On September 30, a group of young men from Patiala realised it was time to head to the border.
“We were watching the news, and saw that villages were being asked to evacuate,” said Amarpreet Singh, a former commercial pilot. “We knew that they’d need help, so we left. It was as simple as that.”
Singh, 27, was accompanied by three more men from Patiala. They were soon joined by more from Jalandhar, Chandigarh and Amritsar. The group of 15 were volunteers with the international Sikh humanitarian group, Khalsa Aid.
In the wake of the Indian government's surgical strikes along the Line of Control on Thursday morning, 15 lakh villagers living 10 km from the border in Punjab had been asked to leave their homes. It was feared that tension with Pakistan could congeal into a spate of international hostilities.
While the Punjab government has made arrangements for people leaving border villages at gurudwaras and schools outside the 10 km boundary mandated by the army, most villagers can’t make it that far. “Obviously, they want to stay as close to their homes as possible, because they go back every day to tend to their fields,” said Gurpreet Singh, 23.
Singh said he joined Khalsa Aid two years ago because he felt it his duty as a Sikh "to do something for the community". For Khalsa Aid volunteers, "community" refers literally, to the entire world – the group’s mission statement is inspired by the words of Guru Gobind Singh: “Recognise the whole human race as one."
In recent years, Khalsa Aid and its CEO, the serene Ravi Singh, have led volunteer groups to assist rescue operations all over the world, most notably in Greece, where they rescued refugees arriving by boats from the Middle East, provided food, water, clothes, medicines, translators and helped local authorities identify vulnerable groups like women and unaccompanied minors.
In India, according to Amarpreet Singh, the head of Khalsa Aid’s national team, there are at least 20,000 volunteers, the majority of whom are from Punjab.
“My first project was in Gujarat after the earthquake, after which I worked in Uttarakhand, and then in Nepal – where we built over 15,000 homes,” he said.
At present, Amarpreet Singh is overseeing the initiative to help the internally displaced population from Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Ferozepur, Fazilkot and Pathankot.
“The biggest problem right now is hunger,” he said. “When my team arrived here, the tractors were leaving their villages at night, and no one had eaten.”
On the first night in Ferozepur, Khalsa Aid volunteers scraped a meal together by gathering food from all the gurdwaras they could find. As of Saturday, they have begun buying their own supplies, and cooking fresh food outside the camp. As more young people from nearby cities arrive at the spot, offering to volunteer their services, Amarpreet Singh is sending out teams to assess the condition at neighbouring border villages of Tarn Taran, Fazilkot and Pathankot.
Still, Singh acknowledges that his work can't solve the problem. “We can feed them and find them shelter for as long as they need but the government needs to have a plan," he said. "You can’t just ask people to leave their homes, with no idea of where to send them."
While most villages he has visited are deserted,the volunteers say that some still have old or sick people that are unable to leave. One village in particular, is surrounded by water on three sides, and of the few that made it across by boat, most villagers have had to leave all their belongings behind.
“The next thing we are trying to do is set up a transport helpline,” Amarpreet Singh said. “People who say Punjab has made progress need to come here and see the truth with their own eyes."