February 1, 2022

Museum of memories and stories of separation

Hunderman is a deserted, abandoned village inhabited by a plethora of stories- each stone representing a journey, each house reminiscing about a past. The war of 1971 between India and Pakistan resulted in Hunderman and Turtuk becoming a part of India overnight. Conflicts with neighbouring countries resulted in many unfortunate incidents. Apart from injuries, death, and economic loss, the pain of separation from your loved ones is what is most heart- wrenching.

Hunderman is a tiny village on the "line of control" (LoC) in the Kargil district of Ladakh. The people of Hunderman have gone through the emotional journey of parting ways with their loved ones as they have seen four wars between India and Pakistan and the sudden shifting of LoC. During the war of 1965, both armies were at a stand-off during which Hunderman was cut off from the rest of the world. After 1971, Hunderman became a part of India. However, painful reminders of the past can still be seen in the village in the form of government signboards saying, "Beware of Landmines." People say these mines were laid down before 1971 when the LOC was on this side, making Hunderman a part of Pakistan.

Before the war of 1971, the children of Hunderman used to go to school in Brolmo, a place in Pakistan (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir). In 1994, a school was opened. Classes were sometimes conducted in the building and sometimes on the roof. In 2004 however, things got better when Hunderman got a better school in their northern region (gongma), followed by the construction of a road via Pradhan Mantri Sadak Yojna in 2005. Before these developments, people would stay only for three summer months in this area however, these changes led to people migrating permanently to the northern regions. Thus, the "brok" area slowly became deserted and was used only to keep livestock. Thus, getting the abandoned village tag.

A native person of Hunderman, Mr. Ilyas Ansari, incredibly enthusiastic about preserving his heritage and culture, began the journey with the help of Mr. Aijaz Munshi and Roots Collective, an NGO; they turned the ghost settlement into a museum. They call it "Unlocking Hunderman: museum of memories." This museum holds stories of separation, longing, and tales from the past. Hunderman museum is different in many aspects as the museum is not just a house, a room, or a building but a whole village settlement. From a distance, it looks like some hamlets on a mountain range. However, the moment you go closer, it curates a natural walk- the streets, the steps, the tiny houses take you back to an imaginary nostalgic old time. Walking through the museum feels like a heritage walk. The small houses have built walls from three sides, and the mountain forms the fourth wall. These houses have memories ingrained from the past, including traditional utensils, jewellery, local indoor games, and unique ancient lever lock mechanism doors. All these objects of the past talk about the culture and way of living: the museum has shrapnel and bullets, which remind people of the adversaries of being at war. To talk about the stories of longing and separation, this museum has letters sent by the members of separated families and the first Indian identity card that was issued after becoming a part of India. Mr. Ansari himself contributed letters from his family members who were separated due to the war overnight. These letters tell us the stories of torn border families.

To know more about their story, we talked to Mr. Ilyas Ansari himself. Mr. Ansari reminisced his childhood days when he had a Chinese mobile phone, and he had clicked a few pictures of his family's possessions. One day, he met Mr. Aijaz Munshi, and when he showed him the pictures, Mr. Aijaz Munshi was impressed. The journey of preservation of the heritage and cultural entities started. With the help of Roots Collective and some architects, they established the museum of memories. Mr. Ansari says that he talked to the people of Hunderman and asked them to bring everything that they have from their past to make this dream of preserving the heritage into reality. He began his journey by turning two of his ancestral houses in Hunderman Brok into museums. Mr. Ilyas states that with time we forget our past. This museum will always stay here to remind us of the love we have across borders, the pain of separation, and the rich culture we have.

Hunderman holds a lot of stories to tell, pain and joy to share, and love to give. The pain of separation is so engrained in Hunderman that it has become their strength now. They always stay together, remembering their separated loved ones and celebrating every little cultural event with the same zeal as before. Mr. Ansari recollected his childhood days when he used to stay at Poyen (another place in the central city) with his relatives. When the Kargil war started in 1999, his uncle took him back to Hunderman- an area far more vulnerable and near the border. This contradiction in action always intrigued him until one day, after ten-odd years, he asked his uncle, "why did he bring him to a vulnerable place whereas Poyen was much safer?" To this, his uncle responded in tears- "The pain of separation is far worse than death itself of any kind of loss."

Listening to stories and reading letters from across the border will take anyone on an emotional roller coaster ride. The name though is so appropriate- "museum of memories."

By Safina Qusar