Shell and the hell

  • Brutal bullets: Five-year-old Mahima, who was injured when Pakistani shells hit her home in Sei village in the Arina sector. Her mother and aunt were killed in the attack.
  • Fire from the sky: A Pakistani shell destroyed the roof of Sheda Devi's house in Abdullian in RS Pura.
  • Tough times: Bhola Ram and Shivangi, his nephew, were injured in a shell attack.
  • Muted anger: Khadim Hussain of Sangiot with wife, Sida Bi, and daughter-in-law Naseema.

When guns blaze in the Poonch valley, no one counts what the villagers lose

  • In the past 22 months, 40 civilians were killed in border clashes.

  • The mountains at LoC are home mainly to Paharis, Gujjars and Bakarwals. Some Kashmiris dwell in the foothills. These people live in constant fear of shelling.

  • It does not come as a surprise that many children in these villages want to become doctors.

Karamat Hussan Khan's house on the mountain pass boasts a breathtaking view of the Poonch valley. That, however, gives no relief to Karamat's family, which lost him on last Independence Day. A sarpanch, he was driving back home after the celebrations at the Army-run Pinewood School in Hamirpur. Pakistan Rangers shelling from across the border hit his van. Wounded in the head, he lost control of the vehicle and hit a tree. Ameen Khan, a neighbour, rushed to help him. While Ameen was trying to get an unconscious Karamat out of the van, another mortar exploded close by.

Karamat died on the spot. Ameen, who was flown to Jammu for treatment, died in hospital. Sheraz Khan, a resident of Dharti, who tried to help Karamat and Ameen, also died. It was a day of carnage in the village—Moin Khan, 10, was killed when a shell fell inside his house and Nusrat Bi, a homemaker, lost her life to a mortar that fell on her roof.

The Balakote sector near the line of control (LoC) is in a perennial state of mourning. The villagers say the place has become a living hell. Most of them work as labourers for the Army and state departments. Karamat, who had been working hard to change the situation with the help of the Army and the government, was their last hope.

“My father was a brave man,” said his daughter Shermaiz Khan. “He lived for others.” He wanted her to become a doctor. “Now that is my mission,” she said. Aksar Jan, Karamat's wife, is yet to move on from the loss. The rent from a few rooms in a house the family owns is their only source of income.

The LoC, which separates India and the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and the international border between India and Pakistan, are one of the most beautiful but also the most dangerous borders in the world. The heightened tensions between India and Pakistan have forced the soldiers on both sides to give fitting reply to any aggression from the other side. And, these villagers are paying for it, often with their lives, arms or legs. While 10 Indian soldiers lost their lives in the past 22 months in border clashes on the international border and LoC, some 40 civilians were killed.

The mountains at LoC are home mainly to Paharis, Gujjars and Bakarwals. Some Kashmiris dwell in the foothills. These people live in constant fear of shelling from across the border. “We have no choice. Where will we go?” asked Khadim Hussain, who lost his son, Rehman, a few months ago in a mortar attack. “What can we do now. I lost a foot 50 years ago and now my son has been killed.”

24PeerBaba God's own valley: Peer Baba's shrine and Data Shaeed temple close to the fence near the international border in RS Pura.

Hussain and his wife, Sida Bi, live in Sangiot, close to the fence near the high picket. Rehman's wife, Naseema, lives with them. “I want a job for my elder son,” she said. But he is still in school. “I have no choice, the life is difficult,” she said. Her husband wanted his two sons to study and earn their place in society. “He was self-educated, but sent both his sons to private school.”

Not many children get to study in private schools here. And, computers and gadgets are yet to make an advent. There are no school buses, either. Still, more children attend school than ever before. “My brother and I go to Public Model School in Khanateer,” said Safiya Masooma, 6. Educating their children is a top priority for parents with government jobs, like Safiya's. In fact, this trend is visible all along the LoC. Because of increased vigil and use of sophisticated equipment by the Indian Army, children are safer than they were in the past from militant attacks or Pakistani shelling. However, people are still worried about the sporadic incidents of violence.

For more images: Life at LoC

The situation is not much different on the international border in Arnia, RS Pura and Samba. Arnia, 35km from Jammu city, has been under attack from across the border in the past two years. The Pakistan Rangers constantly target the villages of Mashe-De-Kothe, Sei Khrud, Kake De Kothe and Deingarh. Houses amid swathes of agricultural fields and herds of wandering cattle clearly indicate what the villagers do for a living. They also dodge Pakistani guns to keep themselves alive.

28BoilingPoint Graphics: Deni Lal

An advantage the villages along the international border have is they are closer to urban centres than the villages on the LoC. Jammu city, for instance, is just 40km from the border. That, however, does not spare them from the shelling. In the sparsely populated Mashe-De-Kothe, four people of a family were killed on October 6, 2014 in a mortar attack by Pakistan. Cousins Rajesh Kumar and Purshottam Kumar and Purshottam's daughter Kajal and sister-in-law Satya Devi were killed. Though the abandoned house still has bloodstains, the neighbours dry their clothes on its balcony. Suma Devi, a neighbour, was also wounded in the attack. “I was hit in the hip that night,” she said.

The attack was around midnight. Two mortars hit the house and two more landed in the courtyard. Most people in the house were wounded, but in the noise of the shelling, it took a while for the neighbours to hear their screams. “We rushed as soon as we heard their screams,” said Vandana, a neighbour. “All of them where lying on the ground bleeding.” By the time the Army arrived, four of them were dead.

“Had they been quickly taken to hospital it would have helped,” said Surrinder Kumar, Rajesh's elder brother who is in the Border Security Force. “But, despite being a border village, we do not have roads.” They quickly cremated the dead and returned to hospital. “There was no time for mourning,” he said. Some family members were hospitalised for three months. And, when they were discharged, they had no place to go. “Red Cross gave us shelter for a month,” said Surrinder. “We are grateful to them.”

Then the once-happy joint family was forced to split. Surrinder took some of them to a house in Arnia town. The rest have made separate arrangements, hoping the government will provide them jobs that they are eligible for as next of kin of people killed in 'enemy' attacks. “We have met the deputy commissioner many times but he says there are no vacancies,” said Surrinder. “Deputy Chief Minister Nirmal Singh said he could not even help the family of his own brother who was killed in the border firing.”

In Sei Khurd, a nearby village, brothers Bhola Ram and Subash Chander lost their wives in a Pak mortar attack on August 28. The women, Banso Devi and Kanta Devi, were hit in the courtyard of their house and died on the spot. Bhola lost one of his legs. His mother, Indru Devi, 80, was also injured in the attack and has been bedridden ever since. Subash's children, Shivangi and Mahima, were injured in a mortar attack when they were at school. Mahima suffered cuts all over her body and Shivangi had a surgery to fix a broken leg.

31Schoolchildren Breaking free: School children at Basoni in Balakote close to the LoC.

The same day, Romesh Chander, a lab assistant, was critically injured when a shell burst in the compound of his house. Shrapnel tore through his belly and damaged his kidneys. He died after 15 days. “I had no idea what happened to Papa,” said his daughter Kiran Bala, who went through hell in those 15 days. “Later I learnt his kidneys failed,” she said.

Like most other families that lost people in Pakistani attacks, Kiran's family received Rs1 lakh from the government. The burden of supporting the entire family has fallen on her elder brother, Sunil Kumar, who has a private job. Anju Bala, Kiran's older sister, is training to be a paramedic.

Social worker Sushma Singh has been touring the villages and taking up cases of victims with the government. She said families of people who had been killed and those who suffered serious injuries needed generous government support. In fact, paying for medical care is the biggest financial burden on these villagers. “If I had money I could have gone to Amritsar for better treatment,” said Devan Singh, 70, of Kake De Kothe in Arnia. His right leg was almost destroyed in a shell attack and has been operated on six times. The last surgery was to amputate the leg. “So far I have spent Rs4 lakh on my treatment,” he said. The wound has not healed yet and needs regular dressing. “Shouldn't the government provide regular monetary help to such people?” asked Sushma.

It does not come as a surprise that many children in these villages want to become doctors. They grow up seeing the suffering and pain of their parents, relatives and neighbours. “I want to help the people of my village,” said Armesh, a college student who wants to become a doctor. Her uncle died in a Pakistani shell attack on the Abdullian village in RS Pura in August, and her grandfather lost his arm. Because there is no public transport in the area, Armesh's father has hired a vehicle for her and friends to travel to the town for medical entrance coaching.

Opposite to Armesh's house is Bari Ram's. The 70-year-old was hit with splinters while he was out in the field with his buffaloes. “A few splinters are still in there,” he said, pointing at his hip. “I have great difficulty walking without support.” The splinters can be surgically removed, but he is not sure he will be able to go for it.

27Thapa Battle-Ready: S.B. Thapa and P.V. Thapa at Sujian Army camp.

In Abdullian, there is a tree near the barbed fence. The local people have built a Peer Baba's shrine and a Data Shaeedji temple under it. The devotees, both Muslims and Hindus, sit cross-legged facing the tree and pray. At a glance, it is difficult to figure out to whom they are praying. The guns from across the border surely have not figured it out.

Goodwill hunting

The lives of the people in the villages near the India-Pakistan border and the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir are intertwined with the security forces deployed there, especially the Army. The government almost entirely relies on the Army to function in the border areas. Even infrastructure investment in the border areas is done through the Army and the local population benefits from it.

The Army is the biggest employer in the border areas. In the Sujian sector in Poonch, for instance, where some 5,000 people live in a cluster of hamlets, about 600 people work as porters with the Army. Said Noor Muhammad, a village elder from Bandi: “That is a huge relief given that government jobs and businesses are scarce. Defence porters get Rs12,000 a month. Others are paid less, but since the only crop grown in the area is maize, working with the Army helps to keep the fire in the hearth burning.” Villagers, who cultivate land close to the LoC, often cannot work their fields because of the Pakistani firing.

The Army runs a goodwill school and a medical centre for the local people and an Army doctor is available round the clock. In case of emergencies, the Army quickly sends help. In fact, the villagers are dependent on the Army for medical emergencies. Unlike in many other sectors, the Army has managed to minimise the civilian fatality in Poonch by educating the people about defensive techniques and putting in place an effective warning system. “We have an effective warning system whenever there is shelling from Pakistan,” said Colonel Ritesh Katoch. “Our medical staff is always available for the villagers during emergencies and otherwise.”

Despite the Army's best efforts, local people, property and livestock continue to be vulnerable to the firing and shelling from across the border. There have been many deaths and numerous injuries over the years. A few years ago, some 200 shells landed in Bandi, forcing the entire population to migrate.

30Sujian Keeping track: A group of villagers talking to a jawan (in blue civvies) at Sujian near the LoC.

Villagers are grateful to what the Army does for them. “Given the geography and remoteness of the area, we are not a priority for the government,” said Noor Muhammad. “But for the Army, Sujian would have suffered more.”

Stern vigil

Winter is tough in Jammu and Kashmir. It is tougher in the hills. The 40 Rashtriya Rifles camp in Sujian, Poonch, however, is unmindful of the seasons or weather—it stands tall and alert throughout the year. The Pakistanis are only 500 metres away.

Phones do not work in Sujian, and the Army relies on its own network. The camp runs on generators in the night. The hills of Sujian had many easy infiltration routes for the militants. Most of them have been plugged. But, with the tension with Pakistan intensifying, the soldiers at the camp are finding themselves in regular confrontation with the enemy.

The LoC is an imaginary line drawn in the minds of these soldiers that needs to be defended from the Pakistan Army and infiltrators. There is a barbed fence, but many Army posts are beyond it. Throughout the night soldiers patrol the area. “Every 15 minutes we look for any damage to the fence from razor cutters by the infiltrators,” said Rakesh, a soldier at a post on the other side of the fence.

The soldiers send inputs from the post. Some of them use Israeli-made thermal imagers to track lurking militants. The Army also makes use of the Battle Field Surveillance Radar (BFSR) and the Israeli Long Range Reconnaissance and Observation System to detect any suspicious movement. The fence has many sensors that track movements close-by. When they pick up any unfriendly movement, they transmit the signal to the nearest post.

The fence has been effective in deterring infiltrators, but it is prone to damage in the rough weather. The Army is planning to instal an all-weather fence on the LoC.

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