Footprints: In the line of fire

Published September 1, 2015
UNITED Nations representatives arrive at the Working Boundary at Kundanpur village in Sialkot on Saturday to assess the damage caused to the settlement by Indian mortar shells.—Photo by writer
UNITED Nations representatives arrive at the Working Boundary at Kundanpur village in Sialkot on Saturday to assess the damage caused to the settlement by Indian mortar shells.—Photo by writer

SIALKOT is as thriving a city as any other, home to industrialists, large-scale traders and investors. Its cantonment is beautiful, planned, developed and well designed.

But the road leaving the cantonment and approaching the headquarters of the Chenab Rangers, the guardians of Pakistan’s 193-kilometre ‘Working Boundary’ with the disputed Jammu region, is patchy and broken.

As the road leaves behind the military installations where tanks are parked and soldiers exercise so they are at the ready to roar towards the border, the pits on the road increase and its condition becomes even worse.

Winding deep amidst the border villages tucked among the lush green rice fields and man-made and natural forests, the road eventually looks as damaged as the fate of the people living in these faraway villages, on the brink.

Only around 400 yards from the Working Boundary where India has erected a fence topped with barbed wire and searchlights to strengthen its hold over the territory, a shaky path along with a defensive trench dug by the army leads to Kundanpur village, a settlement which is full of life and activity during times of peace.

But peace has become a rare commodity in all the villages on the Pakistan side that are close to the Working Boundary and the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir. Now Kundanpur, and dozens more Pakistani villages, are the targets of Indian mortar shells more often than the rain they need to irrigate their fertile fields.

For the love of their land and the nicely built houses, for the fields of rice and the livestock in their stables, the people in Kundanpur had somehow resolved to live amid the fear — until midnight last Thursday.

At around 1:00am when Thursday night started turning intoFriday morning, the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) started firing barrages of mortar shells. The shelling intensified at dawn when people exited their covered houses to go to mosques for prayers and the fields to work. Almost every second house here was hit by shells or pieces of shells, leaving eight people of Kundanpur dead and 47 injured.

Now, several houses stand damaged — broken walls, roofs with holes in them, pock-marked plaster, furniture destroyed and blood-stained.

Most of the members of what used to be a population of around 6,000 people have locked up their houses and left for Sialkot or other areas. Many of them have also taken along their cattle, in a bid to save their assets.

The shops are closed and schools are deserted. Streets have been overtaken by the Rangers, administration personnel and those who have arrived to assess the seriousness of the situation, including UN representatives.

They are attended to by the few villagers who remain because they can’t afford to move their cattle, or arrange accommodation in the city, or those who are responsible enough to look after the affected families and the visitors.

The area resounds with wails — from the widows; the mothers; the sisters and even the brothers who had no personal enmity with the Indians but are nevertheless bereaved.

“Oh God, you had no mercy for us. You should have had some pity on us. Why have you snatched everything from us,” cries Laila, whose husband, his brother and a nephew were killed as a shell hit them in their courtyard. Her bathroom, with the main entrance of the house where the victims tried to hide, is now a dried pool of the blackened blood of the three killed. Their shoes and clothes are left, blood-soaked.

“When one brother had died, the other should not have. There is nobody to earn for us now. We will live the life of beggars now. India commits a lot of atrocities against ordinary people. It’s barbaric,” she weeps huskily.

“If India wants to fight, she should fight with our army. Or if they want to harm us civilians, they should come to us face to face and then we will see who kills whom. Firing shells from behind [the lines] and targeting civilians is unethical, inhuman and cowardly,” says Murtaza, who lost his 15-year-old brother. He stands close to a deep crater in his courtyard where a mortar shell landed.

Sixty-year-old Munir Ahmed, who lost his wife, and was injured himself along with four daughters, a daughter-in-law and two sons, says Indian forces target civilians to inflict maximum losses.

“They know our army has strong defence capability and will make them suffer heavily if they are targeted directly. But civilians have no protection and are easy targets,” he says. “It is the duty of the governments to resolve this issue. The people are helpless on both sides,” he adds.

Published in Dawn, September 1st, 2015

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