Villagers along India-Pakistan border sceptical of ceasefire deal

While guns have fallen silent on Line of Control since the February 25 announcement, residents in villages along volatile frontier remain fearful.

A wall in Suchetgarh village was hit by multiple shells in violation of the India-Pakistan ceasefire [Rifat Fareed/Al Jazeera]

Jammu, Indian-administered Kashmir – Milkhi Ram is 80 and has witnessed three wars between India and Pakistan during his lifetime.

The lean, silver-haired man has little faith in a rare ceasefire agreement between the two South Asian rivals announced last week.

“Both sides agreed for strict observance of all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the [Line of Control or LoC] and all other sectors,” said a joint statement issued by the two armies.

But living in Suchetgarh, the last village on the Indian side of the volatile border with Pakistan, some 35km (21 miles) from the main city of Jammu in Indian-administered Kashmir, Ram has reasons to be sceptical.

Milkhi Ram, right, outside his home in Suchetgarh village [Rifat Fareed/Al Jazeera]

For decades, mortar shells fired by Pakistani guns have arched over a razor wire obstacle and landed in Suchetgarh – a nightmare for the villagers caught in the crossfire as the armies of the two nuclear-armed nations continued to violate a fragile ceasefire deal agreed upon in 2003.

“This time there is calm, but we don’t trust these statements,” Ram told Al Jazeera, adding that similar promises in the past “never lived too long”.

“We have seen these lies since 1947,” he said, referring to the year India got independence from British rule and was partitioned, leading to the formation of Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Since then, both India and Pakistan have claimed the Himalayan region of Kashmir in its entirety while ruling it in part. The bloody dispute has turned the region into one of the most militarised in the world, with near-daily skirmishes happening at the frontiers.

“We live in fear and have to run to other places leaving our cattle and crops behind. We are poor and no one listens to us,” said Ram at his home in Jammu’s Ranbir Singh Pura sector, which is surrounded by vast mustard fields tended by farmers – men, women and young girls.

The announcement of the India-Pakistan ceasefire deal along the LoC is being seen as a significant thaw in relations between the two nuclear-armed nations, who have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir.

Since 1947, tens of thousands of Kashmiri rebels, civilians and security forces on both sides have been killed in the dispute.

The February 25 ceasefire deal is also a breakthrough since relations between India and Pakistan worsened since New Delhi abrogated Indian-administered Kashmir’s limited autonomy in August 2019.

But while the guns have fallen silent on the borders for more than a week, the scars in Suchetgarh are too deep.

In fact, 2020 was the worst year since the 2003 ceasefire as the two armies skirmished nearly 5,000 times, according to the data by India’s home ministry, killing and wounding dozens.

Indian officials said last year’s ceasefire violations were an increase of 48 percent from 2019.

Ratno Devi with her grandchildren at her village near the India-Pakistan border [Rifat Fareed/Al Jazeera]

‘Felt like a dark night’

In November 2016, Kamlesh Devi was washing clothes when a shell landed on her home in Suchetgarh, injuring six of her family members. “It felt like a dark night, it (shell) exploded with a bang and everything turned dark.”

Devi’s daughter Sakshi was wounded and blinded in the left eye.

“She lost sight in her eye which despite multiple surgeries she is yet to gain completely,” Devi, 40, told Al Jazeera. “She can’t watch TV, her friends ask what has happened and she feels stigmatised. She doesn’t want her pictures taken.”

Devi said medical treatment of her daughter’s eyes could not remove a splinter, which remained stuck, causing an infection.

“We fear for our children. We are not sure about our safety. Life is very difficult here. We are neither safe inside nor outside our home,” she said.

Kamlesh Devi at her home attacked by a shell, which injured her daughter’s left eye [Rifat Fareed/Al Jazeera]

Devi says every time she looks at her daughter, it reminds her of the tragedy they went through.

“This happened to us because we live on the border. Our cattle were also here, one buffalo died and others were hurt. There is uncertainty and mental trauma.”

Ratno Devi, a 60-year-old resident of Suchetgarh, says she has never felt peace in her life.

“We don’t trust Pakistan, they can start shelling again,” she told Al Jazeera as she was surrounded by her grandchildren.

‘Violence has made them orphans’

The wounds, suffering and fears are echoed across the 740km (460-mile) volatile LoC, with residents along the frontiers having little faith that their lives will ever change.

Farooqa Begum was killed on November 13 last year when she was sorting wood in her attic as a shell landed, killing her, in Balakote village.

The village is located near Haji Pir in a remote corner of northern Kashmir, where a stream divides the Indian and Pakistan-administered parts of Kashmir.

Begum is survived by her husband, Bashir Ahmad Dar, a labourer, and five children.

“The youngest is 18 months old. Would these (ceasefire) agreements bring the dead back? Then we would have any trust,” Begum’s nephew Muhammad Maqbool Dar told Al Jazeera.

“Her husband cannot go to work because he has to take care of children. The older daughter is 16 and she has to cook for the family. The violence has made them orphans.”

On the day Begum died, 10 others were also killed along the LoC, including five Indian soldiers.

Dar’s neighbour Farooq Ahmad is also sceptical of the ceasefire deal. “When we go out for work, our hearts are always at home because you never know when the shelling would start,” he said.

‘Only time will tell’

India’s Minister of State for Home Affairs G Kishan Reddy recently told the parliament that 70 civilians and 72 security personnel have died in more than 10,000 ceasefire violations along the LoC in the last three years, while 341 civilians and 364 security personnel suffered injuries.

Indian security analyst Rahul Bedi says “only time will tell about the finality” of the ceasefire deal.

“This is an 18-year-old agreement and this agreement has been violated more than it has been observed,” Bedi told Al Jazeera. “It’s quite surprising that this has happened.”

According to Bedi, Pakistan has “little choice but to ease tension on its eastern borders” with Afghanistan.

Sameer Patil, a fellow for international security studies at Gateway House, while admitting that the joint statement on ceasefire was “a welcome development” also expressed a note of caution over its sustainability.

“Given the kind of exchange of fire on the borders for the last many months and years, it (deal) is significant. But at the same time I am a little cautious.”

Milkhi Ram in Suchetgarh is equally unsure. “They are only doing jumlabazi (wordplay),” he says, referring to the two South Asian rivals fighting for decades over Kashmir.

Source: Al Jazeera