Mon, May 19, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Corpse handler prays for end to Kashmir violence

TIME FOR A NEW JOB Mohammed Maqbool is sick of piecing together the broken bodies of dead children caught up in the violence in the area

AFP , SRINAGAR, INDIA

Mohammed Maqbool has handled nearly 12,000 mainly mutilated bodies during the 14 years of violence in Indian-administered Kashmir -- and now he has had enough.

He cannot wait for peace to return to the restive region and recent moves by India and Pakistan to mend fences has lifted his mood.

"I am fed-up with handling blood-smeared bodies," said Maqbool, 46, Kashmir's only post-mortem specialist.

No one else wants to the do the job as it is too depressing, he said.

It includes opening up bodies, discovering the cause of death and even joining together dismembered and twisted body parts blown apart in explosions.

"I know Kashmir is hopeless, but the recent moves by the two countries seem to be sincere and it has brought a new hope," Maqbool said.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee extended a hand of friendship to Pakistan during a tour of Kashmir on April 18. The move was reciprocated by his Pakistani counterpart Zaffarullah Jamali.

Since then the two countries have been warily edging towards dialogue, the first since July 2001 when a meeting between the heads of the two countries failed in the Taj Mahal city of Agra.

"If India and Pakistan start talking and end up in resolving the issues between themselves, I will be ... the happiest man," Maqbool said.

"I will no longer have to piece together blown-up bodies or open the dead to ascertain whether the victim died of bullet or shrapnel," he said.

Maqbool, 46, used to deal with a few cases of suicide or murder until the outbreak of a violent Muslim insurgency against Indian rule in the Himalayan state 14 years ago which has claimed more than 38,000 lives by official count.

Separatists and Pakistan say the toll is at least double that.

"The job has played havoc with my life. Even in the dead of the night I am called to the police hospital to carry out autopsies," he says.

Maqbool, who has no medical qualifications other than a course in nursing, began working in the mortuary nearly 25 years ago.

He vividly remembers his first autopsy on the body of a militant, Aijaz Dar, who died early in the insurgency during a police encounter in 1989.

"The most difficult task was to segregate and later piece together bodies of 23 militants killed near Srinagar's Hazratbal mosque," Maqbool said.

The rebels died inside a house during a fire-fight that also sparked a blaze, charring the bodies beyond recognition.

"After handling such bodies how do you expect me to behave normally in my family," said Maqbool, who says he gobbles tranquilizers like popcorn to get to sleep after hectic day's work.

"I want to quit my job, but have no other options," said Maqbool, who has three grown-up children, two sons and a daughter.

He is paid a monthly salary of 6,000 rupees (US$125) by the government and receives nothing for working overtime.

He has not even been provided with a telephone, and every time he gets an emergency call it comes to his neighbor's house.

"I am a stone-hearted man while working on bodies, but when I am called to handle the bodies of children it is simply killing," he said.

"May Allah listen to our vows now and end all kinds of violence," said Maqbool, who sees a "ray of hope" as India and Pakistan come closer to dialogue.

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