Jammu and Kashmir border residents forced to leave homes as Pakistani shells often land in their courtyards
Whenever there is an escalation on borders the Jammu and Kashmir government has to divert a large chunk of its manpower in managing the relief and rehabilitation of the border residents.
Gun barrels on either side of the International Border and Line of Control have been unusually hot for the first two months of this year. In the 740-km long boundary that India and Pakistan share in Jammu and Kashmir, the residents living in the vicinity of this demarcation in the state have been living a life of fear and uncertainty. So far over two dozen ceasefire violations have been reported which is more than double when compared with the corresponding figures of last year.
The diplomatic freeze in India-Pakistan relations has only worsened the situation. As New Delhi and Islamabad trade allegations and counter-allegations, and the guns continue to boom more often than not, it is the civilian population that has to face all the troubles including the threat to life. In Jammu’s Jora Farm, for instance, livestock was roasted alive and all houses were razed to the ground as Pakistani artillery pounded the village early February.
"In place of our home, there are only ashes. Our family spent most part of the winter in a shelter camp. Although the firing has ebbed, there is no way we can rebuild our home because the government is not providing any assistance," Haji Saifullah, a resident of Jora Farm, told Firstpost over the phone.
In more than dozen villages in north Kashmir’s Uri, which was relatively calm since 2012, Pakistan has disturbingly used heavy artillery for the first time to target the civilian population. In other border areas, a similar tale of tragedy is being written by roaring machines guns. Hundreds of residents, including new mothers and aged people, have been forced to abandon their homes due to the continuous shelling from across the border last week.
According to official data, in more than two dozen ceasefire violations reported in January and February this year on the LoC and IB, 18 civilians have lost their lives, a minor girl among them, dozens have suffered injuries, thousands have been displaced and property worth crores, including homes and livestock, have been reduced to ashes on this side of the border.
Life has turned into a nightmare for border residents who are caught between the devil and the deep sea. Once the guns start blazing, homes turn into haunted places for the inhabitants. Beginning with the disintegration of their social life, a daily battle for survival unfolds at the camps where the Jammu and Kashmir government has been putting up thousands of people displaced due to the unabated firing along the border areas.
"No one is willing to risk their lives. After Pakistani forces made announcements asking us to leave ‘without wasting time’, there is fear among people. We have left everything behind us including our homes and livestock and we are not sure when we will be able to return," Asghar Ali, the sarpanch of Silikote village in Uri, told Firstpost at a government-run school which has been turned into a shelter for displaced people by the state government.
In Jammu region, authorities shut one and half dozen schools on Tuesday. Dozens of schools are already closed in Chenab region to avoid any human casualty. This has dealt a severe blow to the education of poor students who can’t afford the luxury of going to private schools. They should be studying in classes, not collecting scrap around camps to help their families carry on.
"We are still trying to figure how to deal with the prevailing situation because closing schools is the only option. But we still have to manage the education of school children which is quite a task. Thankfully we have been able to do that in all these months," said Rajouri, District Magistrate, Shahid Iqbal Choudhary.
Now, with the spring knocking on the doors and the season of sowing not too far away, residents of these border areas have a common fear that if the skirmishes continue unabated between the two sides, they may also have to give up the hope of growing food grains in their farms that they consume in the rest of the year. More than 300 villages on the border and LoC who have been affected in the recent months.
"The government has been promising us compensation for the houses and crops damaged due to shelling by Pakistani forces from last two years. But these have turned out to be hollow promises. Not even a penny has been given to us," said Kirtar Singh, of Arnia village in Jammu.
Following heightened skirmishes which have resulted in loss of lives and property along the borders this year in Jammu and Kashmir, Union Minister in PMO, Jitendra Singh, said on 27 February that the Centre will release funds to the state government for paying relief and compensation for damaged houses, crop or livestock losses, relief for stay at relief camps, displacement, etc. to those affected by cross-border firing.
But while the borders are tense, the situation is equally grim in the interiors. A total of 23 militants have been killed by security forces this year in counter-insurgency operations. The protests may have fizzled out but civilian killings by security forces have kept Kashmir on the edge. Eight civilians, including a mentally challenged man, were shot dead, allegedly by security forces, in January and February.
"The situation is Uri has displaced nearly 3,000 residents. This is the largest human displacement in the area in last decade. The situation is equally tense in areas of Poonch, Rajouri, Jammu and Samba which are close to the International Border and LoC. We have set up shelters for the displaced people but these shelters will not go on forever," said a senior minister in the state government.
In such a violent atmosphere, it is imperative on both India and Pakistan to hold talks and end the sufferings in Jammu and Kashmir. The flare-up on the borders has brought together Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister Farooq Abdullah, the president of the principal opposition party, separatists Syed Ali Geelani as well as Mirwaiz Umar Farooq on a single page: they are all urging New Delhi and Islamabad to hold talks.
Geelani recently expressed serious concern over the escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan due to the rising incidents of cross-LoC firing. Geelani sought UN intervention in addressing the Kashmir issue, saying it is the main reason for prevailing tensions along the border. He stressed upon the leadership of both the countries to exhibit political maturity.
"Vajpayee used to say that we can’t change our neighbours but we can build good relations with them. Jammu and Kashmir is the primary victim of the hostilities between India and Pakistan when we can become the bridge of peace between them. With the mandate given by people of the country to (prime minister Narendra) Modi, we are hopeful that sooner than later, the two countries will start talking," Rafi Mir, chief spokesperson of the ruling PDP in Jammu and Kashmir, told Firstpost.
Peace in Kashmir is in the interest of both the South Asian nuclear powers. The periods of calm witnessed at the beginning of the new millennium and after 2012 due to a sustained dialogue process between New Delhi and Islamabad on Kashmir, paid their dividends.
Whenever there is an escalation on borders the Jammu and Kashmir government has to divert a large chunk of its manpower in managing the relief and rehabilitation of the border residents. The Centre had promised a bunker project in the border areas is yet to be implemented owing to the non-availability of the funds.
Congress state president Ghulam Ahmad Mir said that the present government has no police towards the Pakistan and that is why the destruction has happened on such scale at the borders.
"More people have died in last three years than in last ten years. People have been forced to live in camps, thousands of them, and no one coming to their rescue," Mir said.
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