Kashmir’s civilians caught in the crossfire

Residents on each side of the Line of Control endure shelling near their homes almost daily.

Mortar shells in Kashmir

Fatehpur Thakiala, Pakistan-administered Kashmir – When the shells started to fall, Muhammad Nadeem had nowhere to hide.

“As soon as the shelling started, my family would flee down the mountain… but I have a very weak heart, I can’t leave this place,” says the 65-year-old farmer, a resident of the remote village of Tarkundi, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Tarkundi, located about 115km east of the Pakistani capital Islamabad, is right on the 740km-long Line of Control (LoC), the de-facto border between Indian- and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

“A shell could still fall at any time,” he told Al Jazeera, standing in his maize fields, about 300m from the LoC. “Our homes are made of mud and wood – they could be destroyed any day.”

Tarkundi is in Nakyal sector, which has been at the centre of recent shelling between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, sparked by an August 6 attack on Indian troops which killed five soldiers in Poonch district. India blamed Pakistan for the attack, a charge Pakistan denies, and, since then, there has been a daily exchange of mainly mortar and small arms fire between the two armies across the LoC. Both countries claim Kashmir in its entirety, while Kashmiri separatists, both armed and political, demand that a 1949 UN resolution calling for a plebiscite on Kashmir’s fate be implemented.  

The shelling, which violates a 2003 ceasefire agreement between the two countries, has been hitting military border posts and civilians alike, on either side of the border.

“We were stuck inside our house for 72 hours straight [August 24-26] – without food, water or supplies – because of intense shelling. We were cut off,” says Dr Muhammad Baseer Sarwar, another resident of Tarkundi.

“The explosions would make our ears ring – we thought we were going to die,” said the 42-year-old, explaining how he and the other 11 members of his family took shelter in a small basement room, venturing outside to fetch water during lulls in the shelling.

After the dust settled, Sarwar returned upstairs to find that a mortar shell had landed in one of the home’s bedrooms, destroying trunks, beds and clothes. Thankfully, he says, no-one was upstairs when it hit.

“When you hear the shelling start, of course you get scared,” says Riasatullah, a 24-year-old whose home was hit, while showing Al Jazeera an unexploded shell that still lies in his family’s maize fields.

The situation is similar across the LoC, in the village of Charunda, in Uri sector of Indian-administered Kashmir.

“When the two sides start firing on each other, they don’t see who will get killed. They only fire,” says 36-year-old Abdul Rashid, whose village came under fire in January.

Juma Khatana, 52, another villager from Charunda, says those who live along the LoC “are stranded between the two countries”.

“We always live on a razor’s edge,” said Khatana. “We are not rich people and we can’t migrate or buy land in the city. We have to live here forever.”

In all, at least five civilians have been killed since the latest violence began, with at least two military personnel (both Pakistani) also reported to have died, according to AJK officials and the Pakistani military. Dozens more, including several Indian and Pakistani soldiers, have been injured. More than 3,000 civilians fled the Pakistan-administered side of the LoC – which is more densely populated than the Indian-administered side – due to the recent violence, with schools shut for more than a week during the most intense shelling. Farmers have been unable to tend to their crops, they say, and residents say they live a life of constant fear, as mortar fire continues on a daily basis.

This is the human detritus created when there is friction between these two nuclear-armed neighbours: thousands on either side of the LoC are displaced, their lives disrupted and the calm of this stunningly beautiful region – referred to locally as “heaven on earth” – destroyed.

“There is still danger here, we are still scared,” says Muhammad Aslam, a 55-year-old former non-commissioned officer in the Pakistan army and a resident of Tarkundi. As he speaks, the muffled sound of distant low-calibre mortar fire reverberates through the valley.

Shaky dialogue process

Newly elected Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif placed a high priority on normalising relations with India during his election campaign, making it part of his economic platform to broaden trade ties with the regional economic giant.

As such, Sharif has said that he will be discussing the Kashmir issue with Manmohan Singh, his counterpart, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly later this month.

“For the effective pursuit of our socioeconomic agenda, good relations with all our neighbours are very essential and a priority for my government,” Sharif said during a recent state visit to Turkey. “We are keen to have a comprehensive dialogue with India for the resolution of all the issues including the issue of Jammu and Kashmir.”

Those talks, however, will take place in an atmosphere of both political distrust, and a shaky, if not shattered, ceasefire along the LoC.

“This latest flare-up along the Line of Control is actually not new,” says Ejaz Haider, an Islamabad-based political and security analyst, citing several similar instances since 2007. “The LoC is not quiet anymore, especially in certain places… and in mountainous terrain it’s all about jockeying for a [tactical] advantage.”

The Line of Control is no longer quiet, say residents 

On August 6, five Indian soldiers were killed in what armed Kashmiri separatists in Muzaffarabad told Al Jazeera was not a Pakistani military operation. Haider says that it occurred after four civilians were arrested by the Indian military close to the LoC – and killed for being “terrorists”.

“Officially we say that [Pakistan] did not [kill the Indian soldiers], but it could well be that it was decided that it was time to give them a taste of their own medicine,” he said.

‘Not this kind of peace’

In Nakyal, local officials say residents are fully behind the Pakistani army, and blame India for the recent violence. Asked whether he advocates for peace to authorities in Islamabad, Nakyal Assistant Commissioner Chaudhry Muhammad Ayub replied: “We will not accept a situation where we do not fire back. If they fire upon us, we should fire back at them. Everyone of this area feels this way.”

Haider says that the lack of a clear policy directive on a Kashmiri peace or negotiations process has created a situation where “the momentum of developments at the tactical theatre level” on the LoC begins to dictate the tenor of the Pakistan-India relationship.

“In theory, if the states were to actually get to a point where they say we are really serious about resolving these disputes, you’ll see an effect on the situation at the LoC,” he says. He also warned, however, that the relationship between the state policy and tactical theatre levels is “dialectical”, and that each influences the other.

Residents also want greater clarity, calling for Islamabad to take a firm line, one way or another.

Addressing himself to parliamentarians in the Pakistani federal capital, Dr Sarwar of Tarkundi, said: “You’re sitting safe there in Islamabad. Let one shell fall outside your house and we’ll see how you react then…

“We are ready for war as well [as peace], but if there is war, it should be open. I think there should be peace [between the two countries], but not this kind of ‘peace’, where the people of both sides of the Line of Control are having their homes shelled every day.”

Additional reporting by Baba Umar

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera