Families are queuing for hours just to get a chance to speak to loved ones amid India’s blockade of communications in Kashmir.
Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir - Zareena waited for her son’s return home in the neighbourhood of Saida Kadal, in Srinagar’s old city.
A growing sense of anxiety had crept up on her due to his absence; he was meant to have arrived hours earlier but there was still no word from him.
Trying to reach him on his mobile phone was futile because Indian authorities had cut off communications in the state of Kashmir.
As the hours passed and night turned into dawn, Zareena began the journey past razor-wired roadblocks and reached a telephone booth set up by the administration.
“We have not been able to contact each other, they are now making us beg for a single phone call,” Zareena said, as she waited to make the call.
“We are getting worried because we have no way of knowing about the safety of our children,” she added.
In the age of instant messaging, Kashmir has been cut-off both internally and from the outside world since August 4. That was hours before the Indian government announced that it was abrogating a seven-decade-old law that protected the demography of the Muslim-majority region.
The administration imposed severe restrictions on civilian movements as hundreds of roadblocks were set up across the region. An unprecedented communication blockade was also imposed that saw landlines, mobile phone networks, and the internet suspended.
The indefinite embargo on the communication left people in the dark about their friends and relatives. Parents had no idea about the whereabouts of their children studying outside the region, and wives had no information about their partners who worked in mainland India.
Indian officials have since partially lifted the communications blackout, but most Kashmiris still live with severe restrictions on contacting each other and the outside world.
A few days after the start of the blockade, the Indian government opened telephone booths for Kashmiris to use. These were immediately swamped by residents desperate to hear news about their loved ones, resulting in long lines just to make calls.
Sara, a 36-year-old mother of two, arrived at a public telephone booth to call her husband who works outside the region. She had not spoken to him for more than a week.
The moment when Sara got her chance to make a minute-long call, she broke down.
“I don’t know what to do in this situation, the kids are looking for you,” she told her husband. “Please come and take us,” she said.
Some in the line tried to console her. Others were moved to tears. Sara gave the phone to her five-year-old daughter, Maira, who asked “Baba! When will you come?”
It was the first time Sara had spoken to her husband in nine days, and she had no idea when the next time would be.
“This is suffocating,” she said. “My children haven’t eaten for four days because they just want to talk to their father.”
At the entrance to the phone booth, women and men are frisked separately by paramilitary troops stationed near the gate. People come from far-off places reflecting the scale of the communications blackout.
The anger at the scene was palpable, as residents queuing for a phone call argued with officials who had no answers.
“This BJP government is based on lies, it tells lies about Kashmir to the outside world,” a woman waiting on the wooden bench told other women as they tried to console each other and make sense of the crisis.
Shameema, who had come for a second day for a chance to her son in Dubai, said she was worried. On the first day, she was not able to get a chance to speak to him before the line was shut down.
When it eventually came to her turn, she was told that international calls could not be made as that service was not available.
Nazir Ahmad, a resident of Srinagar, also queued for hours to call his parents who were on the Hajj pilgrimage.
“My parents must be worried about what has happened in Kashmir and no one is calling them,” he said.
“What if something happens to them there and we won’t know? Blocking the phone lines has increased our suffering, no country in the world does this to their people.
“I just want to convey to them that we are fine and not to worry about us,” he said. He was also unable to make a call due to the restrictions on international lines.
A senior government official, the Chief Secretary of the Jammu and Kashmir government, BV R Subramanyam, on Friday told reporters that the administration was taking measures to ease restrictions.
“We are now taking measures to ease the restrictions and the telecom connectivity will be gradually restored in a phased manner,” the official said.
He added that the government was “keeping in mind the constant threat posed by the terrorist organisations in using mobile connectivity to organise terror actions”.
While India moves to counter these purported threats, it is Kashmiris who pay the price for the measures.
Kamran Ahmad, a Srinagar resident who works in the Indian capital New Delhi and arrived on Saturday, said he has not slept for the last 13 nights.
“I was crying every day. There was no way to call home, no way to know what has happened. It was like living in hell,” he said.