kashmiri freedom fighters'', Innayatullah received the first batch of 23 orphan Kashmiri children between the ages of 9 and 14 years from Azad Kashmir President Sardar Mohammad Ibrahim and Prime Minister Sultan Mehmood Chaudhry. ''The children I am handing over to Pakistan would grow up there and one day any one of them might become a prime minister of Pakistan,'' an emotional Ibrahim said at the function in Kohala, a small town along the River Jhelum that separates Pakistan from Azad Kashmir - the Pakistani-held half of Kashmir.

    The children will live in an SOS Village outside Islamabad. Initially, it was planned that the orphans would live with Pakistani families, but the government shot down the plan. ''We did not want these children to become domestic workers, instead of family members - once they are in families, the government cannot keep a vigil on how they are being treated,'' commented an official privy to the plan. Journalist Wani also thinks the SOS village environment is more suitable, since it would help preserve the children's Kashmiri culture. He said that Kashmiri children should be raised as Kashmiris. ''It is our responsibility to tell them about Kashmiri culture and tradition - we don't want our children to be raised as rootless lads,'' he said.

    The authorities are planning to build a new SOS Village in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Kashmir, for Kashmiri orphans. ''An allocation of 20 million rupees (about $400,000) has already been made by the Pakistani government and land has already been acquired,'' said a local government spokesman.

    (Inter Press Service)
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