By: Jalaluddin Mughal
The 786 km-long Line of Control (LoC) is a de facto border which divides the erstwhile State of Jammu Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Sporadic cross-border firing is not unusual between the estranged neighbors who have fought more than three wars over the 70-years-old Kashmir dispute.
In November 2003, a ceasefire was agreed upon between India and Pakistan – bringing temporary relief to the people of the region. During the years of ceasefire, the life in areas close to LoC resumed to the normal routine and people started re-establishing their devastated homes and businesses. Educational as well as socio-economic activities were reinitiated in the time period following the ceasefire. The tourism industry also witnessed a rare boom in the region which created numerous earning opportunities for the locals.
People established guest houses on small and medium scales to host tourists and earn a handsome livelihood for themselves. In 2016, Neelum Valley alone received around 500,000 tourists which is the highest number in history according to the official record.
Following the Uri attack in September 2016, the tension between India and Pakistan escalated, and violations of ceasefire agreement became more frequent after India claimed to carry out surgical strikes in different parts of Pakistan-administered Kashmir (PaK). Exchange of gunshots and heavy shelling between the armed forces in various sectors of the LoC became a matter of routine.
The situation has once again devastated the lives of people living near LoC, causing the loss of lives, injuries, displacement and disturbance of business, education and other routine activities as well as a considerable amount of property damage. Between the summers of 2016 and 2017, more than 60 civilians have been killed and over 300 have been injured in cross-LoC shelling across different regions of PaK.
The statistics of this catastrophe that numb the mind also brought forth hundreds of individual stories of those who survived yet still bear the physical and mental scars today; knowing that while they escaped, their family and friends could not.
While all who endured the threatening and frightening circumstances across the LoC during shelling should be considered brave and given voices, there are individuals and families who are tearful and shattered on the loss of lives and frenzied in their search for peace and recovery from their loss.
The series of stories presented here was captured during the visit of the areas located near LoC, directly affected by shelling from across the LoC. These stories vividly depict the consequences of the shelling and conflict on the lives of those living around the LoC. These are the real stories and personal accounts of the victims of cross-LoC shelling from different backgrounds and walks of life such as students, working women, employees and employers as well as of those who were either injured themselves or had lost their loved ones during the shelling.
The stories have been documented and translated carefully to capture the essence of the indigenous narrative about the conflict in the region, and register the atrocities and sufferings of the affected people as well as their cries for peace. These are the tales of the human strength and resilience at its best while confronted with human evil at its worst.
Let’s listen, what they have to say.
“Travelling in front of an armed soldier who belongs to another country—supposed to be an enemy—is no less than walking on a track of death and I am one among thousands of people who have been travelling in the same situation for many years.
Every day, I have to travel around 15 kilometers back and forth to teach in a private school. Most of the area I travel-in is exposed to the LoC and across the Neelum [Kishanganga] River you can see Indian soldiers walking up and down with their assault rifles at a distance of less than half a kilometer from my travelling route. And you don’t know when they point their guns at you and open the fire. It is an absolute uncertainty.
This road remained closed even for pedestrians for more than 14 years before India and Pakistan signed the ceasefire agreement in 2003. When ceasefire violations became more frequent from both sides last year, the situation got aggravated and it added to the threats and danger for those travelling here.
In November, last year when a passenger bus was targeted and 10 people were killed on spot, I was halfway to my job but I returned immediately on hearing the news. My parents remained hesitant for several weeks to let me get out of home and travel on the same road again.”
RifatNazeer, School Teacher- DawarianNeelum.
A trail of Fear
“While coming to school every day, I have to walk through the road in front of Indian Army’s posts located at a distance of less than 300 meters across the Neelum River. Most of the time, I can see soldiers moving around the bankers with their guns. Even when they are not completely visible sometimes, the barrels of their guns can be easily seen peeking out of banker’s window.
My parents used to tell the stories about how the soldiers had been targeting the people walking on the road before ceasefire in 2003. For me, walking on the same road is horrifying and frightening but I have to walk through the same road in routine. The fear of attack and firing from the Indian troops constantly haunts my mind. A couple of months ago when they targeted one of the Pakistan Army’s trucks here, we remained afraid of walking around the place in daylight for over a week. Consequently, my father took me to another trail to reach school which was a little safer but relatively longer and more exhausting. .
Most of the time when I am doing my homework at night, I hear the exchange of gunshots between the armed forces across the River. A sense of fear prevails all around, and my senses and consciousness stop working. My younger siblings start crying and if it gets intense, we immediately have to move to the banker for our safety.”
Muhammad Amir Rana, Student Grade 10- LalaAthmuqam.
“I was scheduled to marry a month later. That morning we had a small family gathering at our home to finalize the wedding arrangements. Suddenly the shelling started and everyone got frightened. This life threatening situation caused a lot of anguish and panic all around. Everyone’s eyes were questioning the situation in-verbally. I decided to shift everyone to the ground floor of the house which was comparatively a little safer than the upper portion. While I was helping children and women to move down, a mortar dropped on the rooftop of my house. I heard a deafening sound of the blast and felt something drilling through my skull and went unconscious.
Three days later when I regained my senses, I was muddled to find myself in a hospital.I was unable to move whole of the right side of my body. The doctor told that a splinter of the mortar shell had broken the skull and struck into the brain.This brain injury had left my right side paralyzed from head to toe. They recommended an operation to remove the piece from my brain which cannot be done anywhere in Pakistan.
Being the only bread earner of the family, I was working as a stamp paper vender at local courts. After this tragic incident and my injury, I am unable to work. My younger brothers left school and started working to earn livelihood for the nine members of my family.
For over a year, I have been living a life with permanent disability; unable to walk and work. I have lost my job and my dreams are broken. My fiancée has refused to marry a disabled person.”
Raja Suhail Khan, 29 – Keran, Neelum Valley.
I thought it’s the end!
“I was a little late than usual for office that morning. I was about to reach the bus stop when I saw the bus leaving. I started whistling to catch the attention of the driver. Someone in the bus heard me and told the driver to stop. He stopped there and let me ride in. There were already many other new faces in the bus. I took my seat and started chatting with the fellow passengers. We were discussing the early arrival of autumn season this year.
Neelum River flows parallel to Neelum Valley road at a distance of only 300 meters. There are posts of the Indian Army at every hundred yards distance. As the bus turned outside and got exposed to the posts, I heard the rattling of machine gun—which is a quite familiar sound to most of the people in the region—and the window panes shattered and dropped over my head and right into my lap. I saw several people bowing down in their seats, attempting to keep themselves safe.
Someone screamed and requested the driver to stop the bus but he rather enhanced the speed. Many of the passengersstoodup from their seats but most of them fell down in the corridor. Next moment, I heard a deafening blast and saw a thunder bolt and then everything became dark. I thought it’s the end of my life. I could not see anything but could feel the movement of the bus and smell the burning gunpowder, dynamite and fresh blood all around. I felt something cutting through the skin of my head and drops of blood trickled down my forehead and checks.
The bus finally stopped after sometime amidst the whole calamity and there was a deadly silence in the bus after the blast. When the smoke trailed out and dust settled down, I could see only a few people sitting in their seats, the rest were lying in the corridor and none of them showed any movement. The driver was also leaning over the steering wheel. I jumped out of the window and reached the driver. He was critically injured but he ultimately managed to drive the bus to a safer place.
When the firing stopped, local people rushed to the bus to get the dead bodies and injured people out of it. Ten* people were killed in total and 12 others were critically injured in the attack.”
Arif Khawaja, 36, recalls the daywhen the Indian forces attacked a passenger bus on the Neelum Valley road on 23rd November, 2016, leaving twelve* people dead and 10 injured. Ten people died on the spot while two succumbed to death later in hospital.
Jobs under threat
“After retiring from army, I worked as a watchman to financially support my family. Most of the times, I had to go to other cities to find a job but when my wife got injured due to Indian troops’ firing, I moved back to my home in order to look after her. It was very hard to find a job in the town. Therefore, I used to graze cattle in forest near the town.
A couple of years ago, when tourists started coming in the Valley, several new guest houses and tourist resorts were opened in the region, a few of them located near my home. Now I am working as a watchman at a picnic point situated at a walking distance from my home.
Last year, tourists came to my hometown in a huge number. The resort where I worked remained overcrowded throughout the season. Many of the families and groups visiting the resort paid me handsome tips for taking care of their cars, luggage or helping their children play in water near the river bank. My employer did not only pay a bonus during the summer season but also kept on paying my salary during the off season in winter.
In the beginning of this year, tourists came in considerable number for around a month. But later on, when shelling from the Indian army started in the region amidst the tourism season, security officials ordered the tourists to vacate the resorts and leave the area immediately. After that, quite a few tourists headed towards this resort. Although the resort owner has already paid my salary, neither the bonus nor the tips from the visitors have contributed to my income this year. I am not sure whether they [the resort owners] will pay me for the winter season this year or not.”
Niamatullah Khan, 79 – Watchman, SalkhalaNeelum Valley.
An engineer to be…
“My grades have greatly declined in recent exams contrary to previous academic record which was always satisfactory. The reason—best known to me—is that throughout the year, I was unable to attend the regular as well as coaching classes which are usually offered when the examinations are approaching near.
The college where I study is just a kilometer away from the LoC and is largely exposed to the Indian Army’s check posts. During the last year as well as this summer, there have been many rounds of shelling where the civilian population was directly targeted from across the LoC. Post to post crossfire between both forces has been more frequent than ever.
Whenever we hear the sounds of blasts and gunshots—whether we are in college or in coaching centers—we have to run either towards home or to the nearest banker to ensure our safety and so do our teachers.
My father shifted me from a public school to a private school to ensure that I am getting quality education in order to improve my grades as I always aspired to be an engineer in future. But due to firings, my grades have rather dropped as compared to my academic grades in results of the previous classes. My classmates are also suffering from the same condition and chaos.”
Mahnoor Hafiz, Student Grade 11-Athmuqam.
A job to be lost
“I have spent most of my life in big cities, either driving a cab or cooking in restaurants. It was hard for me to find a job here in the Valley. Some years ago, when the tourism industry started flourishing in the area; the job opportunities attracted me to return to the town where I opened a small cafeteria for tourists.
My business flourished along with tourism and I started planning to extend my business and open a guest house besides the cafeteria. But the situation changed for worse within a short period of time due to cross LoC firing. During the last year, we witnessed an obvious decline in the number of tourists coming to the area. Consequently, by the end of the season, my financial crisis had increased to such a high level that I was unable to give salaries to the workers and pay the rent for the cafeteria.
This year, when tourism season began in April, I started to work as a cook at a local eatery. The season was in full swing when firing from across the LoC started and security administration vacated all the guest houses in the Valley and sent the tourists back to safer destinations. As a result, they never returned the entire season.
My employer has already told me that he won’t pay my salary in winter season due to the lack of work and earning. Once again, I have to head towards a major city to find a job to support my children’s education.”
Manzoor Ahmed, 54, hotel chef- NagdarNeelum Valley.
Author is a Consultant Centre for Peace, Development and Reforms (CPDR), PaK.This series of stories was supported and first published by Center for Peace, Development and Reforms (CPDR), an Islamabad based nongovernmental, nonprofit and nonpartisan research, training and advocacy organization dedicated to promoting peace, development and reforms through dialogue and reconciliation.