A constant fear of death in Pakistan-administered Kashmir

Residents of villages near the Line of Control say they are worried for their lives due to India-Pakistan tension.

Zubair Aziz, a resident of the Pakistan-administered Kashmir town of Jura, looks out at his family''s fields, his destroyed home in the background [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]
Since 2019, at least 60 civilians have been killed and more than 280 wounded due to Indian shelling into Pakistan-administered Kashmir [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

Jura, Pakistan-administered Kashmir – Standing atop the rubble of his destroyed home in the village of Jura in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Muhammad Siddiq Mir said he has spent the last few months fearing he could be killed any moment.

On Sunday, intense shelling by Indian forces hit this village which is located just four kilometres (2.5 miles) from the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border that divides Kashmir.

Mir’s house, as well as those of his brother and a cousin, were completely destroyed. The shells tore through the roof, destroyed walls and left the structures damaged beyond repair.

“What can we do? We pray to Allah to save us from this situation,” Mir said. “My father built this house with his own hands. That’s what gives me the most grief.”

Mir has no money to rebuild his house. Together with the 15 family members whose houses were destroyed, Mir is now living in a single room in a relative’s house. 

Their plight illustrates the human cost of a spike in tensions between India and Pakistan since last year over the disputed territory of Kashmir, which both countries claim in full but administer separate portions of.

Muhammad Siddiq Mir, 30, stands amid the rubble of his home, destroyed by Indian artillery firing across the Line of Control into the Pakistan-administered Kashmir village of Jura. [Asad Hashim/Al Jaz
Muhammad Siddiq Mir, 30, stands atop the rubble of his house that was destroyed by Indian shelling across the LoC. [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

Since 2019, at least 60 civilians have been killed and more than 280 wounded due to Indian shelling into Pakistan-administered Kashmir, according to Pakistani government data, which also revealed that the death toll rose by 114 percent compared with the year before.

Several civilians have also been killed in Indian-administered Kashmir by Pakistani shelling, although the government did not share official data on those attacks.

Conflict at the LoC spiked in February 2019 following a suicide attack that killed at least 40 Indian security forces in the Indian-administered town of Pulwama. India responded by increasing shelling across the LoC and then carried out air raids on Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on February 26.

A day later, Pakistan retaliated by air raids of its own, shooting down an Indian fighter jet as the nuclear-armed neighbours came to the brink of all-out war.

Reporting restrictions

Jaba, a remote village located about 85km north of the Pakistani capital Islamabad and about 10km inside the boundary between Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, was at the centre of a potential nuclear conflict last year.

A year on from the air attack, on a sunny winter’s day, the village’s adult residents were all out tending to their fields or gathering firewood in the mountainside hamlet.

Two craters from where the Indian bombs landed are still visible, surrounded by rocky rubble.

“Nothing grows there any more,” said nine-year-old Mubasher Mianwal, on whose family’s farmland one of the bombs landed. “We used to grow wheat and grass [for fodder] there.”

Mubasher Mianwal, 9, stands in a crater made by one of the Indian air strikes a year ago, looking back towards his own farm across a stream. [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]
Mubasher Mianwal, 9, stands at the site of the Indian air attacks from last year. [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

Further up the mountain lies the apparent target of the attack: A religious school run by the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) armed group.

Last year, India claimed it had killed “a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis” at the school. A visit to the area a day after the attacks found little evidence of the claimed casualties, although Al Jazeera was not allowed to get to the school itself.

On Monday, a caretaker at the seminary told Al Jazeera the school was shut down six months ago, with the 400 students relocated to other institutes.

“They were concerned that there could be another strike here,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Pakistan’s military has claimed access to the school is open for journalists, and carried out a guided tour for international media in April 2019.

On Monday, however, Al Jazeera was turned away at the gate, with the caretaker citing the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency as having barred access for reporters.

‘We are always scared’

The military standoff between the nuclear-armed neighbours cooled after Pakistan returned the captured pilot of the downed Indian fighter jet days later, but at the LoC, shelling has remained almost constant, residents nearby say.

On August 5, India’s government passed a constitutional amendment that revoked a special constitutional status for its administered portion of Kashmir, removing certain forms of governance autonomy and absorbing it into the country’s political and administrative mainstream.

Pakistan protested the move. Residents of Indian-administered Kashmir decried it as an attempt to change the demography of India’s only Muslim-majority territory.

An ensuing Indian security crackdown saw scores arrested, with a territory-wide curfew and communications blockade enforced to control protests.

“All services were shut down. I’d try every day, but I could not get through,” said Muhammad Sadiq Khan, 72, from the Indian-administered Kashmir district of Kupwara but living in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

He tried for months to get through to his family members in Kupwara but was unable to due to the communications restrictions imposed by Indian authorities.

“We were scared for them,” he said, fearing his relatives were arrested by Indian security forces. “We are always scared for them.”

Sajid Hussain, 43, shows the damage to his brother's home, which was completely destroyed in Sunday's shelling [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]
In March, Indian authorities suspended a more-than-a-decade-long mechanism that allowed for trade and travel between the two sides of Kashmir [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

Five months later, Khan finally got through to his nephews during a temporary lifting of the blockade.
“[They said] things are peaceful there, but that there are strict controls on leaving to go the city or coming and going [anywhere else],” he said.

In addition to increased restrictions on movement, in March last year, Indian authorities also suspended a more than decade-long mechanism that allowed for trade and travel between the two sides of Kashmir.

In Muzaffarabad, the offices of the trade and travel authority bear a deserted look, having laid off more than 60 people.

“There has been a hugely adverse impact on the trader community,” said Tahir Hameed, director-general of the authority. “When the suspension happened so suddenly, all of their goods that had either gone there or they had gotten here, they could not be exchanged.”

Before the suspension, the two sides of Kashmir engaged in roughly 2.5 billion Pakistani rupees ($16.2m) in barter trade every year, according to government data.

The suspension also saw the end to hundreds of residents seeking to travel to the other side of Kashmir.

‘No way to live’

Back in Jura, at the LoC, residents said the fear of being killed has become a part of everyday life.

“The night before last, I was in the kitchen when the shelling started. I don’t know how we survived,” said Syeda Mir, 36, whose residence is located just metres from where Siddiq Mir’s home was.

Syeda Mir’s house was partially destroyed by Indian shelling in October, and the family’s four members have been living in the single undamaged room left as the rest of the structure is rebuilt.

“Even when the firing is 10km away, we can’t leave the house. We can’t go outside for work,” said her son Saqib Aziz. His mother complained she was unable to send her daughters to school because of the risk.

“Even right now, sitting here talking to you, there is a fear that the shelling could start again any time,” said Aziz.

Nearby, a pit about 15 square feet (1.4sq metres) is being dug for the construction of a shell-proof bunker for the family to take shelter in. The bunker costs more than 150,000 rupees ($975).

The family, Syeda Mir said, earns less than $150 in a month. Currently, they seek shelter in a makeshift “bunker” that is little more than a hole dug under a large rock in their back yard.

“This is no way to live, here in the Neelum Valley,” said Atiq Sheikh, 32, Syeda Mir’s nephew. “Death is better than this.”

The remains of Muhammmad Siddiq Mir's destroyed living room, looking out upon the Neelum river [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]
Conflict at the LoC spiked in February 2019 following a suicide attack that killed at least 40 Indian security forces in the Indian-administered town of Pulwama [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera