As the residents from villages straddling the LoC moved for shelter in Uri, they had tons of tragedies and tales to talk about when Faheem Mir met them
Last week, the state-run Girls Higher Secondary School in Uri was the centre of attraction for the civil society and the media. The resumption of shelling in Haji Peer sector had displaced more than 200 families. They were from Charunda, Bhutgran, Tilawari, Thajal and Balkote, the hamlets which live on the banks of Hajipeer Nullah that flows down the peaks to embrace Jhelum at Lagama.
For many days, as the crowded school housing around 1200 people, was witnessing people and some NGOs coming with help, they were returning with tons of stories of loss and conflict.
Mohammad Yaqoob’s 7-member family was one such household. They live between the LoC and the fence. People have to cross iron gates to enter a cluster of villages including Silkote, Charunda and Tilawari. Fencing of LoC is part of the defence mechanism to prevent infiltration of insurgents from PaK.
“We are not supposed to move to either side of the village,” Chalkoo, a resident of Silikot said. “The side with Pakistan is protected with electromagnetic pulse devices (EMP) and this side is fenced.”
“There is paperwork before entering in or moving out,” Yaqoob said. “Even the locals are not permitted without undergoing a formal process. These gates remain closed from 6 pm till 8 am.”
Paperwork is followed by physical body searches and even women are not spared, the residents said. “School going girls are also supposed to undergo the searches of their bags,” a resident Akbar said. “Their books are searched and metal detectors are used.”
“We lock our pets up in the sheds which is global and normal practice,” Kala Khatana said. “It is the same case with us. They lock us up and in case of emergencies; we have to wait for the morning.”
It happened as shelling peaked, last week.
Residents said while they have been living in a sort of perpetual siege, the location of their villages has historically made them vulnerable to the tragedies. “Shelling apart, scores of residents have lost their limbs due to EMP blasts that are installed everywhere near the LoC in our lands, where people unknowingly go to collect fodder for the pets,” one resident said. “Shelling usually takes some lives but this time, we were fortunate. Only one lady, Zulaikhan Bi, wife of Jamaluddin received minor injuries.”
In 2001, Charunda’s Mohammad Rafiq Awan, then 20, was busy farming with his friend Dullah Khatana almost 100 meters away from LoC. “All of a sudden we heard few gunshots and Dullah fell down in a stream as I jumped into the small stream too,” Awan remembers. “I still remember the water turned red, Khatana died on spot. I remained with the dead body in the stream for 15 hours till the exchange of fire stopped.”
Lamenting his fate, Awan said humans are usually used to making future plans. “We are so unfortunate that we do not know if we will exist next sunrise so we do not have long plans,” Awan said.
Awan lost his younger sister in 2015. Shaheena Bano, then 23, was preparing tea for the family in the morning when suddenly mortar shell blasted near their house. “My sister fell instantly unconscious, we somehow managed to bring her outside and ran towards the gate but the army refused to open the gate and my sister died,” Awan said. “It was a heart attack.”
What was interesting and perhaps told for the first time was that the residents said they have a dual rule. “We are located at a place that despite being separated is ruled by two different nations,” one elderly resident said. “We are within reach of both the gunners and when they fight, we suffer.”
The conflict between the two neighbours is impacting the social life. “My wife is so scared that she does not want to come back to Charunda from her parent’s place even after seven years of marriage,” Awan said. “She wants me to leave the place but how can I? I own more than 30 kanals of land and have many herds.”
Awan is not the lone sufferer. Muneer Ahmad, 25, from Tilawari lost his mother when he was 10 years of age. “I still remember the pain of my mother,” Muneer recalls. Saleema Begum, then 30, was looking after cattle when she was hit by a bullet in her left thigh. “My father took her to the sub-district hospital and they referred her to the Bone and Joints Hospital Barzulla in Srinagar where doctors amputated her leg.”
After a month-long hospitalization, she was taken home. After a year she succumbs to her injuries.
In October 2015, Liyakat Ali was coming back after eighth class examination in the nearby secondary school. Happy that they did well, the children were moving towards their homes when a bullet from the other side hit him. He died on the spot.
“He asked me that morning that he wants to go to Uri after this last paper and was excited to bring a bat to play cricket,” Nazir Ahmad, his father said. “I had promised him that I will gift you the bat only if he studies hard and gets good marks.”
Last week, when the shells started raining from Pakistani outposts, the only thing Nazir took while fleeing from his Tilawari village was their slain son’s school bag. “This is the only prized possession we wanted to protect,” Nazir said. “The white fleet shoes were painted red which I bought for him before the exams. I am unable to forget that.”
Residents said more than 30 people became victims of bullets and EMP blasts between 1992 and 2018 in Charunda village alone: Atta Mohammad son of Deen Mohammad, Habib Ganie son of Ghulam Mohammad Ganie, Mohammad Shafi son of Tajudeen, Akhtar Jan wife of Bashir Ahmad, Mira Mohammad son of Nazir, Nooruddin son of Ali Mohammad….
Almost one-third population have lost their limbs to the conflict. People using crutches are visible in the camp too.
In 2003, Nooruddin Khatana, 50, went to bring feed for his cow from his land alongside LoC. When he started cutting grass, an explosion took place and everything faded away from his eyes. “I opened my eyes after 28 hours in a Srinagar hospital and was surprised to see that my left leg is nowhere,” Noor recalls. He spent 40 days in Srinagar and then 20 more days in the Uri hospital. Now using an artificial leg, he says he is unable to even feed himself.
As if this tragedy was small, his elder brother Mohammad Shafi met with the same fate and lost his leg, too. Shafi was busy working near his house when a bullet hit him, damaging his leg that was later amputated.
It did not stop, even after that. One of their nieces, Akbar Bi got critically injured when a mortar shell exploded near her. She also lost her leg. “My mother asked me to collect drinking water from outside,” Bi remembers. “When I moved outside, I heard a big explosion and fell unconscious.”
Mohammad Lateef Khatana lost his right leg in 2003 when he was working near the LoC. Residents said there are more than 35 villagers who lost their limbs during violations of the ceasefire: Nazir Ahmad son of Alif Din, Sakeena Begum wife of Kala Khatana, Sakeena Bi wife of Sadiq Ahmad, Abdul Rashid son of Atta Mohammad…
This is not the only pain these people live with. Hundreds of families had actually fled and crossed over to the other side at the peak of turmoil. There were migrations from Charunda, Balkote, Silkote, Tilawari and many other villages. Neither of them returned.
Balkote’s Hameeda Begum, 75, separated from her brother Yousuf and cousins when she was young. “There was no other option than migration because the army was interrogating people without reasons and many people lost their lives forcing people to flee,” Hameeda alleged. “We do not have a life. We depend on the army.”
The migration took away brother, uncle and cousins of Ghulab Jan, 70. Jan is Hameeda’s cousin. “We are not being treated as humans,” Jan said.
Charunda’s Abdul Qadir Najar remembers when entire Lohar Mohalla comprising seven families crossed over to another side. “The fact is that to move to the other side (PaK) was easier than coming to Uri,” Qadir said. “There was a human wall on this side and villages near no man’s land were always at risk.”
Jana Begum, now 50, remembers the day when her maternal uncles along with their families fled from Silkote. “The atrocities forced them to cross the line,” she alleged. From Balkote, 12 families fled in 1993.
On February 20, when the shelling was going on, Abdul Rashid Kohli of Charunda said, the residents were willing to even cross over. “This was because we were not being permitted to move towards Uri,” he alleged.
In all these villages, residents said, almost 60 percent of their entire land is with the armed forces. “Almost 20 kanals of my land is under Army,” Mohammad Rafiq claimed. Mohammad Rafiq claimed his 30 kanals of land is occupied by the army.
Army using the land and paying for it is normal. Locals said the army did not pay them even a single penny since 2003.
However, Dr Sajad Ahmad, who represents his lawmaker father Mohammad Shafi, said they are in contact with the army and have requested them to make sure the safety of locals. “Although there are people still in the villages of Hathlanga and Shora, the army didn’t allow them to move and it is very unfortunate,” Sajad said.