Pawns of Paradise

Zoltan Istvan’s coverage of the war in Kashmir was made into a hour-long award-winning documentary, Pawns of Paradise. The film showed in numerous film festivals around the world and won two awards, including Best Documentary. It’s distributed by Janson Media. Australian’s The Age acquired non-exclusive Australian rights to the show. The American Archive of Public Broadcasting in the USA in conjunction with the Library of Congress has archived the film via PBS’s KEET (North Coast Public Media).

Flashpoint Kashmir. Could the unthinkable happen tomorrow? Few other territories on Earth pose so much danger to world peace. 
With nonstop fighting since 1949, it’s the longest ongoing conflict in the world today. India and Pakistan–both nuke-ready 
heavyweights–lay fierce claim to the territory. Between them over one million soldiers straddle the Line of Control.

Zoltan Istvan, a contributor to the National Geographic Channel and New York Times Syndicate, is traveling alone in the region–
trying to capture the story of the 12 million Kashmiris who forge their lives in a land beset by fifty years of war and terrorism.


Produced and directed by Zoltan Istvan
54 minutes / NTSC


It’s near the ancient town of Leh that Zoltan Istvan, a young journalist traveling alone, starts his journey to capture on film 
the people of Kashmir. A grueling, cliff-hugging 20-hour bus ride gets him to the ghost town of Kargil. At a nearby village 
that was bombed just days before, wrecked houses are everywhere. Suffering refugees describe the bombing in emotional 
interviews. Within eyesight, the Line of Control (LoC) between Pakistan and India looms.

In Srinigar–heart and capital of the Kashmir Valley– the conflict is ubiquitous. Indian soldiers and the threat of militant 
violence dominate the streets. In the Old City, Istvan films worshippers at Srinigar’s largest mosque, capturing women 
draped in black. One widow approaches him wanting to tell her story of how her husband was abducted by Indian soldiers, 
then tortured and killed. She has photos and documents supporting her story. While she cries, Istvan asks the deceased 
husband’s brother what the future is for the woman and her three children.

Later, three houses down, a traditional Kashmiri wedding is starting. In a large tent, Muslim men and women celebrate 
another cycle of life; dancing and singing abound, but tension remains.

Kashmir is famous for its houseboats on Dal lake. A tranquil ride on the lake’s canal system is broken by the boat driver’s 
complaints that the war has killed tourism all over Kashmir. His family, once rich, now struggles to get by. He swears at the 
Pakistan and Indian governments, saying Kashmiri people are just pawns of broader political agendas and nuclear 


On an isolated stretch in the militant ridden Kashmir Valley, Istvan is picked up by a Sikh, who lives in a refugee camp in 
Jammu, the city of temples. While following convoys of Indian soldiers headed to the front, the Sikh explains his take on the 
war and what’s happened to his people. Many residents of Jammu are Kashmiri Pandits (Hindus), who were forced to 
leave their homes and farms in the Kashmir Valley because of militant violence caused by Muslim extremists. The 
extremists are often not of Kashmiri origin and aim to “cleanse” Kashmir of anyone but Muslims. Istvan films the refugee 
camps of Jammu, citing terrible conditions. Tears and desperation flow from the people. The city is swarming with life, 
though, because of occurring elections.

It’s time to leave Kashmir and head for Delhi. Istvan jumps onto a crowded train filled with Kashmiri homeless children. In 
Delhi, he wants to examine the one thing Pakistan and India have in common: nuclear arms. In an all out war, Delhi would 
be the first major city in India to be devastated. Interviews come from both the rich and the ultra-poor locals about this 
matter. Afterwards Istvan crosses into Pakistan via a rickshaw and interviews locals in Lahore, a popular Muslim city of 5 
million people. It will be the first Pakistani city devastated in a nuclear war.


Istvan heads to Pakistan’s Azad Kashmir, known as a prolific terrorist training ground. Upon entering the region he’s 
forcefully taken and detained at the police station. Surprisingly, they don’t arrest him, but assign armed officers and even 
secret police to guard and follow him. Few westerners go into this Muslim militant region.

Istvan films life in the frontier town of Muzaffarabad. He manages to convince his police escorts to give him access the 
hospital. It’s shocking inside. Amputees and terribly wounded war victims (mainly civilians) tell horror stories of the fighting, 
terrorism, and losing their farms and families. One man emotionally tells how his children and grandchildren were killed.

The experience is daunting. Istvan gratefully heads away to Islamabad to film Islamic culture and discover why Pakistan 
has such a prideful take on Kashmir. He finds a very rich, modern city, fully of talkative citizens who are passionate about 
fighting for possession of Kashmir, at any cost.


Soon, though, a message arrives from a professor and human rights activist living in Azad Kashmir. He wants to take 
Istvan to a new refugee camp where the worst atrocities of the war have left their mark. Though reluctant to go back towards 
the LoC and the fighting, Istvan arrives back in Azad Kashmir. He finds hundreds of people living in tents—many that are 
weeping and begging to have their story told to the world so something can be done. The endless tales of rape, torture, 
and murder are tragic. Men and women break down in tears. Alleged torture victims show deformed parts of their bodies.

After filming the refugee camp, Istvan takes a gripping motorcycle ride through Kashmir’s majestic mountains—memories 
of the Kashmiri people he has met haunts him. Istvan searches for solace on the long winding roads, trying to understand 
why such a magnificent region, full of wonderful people, has fallen to so much trouble—and what, if anything, can be done 
to help it. The sad truth is, after 50 years of conflict, likely nothing will change for decades more to come.