The mountains right in front of our house are under Indian control. They would fire from there. Most of my childhood has been spent in the midst of this firing. Did you see the bunkers on your way up? We would hide there all the time but not everyone could afford to make bunkers and even if you had them, they served little purpose in the middle of the firing. The shelling would be so intense that they would collapse.
Many people from our village became martyrs. We are sitting at my auntie’s house. My first cousin, her eldest son, became a martyr. A mortar hit him and nothing was left of him. All his organs, everything had come out… we had to collect pieces of his flesh to carry out a burial. He was only 22 years old then.
In 2015, I visited Athmuqam, the headquarters of Neelum District in Azad Jammu and Kashmir. Seated at the bank of the Neelum River – or Kishanganga as referred to in India – which serves as the Line of Control (LoC), the residents of this town faced the brunt of mortar shelling during the 1990s.
As armed rebellion escalated in Indian-held Kashmir in the late 1980s and 1990s, the Indian state responded with heavy shelling across the LoC in an attempt to target alleged training camps and infiltration that Pakistan was accused of backing.
However, as prevalent in conflict zones, it is often ordinary people who get caught in the crossfire. In the context of the Kashmir conflict too, it were women, men and children desperate for peace and stability who all too frequently fell victim to the shelling and cross LoC attacks.
Neelum Valley in particular became a target given its close proximity to the LoC. Some locals also allege that this was because of the presence of militant camps in the vicinity, and that Neelum Valley was used as a strategic location for training and infiltration given the easy cross over points during the 1990s.
By the time the 2003 ceasefire was agreed upon between India and Pakistan – bringing temporary relief after over a decade of shelling – close to 3,000 people had lost their lives in Neelum Valley alone. Thousands more had received devastating injuries and life-altering psychological wounds.
In many ways, and as in most conflicts, it were the women and children who suffered the most. With several men relocating to larger cities for work, it was often the women who were left behind to look after the old and the young, the livestock and the agricultural crops.
When the road was shut in the winter of 2016 after shelling incidents, women came out into the streets, marching with white flags and demanding that peace is restored.
During my trips to the valley in 2014 and 2015, I heard horror stories of famished women hiding in cowsheds for days; roads were blocked and no ration would arrive. Lighting fire to cook food would make them easy targets. Instead they lived in the pitch dark, some of them bearing labour pains, others fatally sick, unable to step out to seek respite.
I heard of a generation of boys and girls who grew up in bunkers for schools remained closed for more than a decade, especially after a mortar hit a school, killing 28 children. And I heard about mothers picking up chopped up body parts after a splinter cut their child into pieces.
By the turn of the century, many of these desperate women began to consolidate into a movement for peace. They began to organise marches for the roads to open, for the firing to stop, for the infiltration to be halted.
In 2013, BBC documented the struggles of these women in a story, titled The housewives taking on militants in Kashmir. Having lost family members and livelihoods, with homes damaged and future prospects bleak, the women, many from the Athmuqam itself, relinquished all fear.
They would march to the commanding officer in the area and demand that the army cracks down heavily on any militancy taking place in the region. Their rationale was simple: when the LoC is activated, it is us who suffer. If the militancy stops, so will the firing.
Many locals believe that these women are the reason why firing halted in Neelum Valley between 2003-2015. While other areas on the LoC continued to face intermittent firing even after the 2003 ceasefire, Neelum and its residents were somehow salvaged.
When I met these women on my trip to Athmuqam in 2015 they told me:
“Initially, in the 1990s, we had supported the mujahideen who would come from across the LoC. We gave them shelter, food and blankets. We performed our duty as Muslims and we genuinely believed in their cause of freeing Kashmir from the Indian occupation.
But when the Indian forces started to fire on us, we couldn’t take it anymore. Now there is no room for supporting the mujahideen in our area.
A couple of years ago, one of our boys went across the LoC as a mujahid… we told his mother to banish him upon return… we told him he didn’t have a home here any longer… we have actively opposed the mujahideen through our marches, against all odds.
If the men would march, they would be picked up but with us women it was hard to do that. We would march in large numbers and we would tell them that we won’t stop unless firing stopped.”
I had left the women on that trip rejoicing the brief window of peace they had helped secure for their families. Little did I know that a year and a half later, I would be sitting amidst them again, hearing one dreadful story rolling in after the other.
In July, 2016 when the commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, Burhan Wani, was killed at the hands of Indian forces, Indian-held Kashmir erupted in violent protests and clashes between civilians and armed forces.
It was estimated that 145 civilians died while more than 15,000 people were wounded – with over 4,500 injured by the use of pellet shotguns, and over 1,000 civilians receiving full or partial eye damage in 2016 alone.
India accused Pakistan of facilitating cross-border terrorism. Within a couple of months, 18 Indian soldiers were killed in Uri, an attack once again blamed on Pakistan. India soon resorted to alleged surgical strikes, a claim denied vehemently by Pakistan.
Regardless of the accuracy of these accusations and claims, the LoC was once again activated and the residents living in the bordering villages found themselves increasingly vulnerable. For the first time since the 2003 ceasefire, even Neelum Valley came under firing with approximately 13 civilians being killed and another 25 being injured by the end of 2016.
A tourist resort in Keran was also attacked, injuring tourists and serving a huge blow to the bustling tourist industry and a significant revenue source for the locals. Then in November, a passenger bus was attacked killing at least nine people and injuring another ten.
Soon after, the main road between Muzaffarabad and Neelum Valley was closed, internet and telephone facilities were curbed, tourists were stopped from coming in and people were instructed to renovate their bunkers.
It is estimated that over 1,000 families were displaced from Neelum Valley in the summer of 2016, rushing off to areas further away from the LoC and the shelling. Azad Jammur and Kashmir had once again plunged into an era of darkness and instability.
When I traveled to Neelum Valley again in May 2017, I visited the homes that had been struck with shelling, I met the families that had witnessed the firing and I smelt the sense of uncertainty and fear looming in the air. The brief window of peace had given way to violence and loss.
Whenever tensions escalate in Indian-held Kashmir, the Kashmiris on this side of the LoC also become victims.
When I went to meet the women in Athmuqam again, they showed me the cracks in their walls caused by the firing, they gave me a tour of the new bunkers they had made and the old rusty ones that had once again been refurbished.
One of them told me:
“The young children have grown up post firing… they aren’t used to it. When Indian and Pakistani forces fire at each other, they fall to the ground covering their ears, screaming loudly… I took my younger siblings to Muzaffarabad when the firing was at its peak but you could hardly find space because so many families were moving to the city… rent prices skyrocketed.
It would cost Rs 10,000-15,000 a month to rent a small room. 80% of the families from our area ran away. Even now most of them are still displaced. I would say less than 1/3rd of the families have returned. The rest are too scared to come back.”
While Indian-held Kashmir reels in violence and escalating conflict, the residents of Azad Jammu and Kashmir too suffer from insecurity, instability and bloodshed.
Ceasefire violations have become increasingly common since 2016, with areas such as Nakyal Sector and Poonch particularly vulnerable. Between the summers of 2016 and 2017, more than 60 civilians have been killed and 300 have been injured in cross LoC shelling. The firing, the deaths, the wounds are an eerie reminder of the pre-ceasefire years.
On the same topic: Courage lies in the hearts of Kashmiri women who dream of freedom
So are the cries for peace. The locals, including the women, from Neelum Valley told me that when their road was shut in the winter of 2016 after shelling incidents, they came out into the streets, marching with white flags and demanding that peace is restored in the area.
“We were being told that schools and colleges would remain shut as would the road, that we should get prepared for firing and renovate our bunkers. As compensation, the government promised us atta (flour) at half price and some material to build bunkers but in reality no one got anything. And anyway, we don’t care about their atta. We want peace. Do you think half priced atta is compensation for our lives?”
I left Azad Jammu and Kashmir on this trip cognizant that whenever India-Pakistan relations sour, whenever tensions escalate in Indian-held Kashmir, the Kashmiris on this side of the LoC also become victims, victims who recede into a mere figure, a causality count in the corner of big newspapers, only remembered when it serves as a tit-for-tat political debate to show which side gave a more ‘befitting’ response to the other and which side is the aggressor as opposed to the victim.
Though they live in what is popularly referred to as 'Azad’ Kashmir on this side of the LoC, they were not spared in the 1990s nor are they spared today. Their fates are interwoven with those across the LoC, with carnage and insecurity marring their streets and alleys, villages and cities even 70 years after Partition.
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