A few months ago, she was sent to Tangdhar, about 190 km northwest of Indian-held Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar.

 

Fatima was assigned to head the local government-run girls' high school.

 

Not many students would turn up at her school for fear of being caught in the crossfire in sporadic fighting between the armies across the Line of Control.

 

The de facto border is at a stone’s throw, dividing the disputed Himalayan region between India and Pakistan.

 

During times of tension, Fatima would order the closure of the school as a precautionary measure. Sometimes the experiences were unnerving.

 

“My colleagues and I would be busy in the classroom when shrapnel would start landing in the neighbourhood. Everybody would run and hide in the nearest bunker,” she says.

 

Hell

 

But the Eid al-Fitr holiday [following the end of Islamic month of fasting] ceasefire suggested by Pakistan and agreed to by India has totally changed the situation. The last two weeks have been the best in the past dozen years.

 

“The unabated exchange of fire between Indian and Pakistan armies had made our lives worse than hell,” said a resident Sirajuddin Qureshi.

 

There has been no shelling between the two sides since the midnight of 25 November. 

 

People suffered during hostilities

What is important is that unlike several occasions in the past, the ceasefire is holding this time.

 

“Since the armies would exchange fire almost on daily basis, no one was prepared to trust their word. But the ceasefire is being strictly implemented and everybody is happy,” said Gulam Hassan Kanth, the Sarpanch or village head.

 

“It is working,” confirmed an Indian army official.

 

Kanth’s counterpart from a neighbouring hamlet, Mukhtar Ahmad, while endorsing the claim said, “We now live in peace and feel assured,” he said.

 

Amar Singh did not want to return home on retiring from the army next year “without fighting a war with the Pakistanis".

 

The last war the two South Asian archrivals fought was in 1971 and Amar joined the army much later.

 

“I thought it would be a shame to retire from the army without actually fighting a war with the enemy but now when only few months are left before I go home, my thinking has changed altogether,” he said, adding, “Why should we fight?”

 

Friends

 

“If India and Pakistan become friends there will be no need for these posts,” said Mukesh Kumar, another soldier.

 

Sulakhan Singh interviewed by reporters from Srinagar said, “The truce has eased tensions a lot.”

 

He described the border truce between India and Pakistan as a “very good development” but he wanted “permanent peace”. His officer, Colonel SS Chauhan, confirmed the ceasefire had brought peace to the borders.

 

“The situation is liked by the boys and the people in the villages,” the officer said.

 

Brigadier Rajendra Singh after receiving orders from the Northern Command in Udhampur to hold fire went to the people to convey the good news. One of the residents said such jokes had been played on them before.

 

Everyone hopes the truce will
turn permanent

“For the first time in many years, 100% attendance is being recorded at our school,” said Jehangir Aalam, the principal of the Government Higher Secondary School in Tangdhar.

 

Fatima says the ceasefire will revolutionise the lives of the people.

 

Communications also suffered due to the active hostility along the de facto border.

 

Often the telephone lines and the poles would be hit by the shelling. Fearing for their lives, the engineers would not venture out to reconnect them.

 

About a dozen public call offices would also be closed the moment shelling started. “Whenever a tragedy occurred, one could not contact anybody,” Siraj said.

 

Misuse

 

Since Karnah and Tangdhar come within the 10 km border belt, mobile phone facility is not available as per a government order.

 

Officials were of the view that the facility could be misused for espionage and other undesirable activity by anti-Indian elements.

 

The hostilities adversely affected the power supply to the villages close to the border.

 

The local population had to make do with electricity only six hours a week.

 

Sub-district magistrate Khadim Hussain hopes that the ceasefire might make the government’s task easy.

 

People hope that the grazing lands between India and Pakistan would be opened up. The Tangdhar-Karnah belt has no industry.

 

“With the reopening of the high pastures, the people will have the option of taking cattle there,” said Mukhtar.

 

"For the first time in many years, 100% attendance is being recorded in our school"

Jehangir Aalam,
principal, Government Higher
Secondary School, Tangdhar

All said and done, the people do not want to take a chance. “Who knows when the two countries will break the ceasefire,” said one resident.

 

However, the historic ceasefire has brought little joy to hundreds of Kashmiris who live as refugees across the de facto border in Pakistan-administered-Kashmir. They do not know whether they will be able to return home.

 

One of them told a visiting reporter a few days back, “Unless we are sure that this ceasefire will hold we cannot go back.”

 

Mukhtar Hussain Shah, 45, one of 1132 refugees near the town of Garhi Dopatta in Pakistani-administered-Kashmir, said he and most of the 200 families who fled heavy shelling by Indian troops in the valleys close to the border in August 1988 are too frightened to return home.

 

He said years of shelling had destroyed everything back home, razed houses to the ground and rendered cultivable lands barren.

 

“Under the prevailing circumstances, going back would mean that we are out of frying pan and into the fire,” he said.