Kashmiris living in the villages along the Line of Control on the Pakistani side of the disputed area are no strangers to shelling from the Indian side. In one particular village in Nakyal sector, an administrative unit of Kotli district, 15 civilians were killed by mortar shelling in August 2015 alone.
On September 29, as news emerged that Indian forces had carried out surgical strikes on "terror launch pads” in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which Indians call Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, this writer called friends who live near the Line of Control on the Pakistan side, to ask if they were safe.
A friend from Chanjath village in the Neelum Valley laughed at my query. “I cannot believe the game that India is playing,” the friend said. “There has been a little firing on the posts, that is all. The firing usually creates heavy destruction in the affected areas. This is nothing compared to what many Kashmiris have to bear every year.”
Others who reside in Lippa, parts of which are located 2 km-3 km away from the Line of Control, and those living in villages and towns like Hajira in Poonch, which is 150 meters away from the LoC as the crow flies – where the attacks are said to have taken place – also said that they have not seen any signs of strikes or of Indian forces crossing over.
If anything, the Kashmiris this writer spoke to said that the firing is far less intense this year than it has been in some areas in the previous years. “It has barely touched us,” said a friend who lives in Poonch district. “It’s only post-to-post firing. We have seen much worse.”
For residents of hamlets along the Line of Control, shelling, firing and the loud startling noises they bring are not new. Even after the 2003 ceasefire between India and Pakistan, many areas across the Line of Control have been struck with firing repeatedly.
In June, during a visit to Kotli district to conduct interviews with families affected by cross-LoC firing and mortar shelling every year, this writer met Shaukat (his name has been changed to protect his identity) and his family in a village in Nakyal sector.
Shaukat lost his wife in a mortar attack in 2015.
Shaukat’s daughter said she does not remember a time without the firing. “I was five or six years old when it began,” she said. “It was a few years after 2003. Ever since, it happens almost every year, usually between August-October.”
Talking about the day he lost his wife, Shaukat said that he was praying at night when he heard the firing.
“I told my family not to step out,” he said. “The next morning, the firing started again at about 5.20 am and went on till 9 am. Then it completely stopped. Eid-ul-Azha was around the corner and we had tied the goats for slaughter outside. When the firing stopped my mother and wife went out to make sure the animals were okay. Right then a mortar hit the goat and split it into two; the top half of the goat just sliced off. The splinter from that mortar hit my gharwali’s [homemaker’s] face.”
Shaukat continued, saying that as the firing persisted for two hours after that, he just held his wife as she bled. “No one was willing to give us a ride,” he said. “People were asking for lakhs of rupees just to cross the road amidst the firing. Finally someone agreed to take us to Nakyal Hospital in the city. The Army officials there told us to take her to CMH [Civil Military Hospital] in Rawalpindi for proper treatment but she died on the way.”
He said that his family was lucky that firing stopped the next morning as they were able to hold the funeral in peace. “It [the firing] started again at 6 pm but at least we got a chance to bury her properly,” said Shaukat. “Many other families, who lost loved ones over the next few days, didn’t get the same opportunity.”
As we walked into his home, located approximately 2 km-3 km from the Line of Control, he pointed towards a big tree and asked, “Do you see those holes in that tree? That’s where the splinters hit. The goat was tied to this tree when the shelling began.”
He removed a small rock from the foot of tree and revealed a sharp rusty piece of metal; it was the splinter that hit his wife. I couldn’t help but wonder why he had kept it a year after the tragedy. Perhaps it served as the last reminder of his wife – one he was unwilling to let go of.
August-October shelling season
Local residents have different reasons for why the firing happens in the August-October period. There is no one narrative, no clear understanding of the events that lead to the ceasefire violations. A few people blame the nationalist sentiment on both sides of the Line of Control and the international border around August when both India and Pakistan celebrate their Independence days.
“Because many Kashmiris raise the Pakistani flag on August 15, the Indian forces retaliate,” said a resident of Nakyal sector.
Others said it was because of the grass-cutting season. “Sometimes our people go too close to the LoC to cut the grass, and the Indians begin to fire in fear that they will cross over,” said another resident of Lanjot, also located in Kotli district.
A few local residents said that they believed that the firing was the result of militants trying to take advantage of the grass-cutting season to infiltrate into the Indian side of the Line of Control. Yet they tell me that these militants are a handful in number. They said while there used to be militant activity in the area until a few years ago, the crackdowns by the State has meant that there are no operational camps.
“During the 1990s, if 100 militants tried to cross over, now the number would be barely one or two,” said a resident of Nakyal sector. “Any camps that are still in the area serve as communication units. Yet the retaliation by the Indian forces hasn’t stopped, nor lessened in intensity. They keep firing, perhaps to scare off any militants. But instead of targeting hardline elements, they end up injuring ordinary civilians. They lose their livelihood; they have to leave their homes…every year a few people die. Last year about 25 people lost their lives to shelling and firing.”
The locals admit that Pakistani forces also fire across the Line of Control but allege that there are fewer casualties as the Indian population across lives further away from the line.
There is also an inherent belief that a Muslim Army would not want to target Muslim civilians across the Line of Control. It seems as if Pakistani Army attacks are rationalised not only as defensive measures but also as unfortunate and helpless acts they have to carry out. There is a strong belief that the Army is pure and pristine, a Muslim force compelled to attack other Muslims. The understanding gives impunity to many of the actions of the armed forces in this area.
Playing to the gallery?
The Indian announcement of surgical strikes came at a time of heightened India-Pakistan tensions in the wake of the September 18 attack on an Indian Army camp in Uri in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Since then, India has blamed Pakistan for the attacks and threatened to isolate the country internationally. More recently, New Delhi has also threatened to pull out of the Indus Waters Treaty. News channels on both sides of the border have repeatedly discussed the possibility of a war between the two nations.
Thursday’s announcement by India is a culmination of the antagonistic sentiments and the war hysteria on both sides; events that are being celebrated by many Indians, and denied by the Pakistani state and the Kashmiri people living in the areas that are said to have been affected.
Yet just as India must show its public a strong front due to political compulsions, Pakistan also wants to ensure that it exudes a powerful image to its citizens. Islamabad cannot afford to be seen as a passive victim of Indian aggression. Thus, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Friday said that Pakistan was ready to defend its motherland, and Pakistani newspapers have reported that the country has decided to ban movies from India until tensions subside. This comes even as news agency Reuters reported that Pakistan had captured an Indian soldier on its side of the Line of Control.
As every year, Pakistan continues to assert that the firing is unprovoked and that its forces have given a befitting response, while India continues to allege militant activity in the region, unwilling to entertain the idea that the terror launch pads it targeted may no longer exist.
In the midst of this are the Kashmiris living along the Line of Control.
The Kashmiris this writer spoke to said that they are worried that if the tension between India and Pakistan does not subside, and leads to increased firing, dozens will die. They are fearful of becoming collateral damage to India and Pakistan’s need to satisfy its public with a so-called appropriate response to what each country views as unprovoked aggression by the other.
Right now, residents, who have faced the brunt of cross-border firing for decades, sit with their hearts clenched and worry about what the future holds for them.
The common refrain is: “We just want peace…we just want peace.”
Anam Zakaria is the author of Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians.