Amid rising India-Pakistan tensions, govt leaves Uri residents without bunkers despite sporadic shelling

Uri: Thirteen years ago, in 2005, an earthquake rocked Uri in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district, a region where locals already live in fear, hanging on to their dear lives, amid sporadic shelling at the Line of Control (LoC).

After the earthquake, late president APJ Abdul Kalam, along with a group of Union ministers, had visited Urusa, to take stock of the devastation, and promised all possible help to the affected people, including construction of underground bunkers and alternative land for building houses for locals in a safer place.

While residents have been demanding 30,000 bunkers, which can give them a safe place to hide during shelling or other calamities, the Uri administration had submitted a proposal some years back to construct 3,000. However, not a single one has been made till date.

Lives, interrupted

“Every day is waking up to fear. There has been huge damage to our property, not to mention several civilian deaths, over the years,” says Ali Mohammad, a resident of Kamalkote, Uri, who makes his living as a shepherd.

Amid rising India-Pakistan tensions, govt leaves Uri residents without bunkers despite sporadic shelling

Abandoned houses near LoC in Uri. Image courtesy: 101Reporters

“A large number of cattle in border villages gets killed or injured whenever there is a ceasefire violation. Even if we manage to save ourselves, we are unable to save the animals.”

Mohammad Shaban, who was part of a protest last week, says they have raised the issue with successive governments but received no response. “Only tall promises are made at the time of elections.”

“Our lives cannot be compromised, Govt must act and save us from wrath of shelling” reads a banner prepared by the protesters, who have submitted a memorandum to the sub-district magistrate in Uri.

“Either the tensions should end or we should be shifted; and in the meantime, bunkers should be built,” says Shaban, alleging that the government ordered construction of thousands of bunkers along the LoC and International Border in Jammu region but ignored Uri residents.

A bloodied border

Uri is 76 miles from Srinagar and 42 miles from Muzaffarabad. The mountainous region surprisingly doesn’t have dense shrubbery and the houses built on the hillocks on both sides of the border have small patches of land, which residents have turned into vegetable gardens. However, Pakistan Army on the other side of hillocks is just 200 metres away.

The Uri subdivision comprises around 1.25 lakh people; in case of any ceasefire violation, more than 40,000 people from border villages are directly affected. The town is surrounded by the LoC on three sides. Urusa, Silikote, Shoura, Churunda, Tilawari, Chakara, and villages from Hajipeer area — Budna, Alawadi, Kamalkote, Morthal, Dardkote, Ishem, and Gowalta — bear the brunt of the skirmishes between the two countries.

Several locals either serve in the army or in the police force, while many others engage in farming and grazing of animals, like sheep and buffalo. And what isolates them further is the absence of telephones or mobile phones. Locals have to travel all the way to the main town in Uri to make a phone call.

After India and Pakistan had signed a ceasefire agreement in November 2003, life had started limping back to normalcy in the border villages, which had been deserted for years. However, over the years, the agreement has been violated several times.

In September 2016, Uri had hogged the headlines, after militants attacked an army camp, killing 17 soldiers.

The current protests have been going on since the escalation in India-Pakistan tensions after the Pulwama attack.

People living near the LoC were promised bunkers. Image courtesy: 101Reporters

People living near the LoC were promised bunkers. Image courtesy: 101Reporters

On 27 February, Indian and Pakistani fighter aircraft engaged in air combat for the first time since the 1971 war.

A fresh wave of fear

“On the morning February 27, we were woken up to the roar of fighter jets. It was so deafening and scary that for a while, we thought we were being bombed and that we all would die any second,” says Javeed Ahmad, a resident of Urusa.

“Since then, we haven’t been able to sleep properly. People are afraid to close their eyes, to let their guard down, lest bullets and shelling come raining. We don’t even allow our children to play outside.”

A lot of villagers from Kamalkote have abandoned their homes, marred by splinter marks on the walls and broken windows, to escape the shelling. They have shifted to a temporary camp set up in a school in Uri.

Another resident, Ghulam Ahmad, says that more than 35 villages of Uri along the LoC have been living on tenterhooks for years now. “There has been tension in Kamalkote for over a week now. Villagers have been warned not to come out of their homes as firing can break out any minute,” he adds.

Kamalkote resident Farooq Ahmad seconds Ghulam and adds, "When shelling starts, the villages wear a desolate look. We either stay indoors or go to Uri town for a day or two and return when the situation is calmer."

In the last 10 days, shelling has injured several people in Kamalkote. Case in point: Reyaz Ahmad Khan (30) of Gagi Madya, Kamalkote. He came out to check on his sheep when a mortar shell exploded nearby, leaving him grievously injured. At least, three houses in his village were also damaged that day.

On Sunday night, the cross-border shelling once again caused panic in Kamalkote and even damaged the house of Mohammad Sadiq Barwal in Batar Jabda.

Taking charge

Senior National Conference leader Sajad Shafi says, “Government will immediately construct bunkers and take steps to save lives as well as property.”

The government has set up a control room for any emergency. District Development Commissioner, Baramulla, GN Itoo, says the government has also set up alternative accommodation for villagers who fled their homes to escape the shelling.

Asked about the construction of the bunkers, he says, “I recently took charge. I will raise this issue with the government to provide relief to the residents.”

(Author is Srinagar-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com.)

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Updated Date: Mar 16, 2019 18:04:12 IST

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