Fear, anxiety in Pakistan-administered Kashmir as tension peaks

Residents along the Line of Control caught in the web of fever-pitch tensions between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan.

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    Nabila Shaheen looks at an Indian army post a few kilometres from her home in Chakothi [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]
    Nabila Shaheen looks at an Indian army post a few kilometres from her home in Chakothi [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

    Chakothi, Pakistan-administered Kashmir - Shabnam Lone just wants to go home.

    The 22-year-old came to Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, three weeks ago to visit her uncle and aunt for a short trip, after waiting a year and a half for her application to make its way through the labyrinthine Pakistani and Indian security vetting processes.

    Now, however, she is stuck, an unintended fly caught in the web of fever-pitch tensions between South Asian neighbours India and Pakistan following a suicide attack on an Indian security convoy in the India-administered Kashmir town of Pulwama that killed 42 troopers last week.

    Early on Monday morning, just hours before her bus was to depart, she was told Indian authorities had suspended the service, which has carried more than 14,000 passengers across the Line of Control (LoC) since it was launched in 2005.

    India and Pakistan have fought three of their four wars over the disputed territory of Kashmir, which both claim in its entirety but administer separate parts of, divided by the LoC.

    India and Pakistan have fought three of their four wars over the disputed territory of Kashmir [Al Jazeera]

    "She just wants to go home, this is causing her so much stress," says Sohail Lone, her uncle.

    The Lones refused to reveal their real names for fear of reprisals by Indian authorities, and Shabnam refused to speak directly to Al Jazeera, speaking only through her uncle.

    Border villages like Chakothi, just 2km away from the LoC, are at the front line of the hostilities between the nuclear-armed neighbours [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

    "She's young, and she's scared of what might happen to her when she goes back."

    India immediately blamed Pakistan for having facilitated the attack in Pulwama, hours after a purported video of the suicide bomber emerged in which he said he was a member of Pakistan-based armed group, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).

    Pakistan denies any involvement in the attack, and Prime Minister Imran Khan has promised an investigation into JeM's activities on Pakistani soil if "actionable intelligence" is shared.

    An Indian government statement rejected the offer as a "lame excuse", further ratcheting up tensions.

    A day after the attack, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the leader of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had already said he had given the Indian military "a free hand" to deal with the situation in Kashmir, threatening that Pakistan would "pay a very heavy price" after the attack.

    On Friday, Pakistan said it would respond to any Indian military aggression against it in kind, but that it would continue to support a process of dialogue rather than conflict.

    'When firing starts, it is chaos'

    In Chakothi, just two kilometres from the LoC, the mood is tense.

    "Shelling or firing could begin at any moment," says Nabila Shaheen, 40, a farmer who has lived here for decades. "We are constantly fearful."

    While a ceasefire was established at the LoC in 2003, violations of it by both sides are frequent, particularly in times of high tension between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

    In 2018, the Pakistani military says there was a marked uptick in Indian shelling across the de facto border, killing 55 people, mostly civilians, and wounding more than 300 others.

    India says Pakistan also violates the ceasefire regularly, killing at least 14 security personnel in 2018, according to government data (PDF).

    Saini Begum says a shell hit her home years ago and that she fears for the future with tensions running high [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

    Whenever such violence occurs, it is usually border villages like Chakothi that are straight in the firing line.

    "When the firing starts, it is chaos," says Abdur Rahim, 61, a retired schoolteacher. "You can't leave the house. The markets are empty. Supplies run out - and even if you can get them, they are only available at double or three times the price."

    Rahim has built a small reinforced concrete bunker adjacent to his home for when the shelling begins. Not all families here are lucky enough to have the resources to do so, however.

    "We feel the fear deep in our hearts," says Mehmood Ahmed, 30, an unemployed labourer. "We don't have a bunker at home … we don't have the money to afford one."

    Shaheen, the farmer, says her family was forced to sell a buffalo, one of the most valuable livestock animals in this part of the world, to be able to afford to build their bunker. In total, she says, it has cost them more than 200,000 Pakistani rupees ($1,430), and it is still not complete.

    "I broke the stones for this bunker myself," she says. "But it is still not done, it isn't usable yet."

    These days, she says, she stays as close to home as possible, and remains constantly on alert for the sound of shells hitting.

    Rizwan Ramzan, 22, a young medical store clerk told Al Jazeera his family had cleaned out their bunker, but that it hardly had enough room for the family itself, let alone their many neighbours.

    "There is standing room for 40 people inside, but they cannot move in there," he said of the cramped space.

    The small, cramped space in this bunker is meant to house up to 40 people if shelling commences [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

    Asked how they expected the standoff between the two countries to end, villagers here were confused as to how to respond.

    "Why should I know anything about it?" asks Ahmed.

    Shaheen offers only a little more clarity on what could come next.

    "How can we say what happens next?" she asks. "The Indians might do an operation, or not. But they will shell us, definitely."

    'There should not be a war'

    Pakistan's response to the steady increase in tone from the Indian government has been calmly defiant, even in the face of accusations from the Indian military commander in Indian-administered Kashmir that the attack was "controlled" by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

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    On Friday, Major-General Asif Ghafoor, Pakistan's military spokesperson, said his country did not desire war, but would respond if attacked.

    "We do not wish to go into war, but please rest assured that should you initiate any aggression - first, you will never be able to surprise us," he said.

    "Because you initiate, we shall also dominate the escalation ladder. We shall have a superior force ratio at decisive points. Never think that due to our commitments elsewhere we will have any [lack of] capacity."

    In Pakistan-administered Kashmir, his comments are echoed by the state's government, which while technically autonomous, does fall under the ambit of the Pakistani federal government.

    "On a small scale, [India] can fire [at Pakistani-administered Kashmir] with heavy fire or light fire on Pakistani positions," says Tariq Farooq, senior minister in the Pakistan-administered Kashmir government.

    A general view of a road sign showing the distance to Srinagar from Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

    Indian analysts have warned that the country will be examining the full spectrum of response options, from increasing shelling at the LoC to launching air raids either across the LoC or the international border.

    "Air strikes are not possible when both are nuclear countries and the international community is alive and the international media is alive, I don't think that's [possible]," says Farooq, who hails from the district of Bhimber, where he says some Indian shelling took place on Wednesday.

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    The state government has issued orders to citizens living near the LoC to limit movements, refrain from forming large groups as they could be targeted, keep lights dimmed at night and build bunkers.

    "Keeping the current situation in mind, the Indian army could take extreme actions at any time," reads a widely distributed government notice.

    For those at the border, though, it is not so simple.

    Saini Begum, 50, a widow who runs a household of 10 people, says she feels very afraid, and does not know what the future holds.

    "No, no, there should not be a war," she says, when asked if she thinks it is a possibility. "Things should get better, but I do not know how that will happen."

    Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera's digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News