Those living along the India-Pakistan border find themselves in the crossfire yet again
“Who will take care of us now, why are they killing us?” asked 15-year-old Suman Bhagat, who lost her mother, Pholi, aged 32, and her 68-year-old grandmother Shakuntala Devi when a mortar shell fired from the Pakistani side of the International Border (IB) hit their house on October 7. Four other family members were injured and Suman alone escaped unhurt.
Her village, Chilliyari in Samba district of Jammu division, just 8km from the Line of Control (LoC), bore the brunt of the cross-border shelling from October 1 to 9. Residents moved out of their houses at night, when the shelling intensified, and returned in the morning to assess the damage.
“Our lives have become hell, we move from place to place and spend nights in the open or in temporary shelters despite having homes,” said Sonu Lal.
The shelling has claimed eight lives in all, injured close to 90 and displaced 32,000 people from 113 hamlets in Jammu division, Samba and Kathua districts along the IB.
Meanwhile, at a local school-turned-temporary shelter, Suman is inconsolable while the women around her try to wipe away her tears.
Suman repeatedly cries out, “I want to see my mother, where is my father?” Fearing more shelling, the family has been unable to even bury its dead, locals said.
Besides the loss of life, residents bemoaned their destroyed farms and houses. Many lost their cattle to the cross-border violation. Villages that once bustled with life are now deserted, with only unexploded shells or dead cattle in sight. According to the local pharmacist Mohinder Pal, more than 200 cows and buffaloes have been immobilised by splinter-shell injuries and are dying a slow death in the absence of veterinary care.
“Who will take care of these injured cattle under these circumstances?” he said.
Huddling alongside hundreds of villagers at a temporary shelter, 13-year-old Shanti clutches her school bag — the only belonging she took with her when fleeing. A resident of Chilliyari, the girl who loves to study and write exams is hoping things will soon return to normal.
But 82-year-old Shonal Devi is angry and unwilling to settle for mere hope. “They are striking us again and again, which has made our life hell. We are living under the constant fear of shells or bullets,” said Devi, a resident of Arnia village close to the border. “India should retaliate strongly and teach Pakistan a lesson once and for all,” she added.
Fed up of the ever-present danger, those living near the border want the government to permanently relocate them to safer places.
“We are ready to live as migrants in safer locations,” said Hitanshu Ram, even as an uneasy calm prevailed along the 192km border in Jammu last weekend.
According to widely reported sources, Pakistani forces refused the sweets offered by their Indian counterparts on Eid, a decades-old practice, and resorted to heavy shelling later in the evening on the border outposts in the Samba sector of the Jammu division.
The firing soon intensified and multiple Indian posts were attacked, leading to the largest migration witnessed since the 2003 ceasefire.
Defence minister Arun Jaitley called on Pakistan to stop the “unprovoked” attacks and issued a warning.
The divisional commissioner of Jammu, Shantmanu, said more than 6,000 people were relocated, but other sources put the figure at 18,000.
Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah flew to the border areas after Eid prayers and directed the state administration to take all measures to ensure the safety of the people in the affected areas.
Meanwhile, Islamabad summoned India’s deputy high commissioner JP Singh to lodge a strong protest against what it termed “unprovoked firing” from the Indian side.
Even as the firing scaled down on October 10, the people at the temporary camp in Samba are not ready to sigh in relief yet as they expect Pakistan to resume its strikes. A few youngsters braved a visit to Chilliyari village to check if their homes were still intact. “We want to see what has happened to our houses and livestock, after all this is our settlement and we have to live here,” said Sham Lal.
Prakash Kumar another youngster in the group was however anxious to return to the camp: “They (Pakistan) are not trustworthy neighbours, they can hit back anytime.”
(First published in The Hindu http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/features/blink/know/shellshocked-hamlets/article6507141.ece )