“While shells were dropping all around me yesterday,” said Pushpa Sharma, sounding both hysterical and exhausted on Tuesday, “the news on TV was all about a man getting slapped somewhere.”

In her late sixties, Sharma lives in the village of Chak Changa on the border of India and Pakistan in the district of Kathua.

For a week, the area has been experiencing intense fire, which was stepped up on Monday afternoon. Most people in Sharma’s village have left, moving to the homes of relatives away from the border, or to relief camps set up by the government.

Sharma and her husband had sent away their daughter-in-laws and grandchildren the day the firing began. The old couple’s sons work in the army and they are responsible for their daughters-in-law and grandchildren. They stayed back to take care of their animals. But the spell of fire on Monday had left them spooked. They were about to pack and leave when I called on their landline on Tuesday. I have known the family since the time I visited the village in May 2014 at the time of the national election.

“I did not eat all day,” said Sharma, describing the ordeal of the previous day. "I hid under a bed."

“Nine shells landed at a nearby house,” said her husband, Banarasi Das. “Thankfully, no life was lost but a buffalo was injured.”

On Saturday, a woman had been killed in a nearby village.

What upset Sharma most was to not find any mention of the shelling in the news on Monday. “Here, we are dying,” she said, “but the big people in Delhi do not care.” As she noted, television news channels were focussing on a young man slapping Trinamool Congress MP Abhishek Banerjee at a public meeting.

Unprecedented firing

This part of the India-Pakistan border had seen a spell of hostilities in October. Thirteen people had been killed at that time and 32,000 had moved out of their homes. But both military and civilian authorities described the current round as more “intense” and “worrisome”.

“Earlier, shells landed within a radius of three kilometres from the international border,” said Shahid Iqbal Choudhary, the deputy commissioner of Kathua, “but now we are seeing shells land as much as five kilometres inside.”

He said over 5,300 people have moved to the relief camps set up by the local administration. “We could not evacuate more people due to shelling last night,” he added.

The Inspector-General of Border Security Force, Rakesh Sharma, said no hostilities had taken place since Tuesday morning.

“Our bullet-proof vehicles have been sent to the villages in the morning,” said Choudhary, “and by evening we expect to have another 5,000 people in the camps.”

No place to go

But Sharma and her husband, a retired school teacher, Banarasi Das, spoke of the poor conditions in the camps. They had spent a couple of weeks in the camp in October. “We had to sleep on the bare floor,” said the old woman. “We were given a thin blanket each. At that time, it wasn’t so cold, but in the current weather, how can anyone survive with just one blanket?”

This time, the family has chosen to move to the home of a relative in the town of Kathua. “But how many times can we do that?” said Banarasi Das. “It is so embarrassing to go with a begging bowl asking for help each time.”

In May, when I had visited the village, Banarasi Das’ cousin, Paramanand Sharma, had recounted the history of wars and exodus experienced by the families of Chak Changa since the time of Independence and Partition. Born in 1943, the old man remembered fields lighting up at night in the incandescent glow of exploding bombs in the first war between the two countries in 1947. That was the first time the village was evacuated and people were taken to the town of Kathua. The villagers returned home a couple of years later but fled each time hostilities broke out between India and Pakistan. “Evacuation happened four-five times. In 1965, 1971, 1986, 1999,” he said.

Even when the two countries were not at war, an exchange of fire on the border was commonplace. In the summer of 2002, Sharma and his wife were seated in the courtyard when a blast shook their home and cracked up its walls. Both sustained shrapnel injuries.

After decades of living on the edge, the border residents heaved a sigh of relief when India and Pakistan signed a ceasefire agreement in 2003. Shelling had become infrequent in the last decade, Paramananda said, as we sat talking on a morning when the villagers were casting their votes, overwhelmingly for the Bharatiya Janata Party. The old man’s grandson, all of five years, were running around the house, saying, “Vote for Modi.”

Old traumas

As tensions return to the border, and the families of Chak Changa once again relive old traumas, what do they feel about the new government’s defence strategies?

“Earlier, BSF used to not return fire,” said Banarasi Das, “ab jawab de rahe hai.”

The exchange of hostilities had made their life difficult, he said. But he drew consolation from the fact that they were not the only ones suffering. “Hum log dukhi hai to ab wo log bhi dukhi hai,” he said, referring to people across the border.

His wife, Pushpa Sharma, however, wanted the strife to end, regardless of which side prevailed. And if the government cannot stop the exchange of fire, she said, “Can they at least give us a small plot of land to build a home away from the border?”