On television, war was still just a possibility on the horizon: generals and news anchors debated whether Pakistan would actually respond to India’s surgical strike – a military operation carried out across the border early on Thursday morning, reportedly killing scores of Pakistani terrorists.
But for 86-year-old Binder Kaur from Kalu Wala village in Punjab's Ferozepur district, the war had begun late on Thursday night, when an announcement from the local gurdwara’s speakers told her it was time to leave.
“It’s happening again,” she cried out to her children Bibi and Prem Singh, who were wasting time, she said, trying to figure out what the announcement meant: they had to leave, but to go where? And for how long?
Without the answers to these two questions, how were they supposed to know what to carry?
“My son and daughter don’t know about Partition, or 1971…they have heard stories, but they don’t know what that time was” Kaur said. “They were too slow, I had to scream – niklo, niklo, Pakistani aa rahein hai.” Get out, get out, the Pakistanis are coming.
Finally, the family gathered their children, a few clothes, three cots and their wailing mother on a trolley hitched to a tractor, and rode out of the village at 3 am. They eventually found shelter 26 km away in Bare Ke.
The family is among the approximately 15 lakh people who have been displaced by the evacuation of Punjab’s border villages, from Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Gurdaspur, Ferozepur, Pathankot and Fazilka. Some, like Kaur’s family, left their homes in the dead of night, others were escorted out by army vehicles the next morning, or jumped atop buses heading into the state. The hasty departure, spurred by that single line: evacuate at once, meant that not a single one of the people that left home, left with a plan.
The morning after the evacuation, the media was full of arrangements made for the evacuees, in gurudwaras and schools across the state. Since only villages that fall within a distance of 10 km from the border have been asked to evacuate, the residents of these villages have chosen to remain as close to the 10 km line as possible, in the hope of an early return.
A lucky few have moved in with relatives that don’t mind having guests with no fixed date of departure, and others are living in cramped quarters with the barest of arrangements, waiting for the tensions to subside.
At the Bhikhiwind gurudwara in Tarn Taran, nearly 300 families, with children, ran from room to room, followed by clouds of smoke from a mosquito-fumigation machine. The presence of a policeman at the entrance of the building, discouraged them from simply running outside, into marble-floored gurudwara complex.
Coughing, faces covered with hand kerchiefs and dupattas, they waited in a common balcony for the fog of insecticide to clear out.
“We are making all the necessary arrangements: food, water, beds, medicines,” said Ajit Singh, a member of the Gurudwara Prabandhak Samiti. “They have no reason to complain.”
The Samiti members seemed mystified at the fact that the villagers did find reason to complain, not just to them, but to visiting press and politicians.
“It’s just because they’re old,” constable Rajbir Singh said. “My mother is the same way.”
The children treated the evacuation camp as a kind of extreme-adventure: making sorties to the gurudwara to stare at city-folk, dancing on mattresses piled atop each other, and playing with press cameras. But the adults were more sombre.
“My husband and I have bad knees,” said Joginder Kaur, a 72-year-old resident of Naushehra, said. “It’s nice of the gurudwara to give us these mattresses to sleep on, but if we sit on the floor, we can’t get up. So we spend a lot of our time walking.”
In the gurudwara’s quarters, all the families are forced to sleep dorm-style, a few young men stand guard outside the rooms.
Outside in the balcony, 13-year-old Suman Jaggi said she was too old to play with the children, and helped her mother hang up clothes to dry.
“We left with no clothes to change into, and have no soap to wash our things with,” her mother, Kashmir Jaggi, said, “I’m worried about my daughter, sharing three bathrooms between 300 people is hard… she is still very young, you know?”.
Suman looked out at the city – they had relatives in Amritsar, but they wouldn’t answer their phones, and hadn’t bothered calling even though news of the evacuation was everywhere. Suman had just finished her exams at the school in her village, and had been looking forward to a few weeks of rest, when the surgical strikes forced them to leave home.
“All this fighting is very boring,” she said.
The never-ending wait
The impending sense of danger is both everywhere and nowhere to be seen in Punjab. Situated at the international border, the state has always had a heavy military presence. Armed trucks frequent the roads, the only difference is that this time, they are frequently accompanied by trucks filled with furniture, Godrej almirahs and livestock.
The other sign of strain is that the border-ceremonies of Attari, at Wagah and Hussainiwalla, near Ferozepur, have been closed off – Wagah, which usually thick with people, vendors and cheers on weekends, was completely silent on this Saturday.
“It will stay this way until our next order,” BS Yadav, an officer of the Border Security Force said. Yadav has served in Punjab for the last five years, and the Wagah border, he said, was a great posting, “when it’s peaceful, it’s like a festival here all year through”.
On the way to Ferozepur, fields and fields of paddy plantation lie waiting to be harvested. This is a bad season to leave the fields unattended – farmers need to harvest their crop before it spoils, is looted by neighbours or vagrant cows looking for a feast.
At Bare Ke, a kasba barely 5 km from the border, hundreds of men left women and children in a half-built gurudwara, to return to the border, harvest rice and feed their buffaloes. They returned only after dusk, starving, trucks loaded with the things they left behind on the night of the announcement.
The gurudwara’s incomplete wing, where 200 families have set their cots, has no doors, electricity or mesh on the windows – as a result, 24-year-old Sardar Singh suspected he might have a fever. He sat on a cot, watching the news with his niece and nephew: every time an image of Pakistan’s Army General Raheel Sharif appears on screen, it was accompanied by the sound of a sharp thwack. India, the anchor explained, had delivered this slap through its armed forces, and Pakistan will never recover. On screen, war clouds loomed on the horizon.
“I do feel better when I watch this,” Sardar Singh said. “Our soldiers will fight for us, and soon, we will return home, right?”
The camp is full of questions – why aren’t the borders of Rajasthan being evacuated? Why would the Pakistanis strike now, when India is expecting it to – wouldn’t they wait, until the evacuees return home, and forget to be alert? What is Modi saying? What is America saying? What will Pakistan say? At night, when the men returned, they found themselves unable to sleep. They walked on the road outside the gurudwara, worrying, speaking in whispers.
“At Khassa village, near the border, the people haven’t left,” a farmer named Jatti said. “Everyone keeps their lights off, and stays very quiet.”
“As if Pakistani bombs will know the difference,” his wife scolded him.
On the morning of October 2 at camps in Pathankot, Faridkot and Kartarpur, yellow balloons are said to have crossed the LoC, bearing threatening messages for Prime Minister Narendra Modi
“Modiji, Ayubi ki talwaren abhi hamare paas hain. Islam zindabad,” one reportedly read, warning Modi about the mythological "sharpest sword in the world'’, used by Salahuddin Al Ayyubi.
Others warned India that it will finally be destroyed by Kashmir. Some simply declared their love for Pakistan.
None of them bear signs of peace. It will be a while before life at the borders returns to normal. Binder Kaur, the 86-year-old evacuee from Kalu Wala village, is right. On the borders, the war has already begun.