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War with Pakistan? Situation at LoC in Kashmir shows the huge cost of escalation

A soldier fixed his gaze on Saleem-ud-Din Khan as he walked out of his home facing an Army bunker in Silikote village, a sparsely populated and one of the last inhabitations along the Line of Control in north Kashmir's Uri.

Earlier in the day, Khan, a labourer, had heard about the attacks carried out by Indian forces along the LoC. Without wasting time, Khan and his wife bundled their valuables in a trunk and waited, prepared to leave any time in case of escalation.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

After India's surgical strikes, panic spread among villages along the LoC, sometimes fanned by government announcements; sometimes by rumour mills. Many residents packed their valuables, waiting for the government's evacuation call. War is still in the air, and on airwaves, but it hasn't happened so far.

“We know the cost of war. For people sitting far away, it is easy to speak about war. For us, it is a matter of life and death. We become targets of slight escalation on the borders. We not only have to leave our homes but our very way of life,” Khan, 52, said.

At some distance, a shepherd is herding his flock of sheep along the LoC fence which crisscrosses through Silikote. The fence was raised in 2003 after India and Pakistan agreed to a ceasefire, providing much-needed relief to the residents living in border areas of two Kashmirs.

After a decade of raging hostilities and skirmishes along the de facto border, India and Pakistan agreed to the ongoing ceasefire brokered on 26 November, 2003, in the first formal truce between the two armies since the outbreak of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir.

On the next day, guns and mortars roaring along the Line of Control, International Border and in Siachen Glacier fell silent.

Since Thursday, when India claimed to have carried out strikes along the LoC, Khan, along with other residents of Silikote, have been glued to their satellite dish-powered television sets, surfing news channels which have covered the rising tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours on a minute-to-minute basis.

The advancements made by technology, Khan says, are a cause of psychological trauma for people living along the fragile 740-kilometre LoC. "Before the satellite dish became a norm here, news of Pakistani shelling in nearby village would take days to reach us. Now, it takes minutes for the war between two neighbours to reach your bedroom."

The fear of possible escalation and retaliation by Pakistani troops, after surgical strikes in Pakistani side of Kashmir, has triggered panic and confusion among border residents, some of whom have been evacuated, while many more are moving towards safer places on their own.

A fragile peace that had sustained the changing climate of Indo-Pak relations for more than a decade, villagers fear, is likely to be replaced with the sound of falling mortars and artillery.

On Saturday, minor skirmish between two armies were reported from Jammu region in Pallanwala area of Akhnoor. Officials said five of their posts were attacked with small arms but their was no damage and they have given “befitting replay to Pakistan”.

The atmosphere around the Silkote village is tense. Residents prefer to walk in groups and the fear of retaliation from across the LoC, catching them unawares, looms large. A Pakistani bunker a few hundred metres from the village is a constant reminder of the dangers faced by them. On Monday, India and Pakistan again resorted to exchange of firing in areas along the LoC in Poonch district of Jammu and Kashmir.

Although there has been a massive voluntary migration throughout the towns and village along the LoC and international border in Jammu, the state government has not asked people to vacate their homes in Uri.

“But we are prepared for the worst. We have identified places for rehabilitation of people in case of any eventuality of shelling,” says Showkat Ahmad Rather, a Sub Divisional Magistrate in Uri.

However, the scene in Jammu region is of chaos and confusion after Jammu and Kashmir government encouraged thousands of people to evacuate areas falling within a 10-kilometre radius of the international border. Many have refused to flee, citing inadequate facilities at the camps and a bumper crop waiting to be harvested.

“We were eyeing a bumper paddy crop this year. Now we don’t want to leave our farms unattended and move in filthy rehabilitation camps,” Rajendra Chaudhary, a resident of Ramgarh village in Samba district along the International Border between India and Pakistan, said.

In villages like Ramgarh of Samba district in Jammu, residents say they have already moved to a school building in the village but not towards the plains. The state government had last year said it was going to construct 20,000 concrete bunkers along the LoC and international border in Jammu and Kashmir to shelter residents in case of such eventualities.

"A proposal has been submitted to the union home ministry for the construction of 20,125 community-type bunkers in Jammu division for people living near the border." Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the former CM of Jammu and Kashmir had said in the state assembly. The cost of constructing the bunkers was expected to be over Rs 1,000 crore.

But the bunkers are yet to come up and the residents says they shelter themselves in old, dilapidated ones, constructed in early nineties, which can give away at any time.

Mohammad Harun Malik, deputy commissioner of the border Poonch district, said the administration will provide accommodation to people who are feeling unsafe in border areas in safer areas. “A pilot project is being executed but it will take some time to finish,” he said.

Authorities have also shut schools in at least three districts of Samba, Kathua and parts of Rajouri in anticipation of retaliation by the Pakistani troops. Residents have been asked to shelter themselves in the premises of these government institution if shelling takes place.

Swaran Singh, a Sarpanch of Pallanwala village, fears matters can go out of hand at any time and as such he did not wait for the government announcement. “This is nothing new. We have migrated four times earlier. Anything can happen at any time, and there is fear of war among people. So we have left our homes,” Mr Singh said.

Updated Date: Oct 04, 2016 11:07 AM

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