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Footprints: Living In Fear

September 02, 2014

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A BOY stands next to a house with pock-marked doors and damaged wall in Joyian village in Sialkot. The settlement has been affected by nightly exchange of heavy artillery fire and mortar shelling between the border guards of India and Pakistan that started in the middle of July.—Photo by writer
A BOY stands next to a house with pock-marked doors and damaged wall in Joyian village in Sialkot. The settlement has been affected by nightly exchange of heavy artillery fire and mortar shelling between the border guards of India and Pakistan that started in the middle of July.—Photo by writer

THE guns have fallen silent across the working boundary along Sialkot after over two weeks of the nightly exchange of heavy artillery fire and mortar shelling between the border guards of India and Pakistan. Yet the fear of re-escalation remains and residents of the border areas, who had evacuated their villages for safe places, are still reluctant to return home.

“You never know when they [Indians] will resume firing and shelling. No one is ready to risk their life even if it means spending their nights in the fields, away from the comfort of their homes,” Ali Shan, a 20-year-old college student, told Dawn. “There has been no firing and shelling for the past three days, but people are scared.”

Most residents of his village, Joyian, almost a kilometre from the working boundary and 12 kilometres from Sialkot, left their homes when cross-border firing intensified in the middle of August. His own family had shifted to a relative’s place a day before a shell fired by India’s border forces struck their home on the night between Aug 23 and 24, badly damaging the roof.

Also read: Two Pakistanis killed, four Indians wounded in exchange of fire along border

“We, along with many other men from the village, were sleeping in the nearby fields when a loud explosion woke us up; there was smoke all over. Then there was a series of explosions. None of us dared go back near our houses,” Ali recalled as he showed us around several houses in the village with broken roofs and pock-marked walls.

The village was mostly deserted, the houses locked up, and shops and schools closed when this reporter visited Joyian on Saturday afternoon. A woman, who showed us how shrapnel had hit a photo frame on the cornice after piercing through her bedroom’s metal door, said her family had to evacuate in the night amidst intense artillery fire.

“Only a few villagers who don’t have any relatives living nearby return home during the day — when the firing and shelling ceases, albeit temporarily — to prepare food,” she explained. “Who would want to risk life in the middle of a full-blown war?”

The border residents say firing from the Indian side after every few months is “routine” and they’ve grown accustomed to it. “But this mortar shelling is new and destructive and it is scary; even a concrete roof cannot protect you from mortar shells directly targeting the villagers living along the border,” said Talawat Hussain, a farmer.

Many of the settlements affected by the ceasefire violations near Sialkot are hardly a few yards from the boundary. Standing anywhere in Harpal sector, you can see an Indian border guard watching over the village residents from his watchtower across the paddy fields. Until the border authorities of the two countries decided late last week to end hostilities and re-enforce the ceasefire agreed upon in 2003, the Pakistani border security force did not let any resident return to the village even during the day because that “could be dangerous”.

At least five Pakistani civilians are said to have died and scores injured because of the Indian firing and shelling that started in the middle of July and intensified in the third week of last month. Each side blames the other for the ceasefire violations.

Pakistan dismisses the Indian claim that the sniper fire from the Pakistani side to “provide cover for militants crossing the border” triggered the deadly exchange of fire. Pakistan says its border security force merely retaliated against the unprovoked firing from across the border.

“The trigger-happy Indians are very nervous for God knows what reason,” contended an officer of the Punjab Rangers. “Even the movement of a wild boar near the fence they’ve erected is enough to unnerve them, making them open fire.”

“The allegations of us helping militants cross the border are silly,” he continued. “No one can creep into their side through this flat terrain; they have built a fence along the entire length of the working boundary, which is illuminated after sunset, and have watchtowers and bunkers every 100 yards.” He added that the ceasefire doesn’t hold for more than five or six months at a stretch despite the 2003 agreement. “Now we have peace on the border. How long it lasts depends on the Indians.”

Ceasefire violations aren’t surprising for border residents. “This is a disputed line. We have to live with firing [from across the boundary] as long as the Kashmir dispute remains unresolved,” argued Attaullah, in his early 70s and a resident of Bajra Garhi. Yet he was surprised by the length and ferociousness this time around. “I haven’t seen such intense exchange of fire since the 1971 war,” he said. “There’s not a single border village where Indian shelling hasn’t damaged houses and made their poor residents flee for safety.”

Among the ones that fled, some families were provided shelter and food by local politicians, but others are stranded in the open fields. “Nobody has come to our help,” said the widow of Imdad Hussain, 55, who died when mortar-shell shrapnel hit him outside his home in Bajra Garhi a week ago.

Published in Dawn, September 2nd, 2014