A strange silence looms over Tilawari village. At the house of the village headman, Bashir Ahmad, anxious villagers discuss the rising tensions between India and Pakistan. Outside, the silence is intermittently broken by the mooing of cows and giggling kids playing in the courtyard; the lush green mountains standing tall behind the house, bereft of the anxiety simmering on the ground.
“Will there ever be a permanent peace in our lives?” Ahmad asks the villagers, many of them friends of his who have survived the horrors of hostilities between the armies of India and Pakistan along the LoC in north Kashmir. Others were not lucky enough.
“One day,” Saleema Begum, another resident chips in, “We will have to leave this place forever because I don't think there will be any peace, ever."
The Tilawari village is located some eight kilometres southeast of Uri town where a deadly attack last month left 19 Army soldiers dead. Four suspected militants were also killed during the gun battle which renewed hostilities.
Less than hundred houses and a population of not more than 500 Pahari-speaking people here live at the mercy of the armies of the two countries. A majority of residents either work as Army potters or look for daily wage jobs in the Uri town.
Hostility along the de facto border between India and Pakistan in this part of Kashmir has left few families touched. While the Army provides menial jobs to the villagers, they have also mined the area years ago to prevent infiltration. From the other side, the only offerings on the platter are the gunfire and artillery shells that pound the village whenever tensions rise.
On 6 April, 2001, before India and Pakistan brokered a ceasefire agreement, guns across the LoC had stopped roaring for almost nine days. Saleema Begum was cooking meals in her three-roomed mud and brick house when two soldiers from a patrolling party knocked the shack, asking for water.
“I handed two glasses of water to them and they left. Barely two minutes had passed when shells started pounding the village. I was hit by six bullets in my leg. It was amputated later,” Begum told Firstpost, pointing to the veranda of her house where she was hit.
Construction of houses is a work in progress. There is barely a house in the village which has not suffered damages due to shelling from across the LoC. Those which withstood the assault got repaired and those irredeemable were torn down, to be built again. It is a vicious cycle, sucking at the feeble earnings of people here.
Ironically, after the ceasefire came into effect and the man-made disasters witnessed a lull, the nature's fury wreaked havoc many times. In 2014, residents were trapped in their village for two weeks when a landslide locked them from all sides. For two weeks, nobody from the civil administration went to the rescue of villagers because of its strategic location on the zero line along the Line of Control.
Most of the households have had their share of miseries. There are dozens of landmines victims who got either blown up or whose limbs were amputated while trying to fetch water from a nearby water stream.
In November 2001, Irshad Ahmad was a teenager when, after spending days in an underground bunker due to shelling from across the LoC, he was trying to get back to his home for fetching more clothes when he accidentally stepped on a landmine.
“I was just coming out of the bunker and trying to find out the scale of damage caused by mortar shells when I steeped on the landmine, which must have got dislocated from its original place,” Ahmad said.
Two years later, his mother, Saaja Begum, was grazing cattle in a nearby field when she stepped on a landmine. Saaja's groin was damaged irretrievably and she died few days after remaining in coma.
“We are paying the cost of living here. We have been sandwiched between the two armies. Many got killed. Dozens lost their limbs and are now living the life on crutches,” Ahmad added.
After India launched Operation Parakram in the wake of the Parliament attack in December 2001, India and Pakistan planted thousands of anti-personnel mines along the LoC and International Border. These mines covered large patches of agricultural and barren land, disrupting the lives of people on both sides.
Although officials say mines were removed from many areas, a majority of them have skidded or dislocated from their original location. So for the people living along the LoC and borders, it is always a possibility to accidentally step on these landmines.
An independent survey in 2004 counted at least 1,295 civilian casualties from Operation Parakaram-laid land mines. The army insists that this increase is not because more mines are planted but because mines do not get "anchored properly" and are moved from one place to another.
Following the rising level of landmine blasts in early 90s, the army took precautionary initiatives and encircled the ‘deadly zones’ with razor wires to restrict the movement of people, but they still pose threat to the kids playing in the fields.
The ceasefire agreement brought a paradigm shift in Indo-Pak relations and paved way for historical Confidence Building Measures but the common people in these remote areas continued to live on the edge.
Ahmad says the landmines have consumed scores of lives with a majority of them falling victims to the mines planted in and around the human habitations. “Rehman joo died in 1970. Ghulam Qadir lost his leg same year. There are so many others who died or suffered fatal injuries in landmine blasts which continued till 90’s. This will continue till the two countries resolve Kashmir issue,” Ahmad says.
With the war bells ringing again in the region, it is the return of old days for people in Tilawari when life is all about counting minutes and hours, from day to night and night to day, and hoping for some moments of respite in between.