Panicky villagers along LoC in Kashmir's Uri flee homes amid heavy shelling; Pakistan Army tells locals to leave
Non-stop firing and shelling by Pakistani forces has forced over 3,000 villagers along the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir's Uri sector to flee their homes causing biggest displacement in 30 years in the area
When mortars fired from the Pakistani side landed in Silikote village situated along the tense Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir's Uri sector on Saturday, Shahana Ara, 37, who gave birth to a baby earlier this month, thought her time was up. Her fragile body, recovering from a caesarean section, betrayed the urgency demanded by the simmering situation along the LoC.
"Initially, we tried taking shelter in a bunker. But due to my condition, I was not able to crawl in. It felt as if the stitches I received at the time of the surgery were ripping apart. Somehow, I gathered courage and kept trudging along the mountain till we reached the road from where I was brought to a hospital," she said.
Despite many odds and risks involved in the journey, Ara and her family were lucky to make it out of Silikote, which is located some eight kilometres from Uri town in north Kashmir. Her family is putting up at a government-run school, many of which have been converted into shelter homes for "refugees of our own land".
Officials say many villagers are still trapped in their homes, unable to come out, due to continuing firing by Pakistani forces who have targeted many villages along the de-facto border in Uri for the first time in years. The compartmentalisation of villages near the border by the Indian Army has not made it easier for villagers to escape to safer places.
"At least eight to ten villages along the LoC have been fenced by the Army. In our village, there is only one door, which is opened and closed by the Indian Army at their beck and call. We requested them to throw it open but they didn’t listen. I have never seen such a war-like situation here,” Mohammad Mujeeb, a resident of Churunda, told Firstpost.
"Living near the border has made us accustomed to the sounds of machine guns, but never in my life have I heard the Pakistani forces using public address systems to warn us. The situation is going from bad to worse and we can only pray and hope that this ends soon,” he added.
The chief of the Army’s 15 Corps in Srinagar, said on Sunday that nearly a dozen villages along the LoC in Uri including Churanda, Tilawari, Batagram, Shoura and Hathinang have been targeted by Pakistani shelling and firing since 23 February forcing many families to abandon their homes. He said the Indian Army is "effectively retaliating" the fire from the other side.
Brigadier YS Ahlawat of the 12 Indian Infantry Brigade said, during a press conference in Uri, that Pakistani army has been continuously violating the ceasefire agreement and has been indiscriminately using shelling to target the civilian population.
While the Line of Control and International Border in Jammu have recorded a spike in skirmishes between the armies of the two nuclear-armed neighbours, the flare-up in the relatively calm Uri happened on 20 February when Pakistan Army killed a BSF jawan near the de-facto border in Kupwara district.
"The north Kashmir sector has since recorded a daily exchange of fire between the two sides which intensified after the Indian army destroyed several army pickets on the Pakistani side. This led to a flare-up which has now engulfed the villages along the Line of Control in Uri,” a senior Jammu and Kashmir Police officer said.
Dr Nasir Ahmad Naqash, deputy commissioner of Baramulla district, which is the administrative centre of Uri, said around 3,000 people have fled these villages, some of which are totally empty.
“We have made arrangements for them in schools. Some of them have shifted to their relatives’ places. We have also set up a helpline for those in distress," he said.
With diplomatic channels between the two countries almost frozen, villagers along the LoC fear that the situation may go out of control. Even on Saturday, the two armies exchanged heavy artillery for the first time since 2003 when they entered into a ceasefire agreement.
Officials say 40,000-50,000 residents of nearly 55 villages in north Kashmir are directly impacted in case of any escalation along the de-facto border. The skirmishes in the past two days have injured three civilians while at least five houses have been severely damaged in Silikote and Churanda villages, which are perilously close to the Line of Control.
"Since the situation escalated on Friday, the civil administration has received dozens of panic calls from these border residents, seeking help for evacuation. We have pressed ambulances and government vehicles into service to ferry residents from some border villages and arrangements have been made for their stay. It is an emergency situation. We are witnessing the biggest displacement in terms of numbers in the past 30 years in this area," said Abdul Haq, Minister for Rural Development Panchayat Raj, Law and Justice, in Jammu and Kashmir government.
On Sunday, the minister visited the school in Uri that has been converted into a shelter for residents fleeing the violence-hit border villages. His assurances, that the government will do everything to prevent loss of lives or property, failed to evoke any enthusiasm among the ‘migrants’ who fear for the worst in coming days.
"In this chilling weather, where will we take our children? We have left everything, including livestock, poultry and our homes behind us. I can't recall the last time when the Pakistani side issued warnings on public address systems. These are signs of tough times ahead,” 45-year old Haji Abdul Sattar, a resident of Churanda, said.
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