Ayesha Bilal, a seven-year-old girl in the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK), is assembling her books and toys at her home in Heff village.
The village is 16 kilometers (9.94 miles) from the main town in the southern Shopian district.
Ayesha, a first-grade student, lives with her grandparents and uncle after she lost her mother and father to the vicious cycle of conflict that has been raging in the region for over three decades.
Ahead of World Day for War Orphans which is observed on Jan. 6 annually, Anadolu Agency revisited the case of Ayesha.
“She often asks about her parents and insists to take her to them,” her grandfather Mohammad Yousuf Mohand told Anadolu Agency.
“But we make up other stories to turn her attention towards some other things.”
Ayesha was just one year old when her father Bilal Ahmad Mohand joined the militancy in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) in 2016.
Before joining, he was working as a daily wager in the region’s public health engineering department.
Ahmad’s family said that prior to his joining the militancy, he was first booked under the public safety law for allegedly helping the militants, which according to them he did not.
“He was very sober and God-fearing, but the continuous harassment led him to join the militancy,” said his father.
On May 6, 2018, Ahmad was killed along with four associates, including top commander Saddam Padder.
Over the years, however, his wife, Shaheena Akhter, who was taking care of their two daughters in the absence of their father, developed severe health conditions.
A year later on May 16, 2019, Shaheena died from a brain tumor.
At the time, Ayesha was just five years old, while her elder sister was 14.
Cost of conflict
Ayesha collects her toys in a box and plays with them in a corner of a room at her home.
In conversations, she often talks about her father, but she is yet to understand that he has gone far away.
“She insists sometimes that we make her understand why her father is not here. We don’t have answers,” said her uncle Adil Ahmad.
A 2014 study conducted by Save the Children, a London-based humanitarian organization, said the estimated number of orphans in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) due to the conflict and natural deaths of parents is around 214,000, with 15% of them living in orphanages across the region.
The report said that 37% of the orphans lost one or both parents due to the conflict while 55% were orphaned due to natural deaths of their parents, and the remaining 8% owing to other reasons.
For a child to lose their parents is the biggest psychological setback, according to child experts.
Isha Malik, who deals with cases of children of conflict, said there are various issues that children face after losing their parents.
“From economic hardship to loss of education and different kinds of traumas, these children find themselves very helpless,” Malik said.
A study conducted by Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK)’s renowned sociologist Bashir Ahmad Dabla, who surveyed 300 orphans, found that 48% of these orphaned children faced economic hardships after the death of their fathers.
“More than 13% have reported denial of love and affection while 22% of them have faced psychological setbacks,” the report said.
Ayesha and her elder sister are trying to get over the pain of separation from their parents, but the little sister is yet to understand the reality that her parents are no more there.
“We are trying to be their support system, but they do miss their parents,” said their grandfather.