The villages of Naushera are usually calm. In the distance, the mountains of the Pir Panjal slope down to vast forests on one side and quiet fields on the other. But residents will tell you about the whirring sounds that suddenly fill the silence. Within seconds, deafening explosions will be caused by mortar shells emerging from the mountains that turn the villages into a battlefield.

On the other side of the mountain, Indian and Pakistani army posts face each other on the Line of Control passing through Rajouri district in Jammu and Kashmir.

Just two weeks ago, mortar shells missed Ganaya village, close to the Line of Control and well within the range of Pakistani guns. In the village, houses still bear cracks and shrapnel marks. New bomb shelters are being built by the district administration as ceasefire violations spike on the Line of Control. According to the government, 192 violations took place this year until January 29, killing eight civilians and injuring 58.

In these battle-worn villages on the frontier, shelling has become a way of life. The shelling has no time table, residents said, but it escalated in the wake of the Indian Army’s reported surgical strikes on targets in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir in September 2016. Then, the shelling had continued for few months but the bout of shelling that started in May 2017 has still not let up, they say.

A crater in the frontyard

Last May, Tilak Raj was resting in the bedroom of his single-storey home in Ganaya. Closer to the mountains, Raj’s home was among the first to be hit. A bomb landed in his bedroom, cracking the building’s load bearing walls. Raj escaped unhurt. He had stepped out of the room only moments before the explosion. Wooden poles now support the roof to prevent his home from caving in.

The same day, Pakistan expanded its shelling range in Indian territories further away from Raj’s home. Anita Devi, another resident of Ganaya, watched her brother-in-law Kesar Singh’s family panic as the shelling range slowly inched closer to them.

Singh’s family, which included two children, were about to make a dash for Anita Devi’s home, some yards away, when a bomb landed and exploded in their front yard. It left a crater and scattered shrapnel all around. They managed to save themselves in the nick of time, Anita Devi said: “All it takes is one person sitting on a gun to decide our fate.”

The crater has been plastered over but the walls are still scarred by the shrapnel and the windows are covered with plastic sheets to prevent the cold from coming in. “After the bomb exploded, we didn’t know where the children were, and couldn’t hear anything,” Anita Devi said. “Then we took the children out without carrying clothes or food. Our kids yearned for milk and water. The helplessness breaks out heart.”

Shrapnel marks in Kesar Singh's front yard. Photo: Rayan Naqash

No country for schoolchildren

Life in the border areas has remained uncertain for as long as residents can recall. “It’s calm right now,” said Mehender Lal, a 40-year-old tailor who was sitting at a shop in Kalsian village. Kalsian is halfway between Ganaya and the villages on the Line of Control. “In the next minute, this area can resonate with the sound of explosions and we will all be running for shelter. Within a short time, hundreds of bombs pound our villages.”

Sometime back, a shell exploded a few metres from the shop, owned by Vinod Kumar, another resident of Kalsian. The explosion had given rise to a strong gust of wind that carried shrapnel, pebbles and dust that engulfed everything around it.

As Kumar basked outside in the sun, his 10-year-old daughter tended to customers at the shop. Schools within five kilometers of the border have been shut since the recent escalation on February 4, when four Indian Army soldiers were killed during a ceasefire violation. Kumar’s smile faded as he spoke about his daughter. A steady income still did not guarantee his daughter’s education and future. “Schools here are shut most of the time,” he said. “What use are our earnings if we can’t educate our children?”

Overhearing Kumar, Mehender Lal pointed out that even if schools were open, residents were wary. “Just four months back, a shell landed in the middle of a school where 100-150 of our children were studying,” he said. “Some kids are happy to avoid schools and teachers continue to receive their salaries. It’s parents like us who realise what this means for our children.”

Their thoughts were echoed by Bulwant Raj in Jhangar village, now bisected by the the border fence. Before 1947, Raj said, buses started out for Mirpur and Kotli from here. Today, both towns are in Pakistan occupied territories. Pointing to the shrapnel-scarred walls of his home, Bhulwant Raj said, “This has been happening since my grandfather’s time”.

Raj’s grandsons remained in shock and refused to speak for days after the last time a mortar shell landed in their lawn some months ago. The explosion, he said, was so strong that it shattered the windows and displaced furniture inside. Raj’s sons and grandsons have since shifted to Naushera town, some 30 kilometers away. Residents say many, including children, have become hard of hearing due to loud explosions at close quarters.

The Government Middle School in Jhangar.

Outrunning the shells

When the mortar shells begin to land in the villages, those outside their homes run helter-skelter for any shelter they can find, residents of these frontier villages say. Many have had close shaves but some fail to outrun the mortar shells.

Sixty-year-old Wazir Bakarwal has seen several family members and neighbours perish in the shelling. “We have seen this all our lives, barring a brief period of peace,” he said. “People here have lost their fathers and grandfathers to the bombs.”

Last year May, two shells landed in the house of Tirath Ram in Jhangar. They did not explode and were drilled into the floor with the impact. A third bomb landed close to the door and was similarly buried in the ground after failing to explode. The only occupant of the house at that time escaped unhurt.

The same month, however, a shell ripped through the roof of Haji Tufail Hussain’s house, also in the village. It landed in the living room but did not explode. As Hussain and his family ran out of the house amid the shelling, another mortar shell landed on the road close to them. Hussain and his teenage granddaughter, who had come from Mendhar in Poonch to visit him, both died of splinter injuries.

Since May last year, four people have lost their lives in Rajouri district, according to district commissioner Shahid Choudhary. In a written reply to a question in the legislative council, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said that 97 people, including 41 civilians, had lost their lives in the last three years. In the same period, 383, including 233 civilians, were injured.

Wazir Bakarwal is a resident of Kalsian village near the Line of Control in Naushera, Rajouri. Photo: Rayan Naqash

‘Revenge’ shelling

Residents in these areas say have seen intermittent shelling but also prolonged periods of firing. It intensified when the simmering tensions between India and Pakitan turned into full-blown conflict.

Residents remembered the India-Pakistan wars of 1965, 1971 and 1999. Starting with the Kargil War of 1999, there was intense shelling for a four-year period, they recall. Now, the period post the reported surgical strikes has seen a new escalation.

Choudhary, the district commissioner, said that initially more than 69,000 residents from 72 villages in Rajouri alone had fled the shelling and 71 homes had been damaged due to the shelling so far. At present, 160-170 families from villages in Indian territories that fall outside the fence have taken shelter in camps set up in government schools in Naushera town.

Vikramjeet Suryavanshi, a farmer in his late 20s who has taken shelter in a relief camp set up by the district administration in schools in Naushera town, said the villages knew calm whenever there were “flag meetings between the two sides”. At the same time, he said, Pakistan “beheads and kills our jawans. Surgical strikes was to control them and this all has gone up since then.”

In the same camp, 40-year-old tailor Kamaljeet Singh, who hails from Sariya village, said a “mentally wounded” Pakistan was “still taking revenge for the surgical strike”. Although both Suryavanshi and Singh cite the strikes as a reason for the intensified shelling, they do not blame the government for their predicament. “There should be more surgical strikes there,” Singh said instead.

But for Wazir Bakarwal, the present government’s politics, both at the state and at the Centre, had failed. “Vajpayeeji would have addressed the issue. He thought of the people first and even the army would care for the people back then. Under Modi, no one cares about us. It’s all about holding the kursi power,” he said.