This week’s events have pushed Kashmiris back to the bunkers.
Two days ago, a civilian from Khuiratta in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) uploaded a video of his daughter detailing how she heard a gola (mortar) while at school, and had to rush home.
The little girl, no more than seven years old, was already familiar with the terminology. At her age, she’s likely to have little understanding of why Kashmir, from where she hails, is one of the most volatile conflict zones in the world. Yet, for her the firing of golas is part of her lived experiences.
I wonder if she knows that shelling is not meant to be an ordinary occurrence, let alone near schools. But for the people living by the Line of Control (LoC), shelling often forms their most primary memory. Many of them have grown up caught in the midst of cross-LoC firing, knowing to rush to the bunkers — if fortunate enough to have access to them — at the slightest sound.
For those who live in locations where the 2003 ceasefire between India and Pakistan had extended itself to, the resumption of firing in recent years is new and utterly frightening, especially for children who grew up in relatively peaceful times.
For instance, in Neelum Valley, firing had largely halted in the aftermath of the ceasefire and when it returned in 2016 — when India-Pakistan relations soured in the aftermath of the Uri attacks — the children who were unfamiliar with the explosive sounds of mortars were left terrified, covering their ears and yelling for it to stop.
However, even before 2016, certain areas had been left orphaned by the ceasefire; the respite was offered to selective regions, with many sectors continuing to face regular violations.
A few months before the Uri attacks, I visited the Nakyal sector in AJK. There, I learnt that approximately 15 people are killed in shelling every year. One teenager I conversed with told me that she had heard firing ever since she was a young child. If it ever happened while she was in school, the headmaster would tell the children to huddle together and hide until it stopped. At home, her father would instruct them to rush inside.
Her childhood has been shaped by the uncertainty, the constant state of emergency, the loud explosions. Months before I visited her, she had lost her mother to the firing. When we spoke, she had dropped out of school to help raise her younger siblings.
Such stories are only too common on the LoC. Lives are lost, livelihood damaged, homes devastated, generations psychologically, physically and financially impaired.
During the 1990s, when cross-LoC firing was at its peak, 28 children were once killed when a mortar hit a school in Neelum Valley. Others lost their legs or arms. Thereafter, most schools became abandoned, haunted buildings, neither the teachers nor the children willing to risk their lives. As a result, almost an entire generation of Kashmiris — in areas close to the LoC — was raised without basic literacy.
When I visited these villages years later, I heard harrowing tales of women and children being stuck in pitch dark bunkers, without any air, without any washroom for hours (and at times, days on end). Women narrated chilling stories of having to cut through their own flesh to feed their children blood to avoid dehydration, or having to pick up chopped up body parts after a mortar ripped through their child’s body. Roads would be shut, ration supply halted, schools closed, communication snapped.
This week’s events have pushed Kashmiris back to the bunkers. Four people have already died, 11 have been wounded, dozens have had to leave their homes, schools have been shut, internet has been blocked, phone lines are only working in certain areas, electricity is cut off at night. Everybody wonders who will survive this time.
Yet outside of Kashmir, few think about how the India-Pakistan conflict manifests itself on the LoC. The fact is that it is the Kashmiris — that both states claim to represent — who are the real casualties of conflict; sidelined, their deaths are presented as dry statistics, more often than not to beef up nationalistic narratives.
Those who were earlier calling for war from the comforts of their homes, mostly in India, have perhaps forgotten that there is already an ongoing war, with thousands of Kashmiris sandwiched in between hostile Indian and Pakistani posts.
Those celebrating the de-escalation of conflict in Pakistan have perhaps forgotten that the conflict remains alive, the LoC still active. It has been active for a long time, it is likely to remain active. Darkness, the cold damp bunkers, the fear of being struck by mortars is likely to be the reality for Kashmiris for a while to come.
When Indian jets first entered Pakistani airspace, for hours the conversation revolved around whether they had attacked Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Balakote in AJK. When it seemed that it was the latter, many expressed a sense of relief that at least the Indians had not targeted ‘Pakistan proper’ or really impinged on our sovereignty.
Whether or not Kashmiris died, what the damage meant for them — had the target been Balakote rather than Balakot — received little attention. The killing of civilians on the LoC that night, the resulting displacement and the heightened state of panic they find themselves in is also overshadowed. Apart from a few reports, little is said about their conditions.
In-depth: The pursuit of Kashmir
The fact that Prime Minister Imran Khan is advocating for dialogue and has promised to release the captured Indian pilot are all promising steps which must be applauded. One can only hope that tensions will de-escalate.
However, as Pakistanis and Indians hopefully return to normalcy, airports are opened and high alerts are no longer needed, we must remember that thousands of Kashmiris on the LoC remain vulnerable, wondering when the next shelling will be.
Yesterday morning, I reached out to a friend in Khuiratta to enquire about the conditions there the night before. "Hope all is quiet on the LoC?" I asked. "For the time being," he responded. "It is never quiet for people on the LoC." The uncertainty, the volatility, the cycles of violence are the only norm.
Peace in the region is contingent on peace in Kashmir of which AJK is an integral part. Kashmiris must not be remembered and forgotten at will. A sustained and inclusive dialogue, safety for those living by the LoC and the political will from both sides to reach a lasting solution is the only way forward.
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Anam Zakaria is the author of Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians and Between the Great Divide: A Journey into Pakistan-administered Kashmir
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