MUZAFFARABAD: Having borne the brunt of hostilities across the Line of Control (LoC) for years together, residents in Azad Kashmir on Friday welcomed the ceasefire agreement between Pakistan and India, but were unsure that it would hold long enough.
“Thank God, they have realised the harrowing consequences of shelling…and have resolved to maintain truce across this line that has divided Kashmiris from each other,”said Gul Zareen, a 50-year-old resident of Bugna village, in Neelum valley.
The picturesque valley, the biggest tourist draw in Azad Kashmir, runs along the heavily militarised LoC and has seen some heart-rending episodes of late, for instance the Nov 2016 Indian attack on a passenger bus that left nine passengers dead on the spot.
In a landmark decision in Nov 2003, Pakistan and India had agreed to silence their guns across the LoC and, barring isolated incidents of firing, the agreement held for over a decade.
But in recent years, particularly since 2016, ceasefire violations have been taking place virtually every day. According to Chaudhry Tariq Farooq, a minister in the Azad Kashmir cabinet, six civilians have been injured so far this year in over 40 ceasefire violations by the Indian army.
Last year, 33 civilians were killed and another 260 wounded in Indian shelling while the figures for 2019 were 59 dead and 281 injured. In 2018, 28 people lost their lives while 172 were injured.
“The huge loss of public and private properties was in addition to the casualties,” the minister added.
During interludes between uneasy calm and fresh outbreak of hostilities, the 200-km-long Neelum valley sees substantial investment in the tourism sector as people from across the country visit the region famed for its alpine mountains, lush green meadows, glacial lakes and icy water channels.
Most investors, many of whom were from outside, were all but ruined as skirmishes and artillery duels forced them to wrap up their businesses.
“I built a beautiful rest house in the upper belt of Neelum valley with a view to providing quality accommodation to visitors, but little did I know that ceasefire violations will keep them away,” said Munir Mir, a resident of Muzaffarabad. “Now that they (Pakistan and India) have agreed to a ceasefire, I and all others feel relaxed.”
Scepticism is rife
However, while local residents in most areas in the vicinity of the LoC in AJK also expressed satisfaction at the announcement, they did not hide their scepticism about the sustenance of truce “in view of their past experience.”
Shoukat Awan, a 49-year-old resident of Lanjot, a village in Kotli district where 14 people were massacred by the Indian army in February 2000, recalled that Kashmiris enjoyed a semblance of peace and normality for over a decade after the previous ceasefire agreement of 2003.
“But then violations became almost the order of the day. We were unable to hold social gatherings, could not even bury our dead during the past eight or so years,” he said. “If the two sides abide by their commitment, it will be a boon to people residing along the LoC. We will be able to lead normal lives like our compatriots in other parts of the state.”
Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a 51-year-old political activist in Sehra village of Poonch district, said people had heaved a sigh of relief because ceasefire violations had wreaked havoc on hapless civilians.
According to him, his house had received the last “gift of firing with small arms” on the night between Feb 23 and 24. “But I am fearful in view of India’s track record. Let’s hope they are as good as their word.”
Malik Zulfikar, a resident of Madarpur, another vulnerable village in Poonch district, hailed the understanding in anticipation of relief it could bring to a defenceless populace.
“You can’t even imagine how badly people suffer when they are caught up in heavy mortar and artillery shelling. One shell at your home can rob you of your life-long savings. If they are going to implement the agreement honestly, it will bring some solace to the people,” he said.
In a statement, Azad Kashmir Prime Minister Raja Farooq Haider welcomed the fresh understanding between the two armies, but stressed that it should not push the core issue of Kashmir to the back-burner.
“The pledge to cease fire in accordance with the spirit of the 2003 agreement is welcome news as it will bring some comfort to civilians who have suffered terrible losses in Indian shelling,” he said.
“However, this should not overshadow the core issue of Kashmir. Both countries should bear in mind that without resolving the long-standing issue in accordance with the wishes of Kashmiris, durable peace in the region will remain a distant dream,” he said.
Mr Haider urged Islamabad to launch an “aggressive diplomatic initiative” to force India to work for settlement of the Kashmir issue.
Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2021