Parveen Akhtar says she heard the shells screaming over her roof that night. She tried to distract her one-and-a-half year old son, Faizan, with toffees. But he remained stiff with fear. That was seven nights ago, on September 28.

From her front yard, Akhtar can see the mountains of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. She lives in the village of Balnoi, in Jammu's Poonch district. Her house is perched on a hill. Clamber down some corn fields and a vegetable patch, and you reach a cluster of mud huts that passes for a Border Security Force camp. At the bottom of the hill, there is a rivulet. Lacing the rivulet, in fanciful swirls of wiring, is the fence that is meant to demarcate the Line of Control.

Balnoi village in the forward area of the LoC. Photo credit: Ipsita Chakravarty
Balnoi village in the forward area of the LoC. Photo credit: Ipsita Chakravarty

Except in these parts, Indian territory spills a couple of kilometres beyond the fence. A road leading away from the hill and along the fence bears you towards Tatta Pani, one of the points from where the Indian Army is said to have launched a surgical strike on "terror launchpads" across the LoC. The same night that residents of Balnoi village were kept awake by the firing and shells landed in their fields, injuring a buffalo.

Since then, the government has ordered all villages within 10 kilometres of the LoC and the International Border with Pakistan to be evacuated. Akhtar is reluctant. "If everyone else leaves, we will leave," she said. Yet no one in Balnoi, the last village in the forward area along the LoC and the first village in the line of fire, seems willing to leave.

Battle hardened

Further down the LoC, in Akhnoor and Rajouri sectors, villages were slowly emptying out, with families making for the camps set up by the government, though some chose to stay behind. Yet, three days after the army announced it had carried out strikes in PoK, border villages in the Mendhar sector of Poonch district maintained a stoic calm.

The morning after the strikes, security forces were locked in a gun battle with alleged militants hiding in the Mendhar forests. But villagers in these areas are battle-hardened. Poonch has seen some of the heaviest ceasefire violations in the last three years, and the recent turmoil seems to be nothing out of the ordinary.

Mohammad Fazil, who lives in Gold village and tends herds of sheep and goat, was among those who didn't seem worried. For someone who had a shell lodged in the tin roof of his house, this was no cause to up and leave.

A history of the Indo-Pak conflict can be traced in local memory here, from the border war of 1965, to the Bangladesh war of 1971, to Kargil and the years before the ceasefire of 2003, to the ceasefire violations that have intensified since 2013.

Chaudhury Mohammad Aslam, chairman of Upper Drana village, was around 12 years old when the 1965 war began. He remembers their village being calm, though some people left for Pakistan. In 1971 too, the surrounding hills were affected but not their village. The injuries and damage, he says, started with the ceasefire violations of 2013-14.

Residents of Drana-Basuni village gather outside the mosque after Friday afternoon prayers. Credit: Rahi Kapoor
Residents of Drana-Basuni village gather outside the mosque after Friday afternoon prayers. Credit: Rahi Kapoor

Najma Bi moved to Balnoi village 30 years ago, soon after she got married. She recalls that the cross-border firing got so bad around 2002 that people were asked to move out of their homes. "They were made to stay in villages behind this one, some went to their relatives' places. But we never left," she said.

Even the years of apparent calm did not leave these areas unscathed. Fazil recalls an incident from five years ago. There had been a ceasefire violation and a shell had gone through the roof of a house in Gold village. A family of five were lying on charpoys underneath but they escaped unhurt. A small distance away, a girl watching the action received a piece of shrapnel in her eye. By the time they took her to the hospital in Mendhar town, she had died.

The scars of more recent ceasefire violations are still visible, in broken windows and freshly repaired roofs. One afternoon in 2013, for instance, Zarine Akhtar and her family had sat down to lunch in their house in Drana-Basuni. Suddenly, a shell landed in a tree nearby and shrapnel flew into the house, damaging the roof. Her husband, she said, went into shock after that and has never been the same.

What seems to have made life more secure in these villages is the fence. Residents say it has kept out militants and other unwelcome visitors over the past few years. "They used to come here [Balnoi village] a lot," said Najma Bi. "They did not come into our houses because we live near the BSF camp, but we have seen the bodies [of militants]. In the last few years, we have been fine." In Drana village, the fence has helped keep out thieves from across the border, says Aslam.

All that we leave behind

Besides, residents of these border villages will not move because there is too much to leave behind. In October, the corn is tall in the fields and the grass is thick. This is harvest season and the month for cutting grass, which must be stored to feed the livestock over the winter. In some villages, stacks of hay are arranged in neat ranks on the terraced fields, looking quite military.

Parveen Akhtar and her husband, who eke out a living from their corn fields and by cutting grass, cannot afford to abandon their home. Neither can Fazil, who depends on his flock for a living and cannot leave his animals to starve.

"The question is, where will they take people?" asks Aftab Choudhury, sarpanch of Drana-Basuni village. "What facilities have they arranged? People have 100 to 150 sheep, how can they leave all that? Earlier, when crops were spoilt, when houses were damaged, when people were injured in shelling, the government did nothing."

This time, the government has been making arrangements to prepare for worse. "We have set up four camps here, in Government Degree College, Mendhar, in the girls' higher secondary and boys' higher secondary schooll, as well as in the technical institute here," said Shehzad Khan, the tehsildar of the Mendhar subdivision. "We have made arrangements for basic facilities such as water and electricity, and alerted the primary healthcare centres."

But, having got little governmental support or compensation in previous years, residents in the border villages of Mendhar are sceptical of the camps. They are too far away, feels Zehr-un-Bi of Balnoi village. How many people can they shelter, can they house a family of 20, demands Mohammad Yasif, a Class 12 student in Drana-Basuni.

As of now, the camps in Mendhar remain empty.

Keep calm

It is not that residents have lost their fear of guns and mortar. When shells fly overhead, they crouch inside their houses in terror. But rather than shunting people off to camps, Aslam suggests, why not build bunkers close to their houses? Representatives from their village had said as much to the government. "The army came once and said we will do something," said Aslam. "But no one came back."

For now, the plan in these border villages is to do what they have always done, stay inside the house when firing starts and pray. "Shells can fall anywhere," said Fazil. "If we have to die, we will die here."

The 22 villages in Balakot tehsil, which falls in the forward area beyond the fence, residents had told visiting government officials that they wished to stay. Seven people had been killed here during ceasefire violations in 2013-14. Meanwhile, the firing has crept closer. In the neighbouring Poonch sector, heavy shelling and injuries were reported on Monday. But residents will not change their minds, says Khan, who visited Drana-Basuni on Monday and plans to visit Balnoi again.

Over the years, these villages on the frontline have built up a resilience in the face of imminent destruction and now staying seems to be a matter of quiet pride. "All this talk of leaving houses we have not heard before," said Choudhury. "We have never left and we will never leave."