Beena Devi was preparing afternoon meal at her home in Gigrial village, a stone's throw away from the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu when a volley of bullets, fired by Pakistani soldiers from across the de facto border, smashed the window of the kitchen. She was lucky to survive unscathed and, surely enough, she didn't take any risk.
Devi, along with her four children and husband, lives in a makeshift camp in Khour, nearly 30 kilometres from her home in Gigrial. On Saturday, she anxiously waited for her husband to return from the village where he, along with their neighbours, go daily to check on the cattle and houses.
“Ten days ago when the firing started, we fled along with children, trying to gather whatever we could. Some four days ago, firing again happened. We appeal both the countries to stop fighting. People living on both sides would be destroyed if there is a war. What will we get our of war?” Devi, 35, said in hushed tone.
Situated some 65 kilometres from J&K's winter capital, Jammu, Gigrial resembles a ghost village these days. When tensions heightened at the border and along the LoC after India carried out 'surgical strikes', few villagers migrated for the fear of leaving ripe crops unharvested. As the roar of guns continued, more than 5,000 villagers had to flee in one go one afternoon last week.
Darshan Lal Radha was one of them. A local businessman, he has been returning every morning to his village to keep an eye on the crop and also the houses. Since the firing refuses to stop and mobile communication network almost shut, rumour mills thrive. Recently, 'news' spread in the migrant camps that all the men who had gone to the village were killed.
“Six days ago there was firing in the afternoon which is why the village is deserted. People work throughout the year in their farms and when the time comes to harvest the crops, firing happens. This has been going on for so many years. We want a permanent solution, even if it comes through a war,” Radha told Firstpost a hundred meters from the LoC in his village, Gigrial.
Gigrial has more than 200 houses and a population of around five thousand people perilously located on the Zero Line of Control. Many residents who fled the shelling for their safety are camping in ‘Radha Soami Satsand Beas’ while the rest are either with their relatives or in another migrant camp set up few hundred meters from here.
On Sunday, the ruling BJP MP, Jugal Kishore Sharma, visited many camps and interacted with villagers. Not surprisingly, as people gathered, hands folded, in front of him, he raked up the issue of surgical strikes. In a style typical of a school master, Sharma lectured the villagers affected by the border skirmishes about the operation.
“Eighteen of our soldiers were martyred in Uri. To avenge their killing, our Prime Minister Narendra (Bhai) Modi said the killers won’t be spared. People were pushing us for war, but war doesn’t happen like this," Sharma said as the villagers listened in rapt attention.
"But we thought we will first teach them (Pakistan) a lesson. So what we did was that our best forces went into Pakistan; they went in the night and killed not just 40 to 50 terrorists but also destroyed their camps. Then they came back. No one was injured. Pakistan did not even know this. Now the country has become frustrated and isolated in the world which is why they are firing. It is frustration. Nothing else." Sharma told a small gathering inside ‘Radha Soami Satsand Beas,’ as villagers tried to make sense of surgical strikes.
But the villagers were looking forward to assurances that their ripe crops will not go to waste. They complained about poor facilities at the camps for migrants, the issues of privacy and the education of children. “Only a farmer who has worked hard in the field throughout the year in harsh conditions can understand our pain,” Radha, the businessman, said later in his village.
In the nearby village of Pallanwalla, few hundred meters from Gigrial, roads are deserted and an eerie silence fills the air. Two young men walk aimlessly with a skull in their hands, as if tired from days of work. “Our family moved to Jourian. Some of our relatives went to Pounichak and Jammu. We come every day to keep an eye on our houses and cattle,” one of them who identified himself as Sanjeev says.
Sub-divisional magistrate, Harbans Lal Sharma, of Nowshera where Gigrial falls, said more than 50,000 people from “most vulnerable” spots along the International Border and LoC, mainly in Jammu and Rajouri districts, and in many areas falling in close proximity to the International Border in Kathua-Samba-Jammu belt, have already left their homes.
“All these people are not living in migrant camps. Some are also with their relatives while others live in temporary accommodation. In the evening, there is no space to lay your foot inside because all of them leave their things inside. And there is fear of retaliation,” he said.
“We have arrangements to provide basic amenities to the displaced families at the temporary accommodations. But like those at Khour and other places, the displaced families have complained of poor and inadequate exigency arrangement being in place to meet the situation,” he added.
Nearly 60 kilometres east of Gigrial is Abdullian village in RS Pura sector on the working International Border (IB) between India and Pakistan. Most of the 100 households there are completely dependent on agriculture with few villagers even serving in the Indian Army. The crop is ready for harvest and people from both India and Pakistan, BSF officials say, have been coming to the fields.
The agriculture fields are full of rice and basmati crops standing tall and yet to be yielded but the fresh hostilities ahead of a festive season has assured uncertainties.Villagers fear a fresh exchange of fire across the IB as they face hardships in carrying out their routine work. RS Pura sector is know for producing world famous basmati rice. In 2015 this village was shelled for days by Pakistani rangers many of its residents were killed and dozens injured.
“Life is good, if there is peace,” Chowdrey Charan Singh, said outside his lush green paddy fields, next to border fence, “But in situations like this, it is terrible. Neither our children can go to school, nor anyone can work. No one can go for farming. People and animals died last year. Our neighbour's son died and his arm had to be amputated because of shelling. There has to be peace on borders. If there is tension, it means death for the farmer,” he said.
In Nowshera sub division, the state administration has identified 27 villages situated near or along the LoC from where 6674 families consisting of 25607 souls have been identified for evacuation in case of any misadventure.
Last week, at least 27 shops in Sawjian area of Poonch district along with three vehicles got gutted in a fire triggered due to heavy Pakistan shelling; dozens of mortar shells landed in Sawjiyan market and some of these shells landed on a BSF camp
With no respite in sight from cross border firing, the farmer community is worried about the standing paddy crop which is ready for harvest. If the shelling doesn't stop, it will mean huge financial burden on an already impoverished community.
"As per estimates, approximately 40,000 hectares of agricultural land across the region are ready for harvest. If the firing doesn't stop, the crop will get ruined," the SDM said
While peace is what most people desire, there are others who have lost their loved ones to cross border skirmishes, arguing that there should be a war between the two nations so that their problems are solved, once and for all.
“We want this country (Pakistan) to be punished at least once so that our coming generations don't live in fear. It is better that we push this further. There should be a war. When our children are killed every day, what will those living do?” Chemail Singh, a resident of Bera village, says.
“In the morning we come and work and towards the evening, we have to flee. In this month, so many of our boys have died. Mothers have lost their sons as young as 22. Imagine the condition of such families. We want war so that future generations are saved,” Sunita Devi, another resident, said.
Deserted streets, empty homes, ambivalence and fear on the faces of people is all you encounter across the villages on LoC and International Border. A trickle in ceasefire violations, although limited to LoC, in recent weeks have brought memories of years of uncertainty and migration before India and Pakistan agreed to a cease-fire on the disputed de facto border in November 2003. Shellings and exchanges of fire between the two rival armies had become a routine since an insurgency supported by Pakistan began in Kashmir in 1990.
People say that their lives and the standards of living have changed since that time, and yet the government has failed to take that into account. “How can you even change your cloths in these migrant camps, which are filed by hundreds of man in the evening,” Sunita said.