Friday, 9 August 2013
Fear Stalks Villages on Kashmir Border, by SAMEER YASIR
Fear Stalks Villages on Kashmir Border
By SAMEER YASIR
Courtesy of Abid NabiIndian army soldiers patrolling on the Line of Control in Uri in June.
CHURUNDA, Jammu and Kashmir— On Tuesday morning, Abdul Rasheed Deedar, a 36-year-old laborer in Churunda village on the Line of Control, the disputed mountainous border dividing the Indian- and Pakistan-administered portions of Kashmir, rushed into a cave-like bunker dug into the gentle slope of the village mountain.
Mr. Deedar’s wife, his two daughters and son followed him. They huddled together in fear in the dark bunker with walls of rough stones. Indian and Pakistani troops manning the Line of Control were firing at each other’s positions with machine guns, across the village of Kamalkote, a few miles from Churunda. The familiar, dreaded sound of bullets had pushed the family out of their home into the bunker.
On Monday, according to Indian military officials, a group of armed terrorists wearing Pakistani army uniforms had attacked an Indian patrol and killed five Indian soldiers on the 460-mile Line of Control in Poonch district, around 165 miles south of Churunda.
Courtesy of Sameer YasirA girl looking down at the town of Uri from her village in Churunda, on the Line of Control in Kashmir.
The killings shattered the fragile peace on the disputed border. Mr. Deedar, a lean man with a trimmed beard, feared that the two rival armies would start shelling and firing at each other’s positions along the border, as they did after Pakistani troops killed two Indian soldiers, beheading one, in January in Poonch.
“One of the mortars the Pakistanis fired in January hit our house,” said Mr. Deedar, crouched inside the cave-bunker late Tuesday afternoon. The mortar bored through the tin roof of his house and made a six-feet-wide hole in the second floor ceiling. “It scared us so much that we did not sleep in the house for two months,” he said. They preferred the bitter chill of winter in the bunker to the possibility of sudden death in cross-border shelling, sleeping there throughout January and February.
Mr. Deedar had dug a small hole, a few feet deep, in the bottom of the bunker, where he had placed an improvised lamp, a cough syrup bottle full of kerosene oil and a wick. In the evening, he would light the tiny lamp in the hole, which allowed the Deedars to see each other’s faces but kept the modest flame hidden from anyone outside the bunker. “If they would see a light, they would fire at it,” said Mr. Deedar.
The village of Churunda is around 80 miles north of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir. Early Tuesday morning, I drove three and a half hours from Srinagar to the border town of Uri. Olive-green Indian Army trucks ferrying soldiers droned on the sinuous road to Uri along the slopes of pine- and deodar-covered mountains. The Jhelum River, which runs through the Kashmir Valley, flowed quietly on its way to Pakistan. Uri, a town of around 400,000 people living in a mixture of modest and expansive brick houses, spread along the banks of the Jhelum.
Courtesy of Sameer YasirAn aerial view of the town of Uri from the Pirpanjal mountains.
I drove past Uri for another hour on a mud track till we reached an Indian Army outpost, a few miles from the Line of Control. A friend from Churunda, who accompanied me to visit his village, got us past the military outpost. I followed a semicircular mud track between the pine trees of the mountain leading to the village on the other face of the mountain. The forest was eerily quiet, its silence punctured by the occasional mooing of a cow or the screeching of a monkey.
I emerged on the northern, Pakistan-facing side of the mountain. Around 15 single- and double-story mud houses of Churunda stood on the clearings on the mountain. A little ahead, a 12-foot-high and 12-foot-wide concertina wire fence ran through Churunda, dividing the village into two enclaves. India built the 341-mile fence along the disputed border between 2003 and 2004 to prevent the infiltration of militants, who used mountain passes to move back and forth between Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and Indian-controlled-Kashmir. Motion censors and electrification in places make the fence a formidable deterrent for the militants.
The fence has divided numerous border villages and confined thousands of villagers to a precarious life between the actual Line of Control and the fence. A 20-foot-high iron gate in the fence was manned by armed soldiers, who regulated movement in the portion of the village where Mr. Deedar lived. The residents have to deposit their identity cards at the check post before leaving and entering the village.
Churunda is home to 252 families and 1,319 people. The majority, or 222 families, live in the part of the village beyond the fence. I followed a downhill mud track from the gate to the cluster of houses. Around half a mile from the fence, the mountain slope met a tiny stream, which is the Line of Control. A rugged, higher mountain rose across the stream; a Pakistani Army post stared down at Churunda from its peak.
“Living here is a curse,” said Lal Din Khatana, 75, the village headman with gaunt cheeks. “We are stuck between India and Pakistan.” A cluster of yellow-painted buildings in Pakistan-administered-Kashmir was visible from the courtyard of Mr. Khatana’s mud house. “We were hoping the cease-fire would last forever,” said Mr. Khatana, who was visibly frightened and worried about the future of his village.
Courtesy of Sameer YasirWomen gathered outside a house in Kamal Kote village in Uri on Wednesday morning.
India and Pakistan had agreed to a cease-fire on the disputed border in November 2003. Before that, shellings and exchanges of fire between the two rival armies had become a routine since an insurgency supported by Pakistan began in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1990, seeking independence from Indian rule. “Between the early 90s and the ceasefire, 71 people were killed in our small village by mortar shells and bullets,” said Mr. Khatana.
In 1998, after a particularly difficult phase of cross-border shelling, the state government of Indian-administered-Kashmir provided funding to residents of border villages and helped them build 6,000 bunkers, like the one Mr. Deedar lived in, to protect themselves. Around a 1,000 bunkers had already been built in border villages in the Kargil area of Indian-administered-Kashmir.
Most of those bunkers were destroyed in the 2005 earthquake, which struck northern Pakistan and the Kashmir region. The villagers remain indebted to the Indian Army for helping them rebuild their houses after the earthquake. A large number of the villagers work as porters for the army.
The near decade of calm that followed the cease-fire was punctured last September after the Indian and Pakistani armies fired at each other. According to Kashmir police officials in the Uri district, Indian troops had been building observation posts along the Line of Control in violation of the cease-fire agreement and did not stop the work despite protests from the Pakistani troops.
The stalemate was followed by renewed bouts of hostilities. On Oct. 16, 2012, Shaheena Bano, a pregnant woman in her 20s, was feeding her cow in the courtyard of her house when another battle between the two armies began. A mortar shell fired by the Pakistani troops hit and killed Ms. Bano. “It was not our first death, and it definitely won’t be the last,” said Rukia Bano, her cousin.
The people of Churunda decided to migrate after her death, but were persuaded by the Indian Army to stay. I had not seen a single person outside their homes in Churunda. “Now we are afraid of stepping out of our homes,” said Mr. Khatana. “Nobody wants to visit to our village.”
The echoes of its residents’ despair fill the village. In the semi-dark cave-like bunker, Mr. Deedar made plans to leave with his family for Uri, where he worked as a laborer. “My children can’t go to school because of the fear of shelling and firing. Who knows for how long this will go on?” Mr. Deedar said. “It is better to move to a safer place.”
Sameer Yasir is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar.