For the first time in 13 years, the Neelum Valley in Pakistan-administered Kashmir has come under fire.
As tensions along the Line of Control between India and Pakistan escalate, residents of the picturesque tourist hub believed the noises they heard early on Saturday were the usual potshots between Pakistani and Indian posts.
Artillery shelling by both sides in the disputed Himalayan region has increased since September, when gunmen killed 19 Indian soldiers at an army camp in Kashmir. India said those gunmen were Pakistani.
Tensions were already high before that attack, with deadly violence over the death on July 8 of a popular Kashmir rebel leader, 22-year-old Burhan Wani.
Neelum Valley runs along a 200-kilometre stretch and is home to an entire generation born inside bunkers during the fighting of the conflict in the 1990s. In the years since the 2003 ceasefire, Neelum Valley residents became increasingly intolerant of rebel-led activities.
Up until now, firing had been limited to sparsely populated areas in the mountainous region.
At least three people were wounded in the Neelum Valley violence on Saturday. Also on the Pakistani side, at least two were injured in Bhimber sector.
Adnan Khursheed, police deputy commissioner of Kotli district, told Al Jazeera at least six people had been killed and seven wounded in Nakyal sector since Wednesday.
Abdul Waheed, police deputy commissioner of Neelum, told Al Jazeera that tourists were asked to leave the area and sent back to Muzaffarabad, the regional capital. Schools and government offices have been closed.
Al Jazeera spoke to some residents about the recent attacks.
|Khawaja Bilal, 20, Neelum Valley|
We were sleeping and woke up to sounds like blasts at 4am. We did not realise it could be cross-border shelling and slept again.
When we woke up in the morning, we came to know that Indian and Pakistani soldiers were engaged in an artillery duel in Keran sector near Athmuqam.
This was the first time since the 2003 ceasefire that Indian soldiers targeted the civil population in Neelum Valley.
There is immense fear among the local population.
Many were forced to live in bunkers built during times of heightened tension from the 1990s onwards. But others don’t have bunkers, and they don’t have enough money to build them.
|Awais Ahmed, 40, hotel owner, Neelum Valley|
There were about 30 tourists in the guesthouse last night. On Saturday morning, we had wanted to organise a discussion about hydropower generation in the area in collaboration with a daily newspaper.
We were arranging chairs for the guest speakers and almost 200 local people were due to attend this event. Suddenly, Indian forces resorted to shelling – nearly a dozen mortar and artillery shells.
Most of them landed around the building but one shell hit and devastated the guesthouse. As a result, three people, including two tourists from Lahore and a local person, were wounded.
The shelling also caused damage to other guesthouses here.
|Rukhsana Kouser, 28, Kotli|
I was attending a wedding ceremony of a local villager when a mortar shell landed.
As a result of this, I was wounded and lost consciousness. When I woke up, I was in the hospital.