Habibullah Angar’s sons and nephews are building a bunker. They have dug a rectangular hole in the ground, about six feet deep and somewhat wider, a narrow passage leading out of it. When it is done, there will be a stone wall lining the hole and logs covering the top with earth piled on top. It is meant to shelter the 22 members of Angar’s family when mortar shells come whistling from across the Line of Control.

The Angars’ home is in Kalas village in Keran sector of Kashmir’s Kupwara district, and just about 2 km from the Line of Control. This is hard country, made up of mountains and gorges. The rocky earth does not yield easily to shovels. But over the past few days, with ceasefire violations growing in intensity, almost every family here is busy digging. Daily labourers have abandoned their work and students have set aside their books.

“We have to make our own bunkers, what else?” said Angar. “In 2002, the government promised us bunkers. But that remained on paper.” Last week, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti reportedly gave directions to identify land to build the shelters. But changes are slow on the ground.

Habibullah Angar's sons and nephews dig a bunker for a family of 22 in Kalas village.
Habibullah Angar's sons and nephews dig a bunker for a family of 22 in Kalas village.

Caught in the crossfire

On September 29, the Indian Army announced that it had conducted surgical strikes across the Line of Control and caused “significant casualties”, in retaliation to an attack on its base in Kashmir’s Uri town on September 18 that left 20 soldiers dead and was blamed on Pakistani militants. Since then, the ceasefire declared in November 2003 between the two countries has virtually disappeared. According to reports, there have been 279 incidents of firing till November 15.

Tensions have escalated further in the past month with reports of bodies of Indian soldiers being mutilated in such encounters. On October 28, Mandeep Singh of the 17 Sikh Regiment was killed and his body mutilated at a forward post in Machhil sector. Then on November 22, three soldiers of a counter-infiltration patrol party were killed, also in the same sector, and the body of one was found mutilated.

As the Army promised retribution and launched heavy shelling across the Line of Control, Pakistan claimed its civilians were being targeted. It said that on November 23, firing from the Indian side had killed 11 people on a bus in the Neelum Valley while three Pakistan Army soldiers had also lost their lives. Indian military officials reportedly said the bus was hit by accident.

Caught in this crossfire are hamlets along the Line of Control. These are areas cut off from the rest of the country. Long before you reach the border villages in Keran sector, the road disappears into a dirt track and cellphones stop working. Many villagers in these parts moved out when cross-border violence peaked in the 1990s. With no crops growing in the hard earth, those left behind eke out a living working as carpenters, labourers or porters for the Army. The slightly more affluent have found government jobs.

Life has always been hard here, but the area had been relatively peaceful for the past 13 years. That calm has now been shattered and the villages find themselves on the frontlines of a battle between two angry armies that has destroyed homes, disrupted livelihoods and education. As the guns boom, the villagers claim they have been left to fend for themselves.

Little protection

In Mandiya village, 1.5 km from the Line of Control, residents hide in Wasim Lone’s shelter whenever the shelling starts. It is a half-built stone house with a fence made of thorn bushes and barbed wire. On November 12, as the guns started booming, they hastily covered the structure with logs.

Other villagers are worse off. Lal Hussain Lone, a porter, lost his horse to the shelling while his house was also damaged. His bunker, a short distance from his house, is little more than a pile of rocks and wood. When the firing starts, Lone carries his crippled brother to this makeshift shelter.

Shahzad Khan, a resident of Mandiya village, stands inside a make-shift bunker.
Shahzad Khan, a resident of Mandiya village, stands inside a make-shift bunker.

Boys in the village have started digging a bunker in the ground, but progress has been slow. A concrete structure is out of the question as materials cannot be transported on roads here. Stones have to be carried up the steep mountainside. One person can only ferry three stones a day.

“I was near my house constructing the bunker when a shell landed nearby,” Nazakat Hussain Lone said of happenings on November 23. “All of us rushed to our homes, gathered the children and got into the bunker. The shelling started at eight in the morning in the neighbouring areas. We were in our bunker till 4 pm. We had not eaten all day.”

Flashes and sirens

When the firing starts, the first impact is fear. According to residents of Mandiya, there is first a flash of light on the other side, then a loud noise like an ambulance siren. Five to six seconds later, the shells land on this side of the Line of Control. “The ground starts shaking,” said Nazakat Hussain Lone. “The firing is unpredictable, it can start any time.” The ground here has patches of charred soil, bearing testimony to the shells that have landed.

To avoid drawing attention, the villagers switch off the lights in their homes once the shelling begins. Electricity is scarce here to begin with. “In winter, we have power from 6 to 9 in the evening, and in summer, from 8 to 11,” said Shahzad Khan, a resident of the village who studies at an engineering college in Ganderbal in North Kashmir.

Many families have left Mandiya and moved to Kupwara town, 70 km from the Line of Control. “But they can’t keep staying there,” said Khan. “The rents are high. Government employees can still get by but what about daily labourers who make their livelihood here?”

School buildings in these parts are also deserted with children staying home. But the Class 10 and Class 12 board exams are now on in Kashmir. The higher secondary school in Keran village lies outside the fence on the Line of Control but is part of Indian territory, separated from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir by the Kishenganga river, called the Neelum on the other side. Since it falls directly in the line of fire, the exam centre for students in Keran has been shifted to Mandiya. The Army sends vehicles to ferry the students from beyond the fence to these centres.

Students have had to prepare for their exams to the sound of booming guns. Wasim Ahmed Lone, a Class 10 student from Mandiya, was helping dig the bunker in the ground a day before his mathematics exam. His house is on a hilltop. “When the shelling starts, everyone huddles in the cattle shed,” he said. “How can we study then?”

Lal Hussain Lone holds shrapnel from shells that fell on his house in Mandiya village.
Lal Hussain Lone holds shrapnel from shells that fell on his house in Mandiya village.

Nobody calls

Villagers in Keran sector accuse the government and the district administration of being unresponsive during this period of crisis. The first civilian injuries have already been reported. Bashir Ahmed Lone and his wife were inside their house when the shells hit. They tore his wife’s stomach and cut into her thigh, and left him injured as well. Both were shifted to a hospital in Srinagar, where she was operated on. According to their neighbours, the government offered no financial help and it was the community that pooled in resources for their treatment.

Hafeez Masoodi, the additional district commissioner in Kupwara, claimed the couple had not officially approached the administration for help. “We do help in such cases,” Masoodi said. “Normally, we process cases once the occurrence has taken place. We are waiting for them to approach us and we will reimburse their medical expenses.”

As the frontier gets more volatile, Keran has another problem on its hands – its health centres have no facilities for operations or complicated injuries. Mandiya has a primary healthcare centre but residents claim it lies empty most of the time. There is one ancient ambulance shared by nine villages. When people fall ill here, they have to be carried down the steep mountainside.

There has also been massive damage to homes here, most of which are made of wood and collapse easily under fire. Ashiq Hussain Lone, an Army porter in Naga village high up in the mountains, said his house had been hit by shells in three places, destroying one wall completely. “I have lost rations, warm clothes and blankets,” he said.

There are five children in his family, the youngest just two months old. And his father, who fell ill after the shelling started, had to be taken to a village farther downhill for treatment.

Residents of Keran complained that the administration had been deaf to their appeals for building bunkers and fixing damaged homes. “If the situation gets better, we will buy tin sheets from Kupwara to fix our homes,” said Nazakat Hussain Lone of Mandiya village. “We told the administration so many times but got no response. They said bunkers would be arranged but nothing has happened yet.”

Apart from Masoodi, no one from the administration or the state government has visited the area in recent weeks. According to student Shahzad Khan, when residents approached the district commissioner, he merely told them to take shelter in school buildings. Scroll.in tried to reach Masoodi but he remained unavailable for comment.

Villages in Keran sector are a stone's throw from the Line of Control and the Neelum river.
Villages in Keran sector are a stone's throw from the Line of Control and the Neelum river.