Living Hell on borders

By Raqib Hameed Naik

Jammu: The last two months, the Line of Control (LoC) and International Border (IB) in Jammu and Kashmir saw a huge spike in ceasefire violations between India and Pakistan. According to statistics from Ministry of Defence, 192 violations had taken place by January 29, killing eight civilians and injuring 58.

Houses with bullet-scarred walls, dead livestock and injured restricted to their beds testify to the extent to which life along the border is marred by violence.

From January 18 to 23, the exchange of fire – light to heavy mortar shelling between Indian and Pakistani soldiers on the IB and LoC – led to the death of 13 people, including soldiers. More than 50 others were injured and close to 50,000 people fled their homes.

This was not the first such incident, and won’t be the last either. The victims belong to all age groups and genders – some were killed while others are living with wounds. People have been bearing the brunt of post-Partition hostilities between the two warring armies through no fault of their own and suffering in silence.

The physical scars are visible in the form of landmine, bullet and splinter shell injuries, whereas the emotional scars come out as constant fear, uncertainty and the pain of separation from relatives during the India-Pakistan wars.

Tabulation based on official statistics from India and Pakistan

Ceasefire violations

Twelve-year-old Tanish Sharma frequently laments being born Banglar, a village in Jammu’s Samba district. He says he is still traumatised by memories of running from firing along IB.

“Whenever firing occurs on the border, he questions me on why my parents got me married in this troubled place,” said 33-year-old Manisha, Tanish’s mother. “I fear that he might keep mocking me for rest of my life.”

Manisha is relatively well-off economically, so the family has decided to shift from Banglar village to a safer area soon. However, the future of the other 500-odd families living in the village, many of whom live in poverty, looks less bright.

Women living in Banglar told The Wire that during cross-border firing, they carry their children on their shoulders, fastened with ropes, and run several kilometres in the dark for safety. The men carry eatables and other necessary items.

“We have to be ready all the time. We don’t know when we will have to run for cover, as firing can occur anytime and it is very stressful,” a group of women told The Wire.

Grief is all around in Abdalliah village, which lies along the IB in Jammu’s RS Pora sector. It has been bearing the brunt of hostilities between the two countries since 1947. Many of the village’s women have lost their husbands, sons or both. Pregnant women are usually sent elsewhere for childbirth, to keep the mother and child safe.

“We keep our pregnant daughters away from this village, usually at a relative’s place, owing to the perpetual security threat and uncertainty,” said 40-year-old Shushma Devi. “Is that the kind of life anyone would like to live?”

For 70-year-old Shobadi Devi, the day starts with grazing cattle and then moves on to working on the fields. She wants to retire, but can’t as her octogenarian husband Krishan Lal is bedridden after he was critically injured during cross-border firing in 1997.

“As the firing started, we were running for our lives. But he, unfortunately, received several bullets,” said Shobadi, with tears trickling down her face.

Before she could recover from one tragedy, another one struck. In 2001, her then 28-year-old son Subhash stepped on a landmine in a field where he had gone to defecate and died on the spot.

Divided families

Zainabi Bi, in her 70s, lives in Ladakh’s Hunderman Brok, along the LoC in Kargil. She is a part of a divided family; her wish to meet her family members across the border might never materialise.

The 1971, the India-Pakistan war gave birth to Bangladesh. At the same time, it created a less talked about division: between families living on different sides of the LoC. Zainabi was separated from her mother, brothers and sisters who lived in Brolmo village, which became a part of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, while her village, Hunderman Brok, was a part of India.

While gazing out at the Indian border post on a mountain visible through her window, Zainabi says that her sister died a few years ago after a brief illness, but she could not attend her funeral. “The months following her funeral, I used to cry every day, cursing these borders. There is not a single day when I don’t think about them.”

Zainabi talking about the memories of separation during the 1971 war | Raqib Hameed Naik

Zahara Bi’s story is no different. She was separated from her brothers and sisters during the 1971 war. All of them are presently in the Gilgit area of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. “After we were separated, I have not seen their faces. I could not visit them because I don’t have enough money to get a passport and spend on travel. The only thing I can do is pray. Every day I pray to Allah to open up the Kargil-Skardu route,” said 53-year-old Zahara.

Although this side of the border has been relatively peaceful, the people of Hunderman live in the fear of another war breaking out, given the frequent cross-border ceasefire violations in the Jammu region.

The villages have their own emergency evacuation drills. “We have identified a big cave which we used in the 1999 war. That cave saved us all from getting killed. In case a war breaks out again, we all will go and hide in the cave,” sais Zahara.

Zahara Bi | Raqib Hameed Naik

Things are no different in Teetwal village, in the Karnah tehsil of Kupwara district. The Kishenganga river flows through Teetwal. On the right bank of the river is Chaliyana village in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan and on the left is Teetwal.

People here become emotional when asked about their relatives who live on the other side of the LoC. Even marriages are not longer a cause for celebration.

“At the time of my daughter marriage [a few years ago], my brother who is living on the other side of the divide kept watching from the bank of the river. He couldn’t come to this side but helplessly just waved to us and left,” said Safia Begum, 45.

Women told us that the families split between the Indian and Pakistani sides of Kashmir barely meet each other, and usually only talk on the phone.

“We see some of our separated family members on the other side of the bank on the day of the crossing, which is held fortnightly under the security blanket,” said 53-year-old Rakhela Begum.

“We all sit on both sides of the river and see each other as one can’t hear them, due to the gushing sound of the flowing river. It’s a painful situation and most of us keep crying helplessly.”

Earlier there used to be some leniency for local people on the day of crossing, she says, as people would exchange gifts with their loved ones by trying to throw them across the river. Though most of the gifts would land in the water, people wouldn’t give up.

“Now things are different as security has been tightened at these posts. The number of people using this as a travel point is decreasing due to the hassles of security,” Rakhela said.

Surrounded by landmines

Hajitra, another village in Karnah, used to be a part of Muzaffarabad district before 1947. The divide between the two countries has proven to be expensive for those living here, as the Indian troops posted on the border have dug landmines into the land owned by the residents. This has cost some people their lives and injured others.

Shareefa Jan, 58, from Hajitara village, was the victim of landmine blast when she went to a nearby mountain to collect wood. “After the blast, I was taken to an army hospital and then shifted to Barzulla Bone and Joints Hospital, but all in vain. They amputated my leg up to my knee,” she said.

“My husband left me after my leg was amputated. I am struggling alone to survive.” Shareefa is now living with her parents. The social welfare department pays her Rs 400 as pension every month, but half of it is spent in paying the fare to reach the pension office.

Shareefa Jan | Ezabir Ali

Gwalta village in the Uri sector of Baramulla district is home to 360 families, approximately 2,300 people. Life here has difficult become due to landmines and frequent ceasefire violations.

“Living here is a curse,” said Baseera, 34, a landmine victim. “We are stuck between India and Pakistan.”

“We don’t want to die just by stepping over a landmine,” said Shameema, 32, whose hearing was impaired due to a mortar shell.

People living on the border say they have seen too much bloodshed and want an end to the ceasefire violations. They also want the border opened, so that they can unite with their family members living on the other side.

“We are desperate to breathe in peace. We are not bothered by which side of the dividing line we live on,” said Shabnam Begum, 32, who lost her right eye to a mortar shell splinter fired from across the border. “Ceasefire should be made a permanent reality. We want to live in peace and not under constant fear.”

Manisha has started looking for a new place to live far away from the border, but she wants to come back and live peacefully alongside the woods and fields. “The present situation on the border isn’t conducive for us. “I just want a life where my children and I don’t need to worry about the sirens, mortar shells and broken homes – and a life which is not so close to death.” ( Courtesy Dawn)

Raqib Hameed Naik is a journalist based out of Kashmir. He tweets at @raqib_naik. Ezabir Ali is a Commonwealth professional and Harvard alumni. She is a women’s rights activist and coordinator of EHSAAS, a policy group.

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