The sound echoed through the valley. A dark mountain stood in front of us. Earlier in the day, we had sat here sitting under a tree, sipping our tea and marvelling at the beauty in front of us. It was a gorgeous mountain, with flat notches cut into its side to create fields for agriculture. A few wooden houses stood around the plains and some villagers were working on the fields.
Then there wasn’t a single light. From the top of the mountain a light blinked every once in a while as if giving out a signal. Were there any eyes focused upon us, wondering why we were standing so close to the river so late in the night? Were there any soldiers eyeing us through their scopes and wondering whether they will be able to take us down in one shot?
For years, there has been peace here and no bullet has crossed the river from either side but that does not mean that paranoia doesn’t exist. They still look at us with suspicion and we do the same to them. A few years ago we would have been shot for standing so close to the Line of Control, we had been told.
The Mujahidin once used to cross from here.
Across the river
I tried imagining a trip into the Indian part of Kashmir. The first step would be to cross this freezing water flowing with vengeance. The next step would be to navigate through the jungles of Kashmir in the darkness of the night, worried about the wild animals that live here and focused on avoiding the Indian soldiers who patrolled these forests. Once someone is caught, then start the tales of torture.
"Look at that mountain," said Awais, our host at a small guesthouse. It was a bright day. Behind the mountain I could see the depth of a clear blue sky and a few clouds. I tried following the direction of Awais’ finger carefully and noticed the silhouette of a wire fence. Next to it there was a wooden platform for the sentry.
“Is that India?” I asked my host. “No. That’s Indian-occupied territory,” he replied. “That fence has been raised by the Indian army in the past few years and a lot of hue and cry was raised by the Pakistani government.”
“Is this where the Mujahidin used to cross over to Indian-occupied Kashmir?” I asked.
“Yes. But they don’t any more. Ever since Musharraf made a deal with the Indians, we have stopped sending Mujahidin from here. Earlier, they used to cross the LoC from here and also Sharda, which is about two hours north from here. This is why the Indian soldiers used to shoot here. You and I would not have been able to sit here. Things were so bad that in the night if someone as much as lit a cigarette he would be shot. This road that brought you here from Muzaffarabad could not have been used. In retaliation, of course, our Pakistani soldiers also used to fire. This condition continued for a decade or so, from the early 1990s to early 2000s. In those years about 3,000 people died from this region. About 200 Mujahidin used to cross every night.”
“Did the Mujahidin also have their training camps here at Karen?”
“Yes. But not any more. Now they only operate from Muzaffarabad and cross over from Rawal Kot region [which is south of Muzaffarabad, while Karen and Sharda are north of it]. Cross-LoC firing takes place in that region only now. But you know there is a much bigger war coming and you should brace yourself for that. That would be a war over water. The Indians have constructed Kishenganga on this river on their side and soon there would be water shortage in Pakistan.”
The Neelum River, which acts as the LoC in this part of the Neelum valley, is known as Kishenganga on the Indian side.
The river Neelum divides India and Pakistan.
Later, a mosque from across the river sounded the azaan, identifying the time for prayer. No azaan followed from the Pakistani side but a few men and women sitting around me decided to go and say their prayers. This was once one village, Karen, now divided between two countries. Most of the houses on the Indian side of the village are vacant.
The inhabitants were made to leave during the time of insurgency, when Mujahidin used to cross over from here. Most of these empty houses have been taken over by Indian forces. The locals on the Pakistani side tell me there are many Kashmiris from the Indian side of Karen who have now come here too.
“Every Sunday, divided families gather on both sides of the river and wave each other,” said Awais. I glanced at the river and realise that given its width and noise, it would be impossible to talk. Waving is all one could do. “During the winters, the river is one-fourth of what it is right now. At that time, one can easily talk to the person on the other side. There are many divided families here at Karen. A mother would be here while the daughter would be there. So many families.”
A poster next to the army checkpoint depicted a picture of a young child with a leg missing. There were pictures of an aircraft missile and a landmine next to it. “Beware of the moves of the enemy,” it stated. The poster cautioned children not to play with unidentified objects and to inform army officials in case anyone comes across any.
The younger officer at the army checkpoint returned my identity card. “Are there a lot of unused missiles and landmines in this region?” I asked him.
“Yes, of course,” he said. “The enemy is right across.” The army checkpoint was hidden by a concrete wall. A board here said that it was prohibited to photograph the checkpoint. The cautionary poster was located on one of the walls of the checkpoint. I wasn’t sure if the rule applied to the poster as well. I did not want to find out.
Since our departure from Muzaffarabad, this had been the fifth time that I had been stopped by an army checkpoint. At every stop they entered my information into a register, asked me where I was coming from and where I was heading. This historical village of Karen, established some time in the tenth century, has become a tourist destination since the ceasefire in this region. It is about 80 km from Muzaffarabad, a journey that takes about four hours on the treacherous mountainous road.
A few kilometres north of the city of Muzaffarabad, the river Jhelum turned further west, while the Neelum tok it place. The fast-moving river is a continuous companion to a traveller on this road. As one heads further away from the capital of Azad Kashmir, or Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the LoC gets closer. Soon this narrow river remains the only thing that separates the two arch-rivals, both armed with nuclear weapons and one of the largest standing armies of the world.
Sometimes Indian Kashmir recedes from the river and sometimes it touches the bank of the river. While travelling on this road, my wife and I constantly tried to figure out whether the mountain and the houses on the other side of the river were still Pakistani or had become Indian.
About an hour before Karen comes Athmuqam. After passing a checkpoint I slowed down the car to catch a glimpse of the Indian town on the other side of the river. There was a huge cricket ground with the Indian flag hoisted on one side. A wooden bridge connected the two settlements flanking the river. This is the point where Kashmiris are allowed to pass over to the other country’s territory to see relatives who have been stranded by the LoC. This is also the point where, it is rumoured, one can purchase smuggled Indian whiskey by bribing the soldiers.
The name of this part of the Neelum valley has been changed to Vigilant valley. There are army boards and posters throughout the road stating that. Here too there used to be regular firing between the two armies.
Standing on the top of the mountain, it is hard to tell which peak is occupied by India and which belongs to Pakistan. The river flows, unaware of the raging battles above it. It snakes through the valley dividing mountains, communities, villages and families on both sides of the LoC.
Standing next to us was a young mentally challenged man. He had been following us up this mountain. There are many here throughout the Neelum valley. My wife, who was training to be a therapist, had reason to believe that their condition is linked to the firing that ravaged this valley for years.
We stopped at a tea shop and sat in a garden. From here, we could see the village and the river below us. On both the sides the army was camouflaged behind trees. Only the villagers were left uncovered.
Mohsin, the shop vendor, was born in 1988, a year before the escalation of insurgency in Kashmir valley on the Indian side. “There were hardly any local Kashmir Mujahidin being trained in the camps,” he told me as he made tea for us. “There used to be a few from the Indian side. Then there were Pathans, Punjabis, Chechnyians, etc.” Everyone knew where these camps were.
But that did not mean that sympathy for Kashmir’s liberation did not exist in Pakistani Kashmir. They supported the insurgents. Sometimes, if the Mujahidin were traveling with too many bags, the locals would help them cross the LoC. That's what Mohsin told me.
“There used to be regular firing here from both the sides but that did not affect life here at the village,” claimed Mohsin. “They never used to fire at the village. They would only fire at army posts. If they wanted to attack the village would they have left us stay here? Look at us. We are completely exposed. As children, the firing used to be a sport for us.
"We would hide in corners and see the armies firing at each other from across the mountains. It was very exciting for us. This road that you came by was not open for business but there were other roads that connected us with Muzaffarabad and Pakistan. That road could only be travelled on jeeps but the villagers used to travel regularly on them.”
“Would our soldiers fire on Indian villages across the LoC?” I asked him.
“They can never do that. That is Pakistan as well. There are Muslims living there.”
“I was told that about 3,000 people died here due to cross LoC firing?”
“That’s not true. At most only four to five people have died due to the firing. Here they like to count as shaheed even those who died after falling off a mountain.”
Once again I took out my identity card and handed it over to an army sentry standing at the entrance. “How far is the LoC from here?” “I don’t know.”
“In what direction is the LoC from here?”
“I don’t know.”
We climbed the ancient set of stairs to reach the ancient university of Sharda. A board here stated that this was once an ancient Buddhist university. It is a lonely structure standing in the midst of a protective wall. There is an army unit deposited under the university. I was forbidden from taking any photographs of the army unit.
“The mountain behind this mountain belongs to the Indians,” said our waiter as we sat down next to the river after visiting the temple. “Here too there used to be firing. The Indian soldiers used to fire into our territory including our villages. We had no other option but to retaliate.”
“Did we attack their villages?” I asked him.
“How could we? Those are, after all, our own villages.”
(Haroon Khalid is the author of A White Trail: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities; Westland, 2013.)
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