Life amid shelling on the Line of Control

Decades of conflict between India and Pakistan have been hard on the families that live in border villages. There is no war, but it's no less than war

Rayan Naqash March 11, 2019 19:00:51 IST
Life amid shelling on the Line of Control
  • The decades of conflict between India and Pakistan have been hard on the families that live in villages on the border

  • There is no war, but it is no less than war as bullets and shells tears their lives asunder, unrelentingly, every day

  • But the villagers say they will not shift (out of the village) for a kilo of flour from the government given as compensation to the displaced

The villagers watched as a bright red light emerged from the Pakistani side of the Line of Control, arced over the mountains, and landed on the hill above their lands. The flare was followed by at least an hour of shelling, with Indian soldiers matching Pakistani artillery round for round.

Estimates of how many shells hit the village of Salotri on March 1, varied from the “several hundred” reported by the men and the “10-30” by the women. At least four houses were severely damaged.

In one such house, 27-year-old Mohammad Younis’s wife and their two children, including an infant, were torn to bits.

Life amid shelling on the Line of Control

Mohammad Aslam, whose daughter-in-law and grandchildren died in the March 1 shelling. Photo: Firstpost

Mohammad Hussain, uncle of Younis, said the rubble still had pieces of the children and villagers were burying those as and when they found them while clearing the debris. Only that morning, villagers had buried bits of the baby’s head. Hussain’s wife Zubaida Bi sat at the edge of the house, still in shock, cursing the Pakistan Army. “The people here and there die. The land remains,” she lamented looking at the Pakistan-controlled hills.

Every child wears the scars of war.

Kushal Kumar’s six-year-old daughter yells: “Papa thaain thaain”. She does this regularly and, to her, it’s just a game. But for people like Kumar living in Jammu and Kashmir’s villages bordering Pakistan, that innocent burble masks an explosive and tragic reality: the child is imitating the shelling that has killed many and maimed many more over decades of hostilities between the two countries.

A bus packed with men, women, and children stops at the main crossing in the Kalsian village, less than 10 kilometres from the Line of Control, in the Nowshera area of Rajouri district. A woman peers out to ask, “Has the shelling cooled down?” The bus moves on, though explosions grow louder.

In a small village market, a few kilometres from where the bus stopped, young men stand by shuttered shops pockmarked by splinters, cautioning travellers. Villagers have identified ‘safer spots’ — not protected from the incoming bombs but providing additional cover to vehicles and humans — to halt at while travelling during mortar shelling.

At one such safer spot, the location of which is being withheld due to the sensitivity of the border region, villagers and soldiers took shelter behind homes and shops, carefully peeking at the hills above on their left. A few loud explosions could be heard from the right side. Sometimes the shelling resumes soon after civilians or soldiers move out from these spots. “Yahan sab Ram bharose hai (Here, everything is in god’s hands),” said Sunil Choudhary, in his 20s, a local resident.

On the morning of February 27, the region that was already a battlefield witnessed a rather rare combat in the skies as jets of India and Pakistan engaged in a dogfight following which both sides claimed to have shot down enemy jets. Pakistan’s claim was backed by the arrest of an Indian pilot but the Indian side remained adamant that a Pakistani jet was also downed.

Since then shelling has continued with intermittent bouts of increased intensity.

“There is no purpose to life here,” said 66-year-old Mehender Lal Bali, a retired teacher and resident of Bhawani, about six kilometres from the LoC. In all of these years, Bali said, the only constant in the village was the shelling and the threat of displacement, but the attitude of the government towards the people had changed.

Earlier the displaced would be given relief, in cash and kind, but villagers who were temporarily displaced during last year’s intense spell of shelling, and also in the first few months of this year, complain of lack of facilities. “Modi has done a lot for the country but we don’t see that on the ground,” he said. “We won’t shift for a kilo of flour from the government.”

As working in the fields and letting their livestock in the open is difficult, livelihood of the residents is increasingly at threat and employment with the Army the only viable option for many. However, for Choudhary, also the village’s elected head, evacuating the border regions would be a “weak point” for the country. “If we leave the Army alone here, they will be demoralised,” he said with determination. “We are each other’s support here.”

Each of the village close to the de-facto border has witnessed a casualty in the decades since Partition or heard of a recent one in the nearby villages. Choudhary said the shelling has also caused long-lasting trauma to the children and several of them had already grown hard of hearing. Barely any kids play in the open.

“We prepare food not knowing whether we will be able to have it in peace,” said Zooni Begum. “Whenever something happens we are the first victims. We spend days without food and sleep.”

Several residents of this part of the village migrated from areas farther from the border in hope of better living in the early 1980s. But ever since border tensions escalated once again, they find themselves hostage to their poverty and the hostilities between India and Pakistan. On the morning of March 3, local leaders rubbed salt on their fresh wounds. Leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, standing outside the damaged house, vowed to give a befitting response to Pakistan as journalists recorded the jingoism on cameras. “For this family, if this isn’t war, what is?” asked Shameema Akhter, a neighbour, as she scoffed at the leaders’ statement. “When shelling begins, we let our children cry their hearts out. We can’t protect them. These children were killed when their mother was with them.”

The same jingoism was on display at the school in Kuniyan, more than ten kilometres from the border, where the surviving family of Younis is taking shelter and being helped by local residents. “A BJP MLA came here, posed with the victim family and told his men to take pictures,” said 25-year-old Sarfaraz Ahmad. “He left after that.”

The grieving family of Younis was enraged. “None of them offered even 10 rupees to buy milk for these young kids,” said Fareeda Bi, sister of Younis. Their father, Mohammad Aslam, was visibly agitated. “Who will Modi rule over if we are all dead?”

Residents in various border villages in different districts of the region point out the shelling has intensified in the last two years of the BJP government, primarily in the wake of the Indian raids across the border touted as the “surgical strikes” by the Indian prime minister and widely publicised by the national media. After the recent escalation of tensions, border residents blame the media on both sides for warmongering from studios far from danger.

They feel while Pakistan targeted Hindu-dominated areas mostly, India responded to the fire from Muslim-dominated villages to relieve pressures elsewhere, thereby escalating the spiral of violence. Residents also complain of discrimination in the allotment of bunkers; it is widely believed that Hindu- dominated border regions have received more bunkers. Salotri, a mainly Muslim village with a population of about two thousand, spread over the hills, has few bomb shelters far and apart. The construction of bunkers is also marred with corruption and the generally slow pace of works in India.

The terror that has gripped Salotri has made the residents once again flock to a locally revered shrine organising an 11-day niaz ritual that was first done by a local saint, now deceased, in 2002 when the shelling was similarly intense. Quarters of oranges and sweet rice were served to villagers gathered at the shrine of the panj peer - according to one legend they are five brothers, another says it is a peer and his subsequent generations.

At the shrine Molvi Qasim, a resident of Salotri, said the area has so far avoided civilian casualties because of the hallowed place. Caretaker Haji Mohammad Bashir said that the shrine had cast its blessings over the area but warned that “Jammu and Kashmir will consume both India and Pakistan”.

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