Yet you rarely find this sort of balladry in dispatches from the front. Kashmir may be beautiful, but war is sickeningly ugly and any seasoned journalist knows he'll only confuse the reader if he writes: "Rebels today slaughtered 31 women and children in a savage attack beside a babbling brook in a meadow of wild irises, daisies and tiny pink anemones."
The thing is, wars are rarely fought over dumps. Nepal's countryside, now being made a hell by vicious, marauding Maoists, is simultaneously a picture of bucolic paradise, rivaled perhaps only by Afghanistan's northern mountains in springtime. Cambodia's civil war raged against a backdrop of some of the world's most stunning architecture—Angkor Wat and its surrounding Khmer temples—while the battlefields where 65,000 people have died in two decades in northern Sri Lanka are lush jungles of palms and ponds alive with kingfishers, green parrots and black and yellow longtails. Kashmir in May—as the snow pulls back through the damp pine forests and ponies wander through flower-filled grasslands—is perhaps the most beautiful war zone of all. "Sometimes you wish it was just a little less pretty," sighs Omar Farooq, Kashmir's young spiritual leader and leading moderate separatist. "Maybe then not so many people would want it."
For the correspondent too, all this beauty comes tainted. Listening to Nepalese Maoists explain how they torture and kill at will is all the more troubling when heard in a pastoral idyll. It is difficult to imagine the age-old, sun-drenched rice terraces as the execution grounds where the rebels say they machete their enemies—civil servants, anybody with a job—and shatter their legs over wooden blocks. Sometimes beauty can even seem obscene. No journalist I know ever takes a day off in Afghanistan—partly because there's a terrible guilt, an abhorrence, about enjoying the scenery in such a desert of destruction.
But perhaps most disturbing is the manner in which those who live in war zones often seem barely to notice the blood and destruction. I've rarely felt less comfortable than I did when turning up at the scene of a massacre of 300 Taliban in Mazar-i-Sharif last November, I was greeted warmly by the Afghan perpetrators, offered tea and, as the gagging stench of rotting bodies filled the air, asked with a combination of Afghan politeness and pride how I was enjoying my stay in the jewel of northern Afghanistan.
And yet maybe there's some hope here. That even killers can lyricize is perhaps a reassurance that behind their battle-narrowed eyes lies a soul. The dreamy pride that Tamil suicide-bomb squad commanders take in their mined and cratered hometowns is at once odd and oddly comforting. It speaks of murderers who can move on, who can see beyond conflict and chaos to a future of peace and picnics. A tranquil Eden is never going to be the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Kashmir. And with an average death toll of 13 people a day, it'll be difficult to find room to mention the scenery in my dispatches. But in these fearsome days of violence, terror and nuclear brinkmanship, I take some solace from the notion that when a Kashmiri thinks of peace and beauty, he thinks of home.