PAMPORE, India – Dusk was falling as the three boys walked home from the neighborhood mosque earlier this month.
Farhan Farooq, a skinny 13-year-old with a tuft of black hair, was the youngest. Suddenly, a police vehicle came to a stop next to them and armed officers jumped out. They bundled the three friends into the car, one of the other boys recalled later. Farhan began to cry.
For the next week, Farhan's family said, he was held in a jail cell at the local police station in this Kashmiri town 10 miles outside of Srinagar, part of a sweeping crackdown by Indian authorities in the wake of the government's decision to strip Kashmir of its autonomy and statehood.
Farhan was among the approximately 3,000 people detained in Kashmir since Aug. 5, according to an estimate from a senior local government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. It is unclear how many of the detainees were minors, but The Washington Post has confirmed that at least five Kashmiris under the age of 18 were taken into detention in the weeks since the start of the crackdown.
"There is an atmosphere of fear in every house," said Farhan's mother Nazia, adding that she did not know why her son was detained. "If they can pick up children, they can do anything."
India's Home Affairs Ministry did not respond to requests for comment on the detention of children. The supervising officer at the Kashmir police station where Farhan's family claims he was held declined to speak with The Washington Post. A senior police official for the district denied that any minors had been picked up or detained.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised that removing Kashmir's special status will usher in a "new dawn" for the Muslim-majority region. But Kashmiris have instead experienced more than three weeks of silence and anger, marked by a communications blackout and widespread detentions.
The region's political leadership is under arrest, as are many lawyers, business executives and party workers, all in the name of preserving public order. So, too, are hundreds of young men who have been picked up by the authorities, sometimes on flimsy or unknown pretexts, their relatives say.
Heavy-handed security tactics are not new in Kashmir, which has been home to an anti-India insurgency since 1989. But experts say the scale and intensity of the current crackdown – targeting everyone from teenagers to relatives of militants to senior politicians – appears to be without parallel.
Human rights observers at the United Nations have expressed their concern at the situation. "It's very worrisome," said Bernard Duhaime, the United Nations Chair-Rapporteur for the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. He urged India to ensure that detentions are properly registered, relatives are informed of detainees' whereabouts and judicial authorities verify the legality of the detentions.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said Thursday that the agency urges "respect for human rights, compliance with legal procedures, and an inclusive dialogue with those affected" in Kashmir."We continue to be very concerned by reports of detentions and the continued restrictions on the residents of the region," the spokesperson said.
Satya Pal Malik, the governor of Jammu and Kashmir who was appointed last year by New Delhi, said that the government's strategy had succeeded in saving lives. "We will restore normalcy in the region," Malik said Wednesday. "We will deepen democracy, make it vibrant and truly representative."
Residents said that over several months in 2016, large numbers of young men were also detained by the authorities after violent protests broke out in the Kashmir valley. This time, however, the trigger is not widespread protests, nor violence by militants, but rather fear of how the population would react to the radical policy shift by New Delhi. A senior police official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the authorities are detaining people they think are likely to throw stones at security forces during protests.
Farhan, 13, and his friend Junaid Shafi Mir, 17, were picked up on Aug. 5 and held in a cell with four others, with new detainees arriving and leaving each day, Junaid said. On the second day of their detention, he said, the two boys were asked to tell the police the whereabouts of another boy. When Junaid said he didn't know the boy, an officer hit him with a wooden baton five times on his knuckles and palms, he recalled.
Nazia, Farhan's mother, said she came to see her son every day and officers sometimes let her speak to him. "He would cry and ask me to take him home," she said. "It was very difficult to see him like that."
Raids and detentions were still underway this week. About 11:30 p.m. Saturday, Nisar Ahmad Mir, who is not related to Junaid, was awakened by a voice claiming to be a local cleric, asking him to open the gate to his home. Half a dozen armed policemen jumped over the wall and said they were looking for his youngest son Danish, 17, he said. They whisked the boy away. Two days later Danish had still not returned.
The Post confirmed two more cases in Srinagar in which police detained minors.
Nowsheena Sheikh, 17, said her husband Aquib, also 17, was detained on Aug. 22 when he left home to buy milk. The following day police told her he was being held at Srinagar's central jail, but did not give details of any charges against him.
"I'm scared that they may transfer him out of the state," said Sheikh, one of dozens of people who gathered at the city's main prison complex on a recent morning searching for information about their relatives. "How will I ever find him then?"
Her fears are not unfounded. One woman began sobbing after a guard handed her a note indicating that her relative had been moved to a jail in Uttar Pradesh, more than 600 miles away.
Lawyers have also been targeted for detention. Abdus Salam Rather, the president of the lawyer's association in the district of Baramulla close to Srinagar, was detained on Aug. 5. Because of the communication shutdown, his daughter - who lives in the same city - did not find out about her father's arrest until six days later.
Rather's daughter, grandchildren and nephew stood outside the Srinagar jail hoping to see him. Abid Salam, his nephew, expressed shock that his uncle had been arrested. "All of Kashmir is a jail now," said Salam. "Some of them are inside, and some, like us, are outside."