SRINAGAR (India) - A distraught Shahida Begum drank pesticide a day after her 26-year-old son was killed in crossfire between Indian soldiers and Muslim rebels in disputed Kashmir.
Unable to cope with the trauma of losing her only son to the 15-year-old separatist conflict, the 55-year-old woman tried to kill herself last month but was saved by doctors. She was one of hundreds who try to commit suicide in Kashmir each year.
``My life is no longer worth living after his death,'' she said, in her mud house on the outskirts of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir.
The unrelenting violence in the scenic Himalayan region famous for its pristine hillsides, forested valleys and soaring snow-covered peaks has strained Kashmir's traditionally easy-going society.
Doctors and sociologists say the number of people committing suicide has soared since the start of the revolt, but data is sketchy as the violence has made it difficult to do extensive and long-term surveys.
One study done in 1999 found that almost 2,000 Kashmiris attempted to kill themselves that year alone - and about ten percent of them were successful.
The number of such cases is rising although Kashmir is overwhelmingly Muslim and Islam expressly forbids suicide.
The trend comes against a backdrop of more than 40,000 deaths since 1989 in violence between Indian forces and Muslim rebels, including many civilians caught in the middle.
An average of five cases of attempted suicide were brought to Srinagar's main hospital each day over the past year, said G. Q. Khan, the head of medicine there.
``This is very high compared to one or two cases a day, 15 years ago - before the turmoil. We find most suicides are due to the turmoil,'' said Khan, who headed the 1999 study.
Hospitals estimate around 40 percent of cases are not reported in Kashmir as many people who live in remote and mountainous rural villages choose not to tell the authorities. Attempting suicide is illegal in India and punishable by law.
Khan said swallowing pesticide, used to spray paddy fields, was the most common method of suicide.
Besides violence-induced trauma in Kashmir, unemployment, psychiatric disorders, family feuds and failed love affairs were cited as other causes for suicide attempts.
``The underlying cause is the emotional trauma caused by the violence and mayhem that takes place everyday. People need help,'' said Abinah Nawaz, a psychiatrist.
Gunbattles in villages and towns, landmine blasts, grenade explosions, abductions and revenge killings by militants are regular events in Jammu and Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state.
Health experts and sociologists warn that if the violence does not ease, suicides will climb still further in the area, the focus of a peace process between India and Pakistan.
``The entire situation has become so charged, so full of tension; sometimes one just cannot tolerate it. A small quarrel with a father can lead to suicide. Behind all this is the wider context of militancy,'' said Bashir Ahmad Dabla, head of the sociology department of Kashmir University.
Last week, Fitr-ul-Hassan, a carpet dealer scolded his 19-year-old son, Adil Hassan, for not attending college classes.
Minutes later, Adil swallowed over 25 sleeping pills. He survived after emergency treatment in a hospital. - Reuters