Silikote village lies right on the Line of Control, about 10 kilometres from the garrison town of Uri in North Kashmir, with only the Haji Pir stream separating it from Pakistan-controlled territory. The dirt road leading to the village is gated – normally soldiers of the Indian Army stand guard and visitors have to deposit identity cards.

But on Sunday, February 25, the check post was unmanned and the pedestrian entry in the gate was left wide open.

Since February 22, the armies of India and Pakistan have exchanged gunfire and mortar shelling here, forcing 2,600 residents of five villages to flee, according to some estimates. Residents say the intensity of the cross-border shelling is “unexpected”. For the first time since the 2003 ceasefire, they say heavy artillery has used in the area.

In Balakote, the last village before the border fence, residents said that a new Indian Army post was being constructed in Silikote area, which could have been a flash point. The villagers of Silikote, who had taken shelter in a relief camp in Uri, gave similar accounts. “The [other] posts have been here since 1947,” said a resident. He claimed days before the firing had started, the Pakistan army had made an announcement: “You did not let us build a new post, we won’t allow you this one.”

After the cross-border shelling started, Pakistan made more announcements on loudspeakers, said residents, asking them to leave.

Addressing the press in Srinagar on Monday morning, AK Bhatt, general-officer-commanding of the 15 Corps, refuted the local reports. “Firstly, let me clarify that there were no announcements made by Pakistan for our villages to vacate,” said Bhatt. “They had advised a few of their villages to vacate for safety reasons and my input is that those villages have also not vacated completely.”

On the use of heavy artillery, he said weapons “of slightly heavy calibre” had been used at one point. But the calibre of the weapons used would be determined by the local situation, he added. contacted the army spokesperson for a response to local claims about a new check post being constructed. A comment is awaited.

An advisory

Silikote lies in a patch of Indian territory that falls outside the border fence running along the Line of Control. As the guns fell silent on Sunday, displaced residents returned to gather their belongings.

Shameema Begum had ferried her belongings from her home in Silikote to Balakote, just within the fence. She was waiting in a group for a vehicle to take her and other affected residents to a relief camp in Uri town. “We ran for our lives. The firing and bombing scared us, especially the children,” she said. When the promised taxi did not arrive, the group started moving on foot. “I don’t know when I will return,” she said.

While some have moved in with relatives who live away from the border, a relief camp has been set up in a school in Uri town to shelter other displaced residents. On Saturday, the local administration issued an advisory in “apprehension of damages”. It directed residents of Uri to remain in ground floors, not venture out unnecessarily and to “sit in corners”. It also directed residents to use bunkers if they had one. But the situation was “totally under control”, the advisory concluded.

Silikote residents wait for a vehicle in Balakote.

Whose misadventure?

On February 25, the Indian Army said that Pakistan had been “punished” for its “misadventure”. “In a befitting reply, the Indian Army has retaliated accurately with heavy fire on the Pakistani posts which were involved in ceasefire violations,” Brigadier Ahlawat told reporters at Uri.

The Indian Army blamed the ceasefire violation on the Pakistani army, but some residents of border areas, living in the camp and in the villages, gave a different account. “The firing started from our side and then the Pakistanis also opened fire,” said a displaced resident at the camp. “Now it’s irrelevant who did what, we are suffering.”

Balakote is flanked Indian Army posts. Close behind them lie Pakistan Army posts. The village is inevitably in the line of fire from Pakistani posts. Adding to the worry of residents here are announcements made over loudspeakers from the Pakistani side, warning of “retaliation”.

Fayaz Ahmad, a retired soldier and resident of Balakote said that the announcements were made on Saturday and Sunday. “They said that India has killed many of our soldiers, we will take revenge for it after we bury our dead today. People are advised to take safety precautions,” he recounted. The announcements were heard in at least two villages, he added.

In the days before the announcement, there had been “behisaab [uncountable]” incidents of shelling and firing, said 25-year-old Naseer Ahmad, another Balakote resident. “All one could hear was the sound of bullets hitting tin or bombs exploding. The firing continued from morning till evening. We could see smoke from the hills around us,” he said. “We are stressed. We don’t know what will happen, when it will stop.”

The village is largely deserted, save for a few families.

The government school in Uri has been turned into a relief camp.

At the camps

At the relief camp in the Uri government girls’ school, more than a dozen families live in a single classroom emptied of furniture. Blankets cover the floors. Women huddle together in the classrooms while children run amok in the school grounds. The district administration has been providing them with food and medical staff are posted at the school.

Unlike the border residents of Jammu, who have been shuttling between camp and village for years now, residents in the Uri sector are new to such displacements. Many said it was the first time they had migrated from their villages.

Fayaz Ahmad, an army porter, said his wife, his seven children and he had had a narrow escape. A bomb destroyed his two-storeyed house in Silikote village on February 22, just minutes after they had left it. “We brought with us only the clothes that we are wearing,” Ahmed said. “All our valuables and documents, my children’s school certificates and books got burned with my house. We have nothing left.”

As Ahmad’s house rose up in flames, his neighbour, Mohammad Sidiq, and his family also fled in panic. Sidiq later found out that his house, too, had been damaged in the shelling. “Only the frame of the building is left intact, the walls have been cracked and damaged,” he said. The village of Silikote, both said, had largely been emptied of its residents.

Fifty-year-old Mohammad Yaqub fled his home in Balakote village on February 22, when bullets from Pakistan Army posts tore through the tin roof of his house and landed inside, missing his 13-year-old daughter by a mere few inches. Against all odds, Yaqub and his family trekked several kilometres to the relief camp. The firing and shelling, he said, lasted for more than nine hours. “A single tin sheet of the roof bears 50 holes,” he said.

In 2001, Yaqub was injured by splinters from a shell that exploded close to him but he had not felt the need to move then. This time, he said, Pakistani shelling was “completely different” and not limited to targeting Indian Army posts. “We haven’t seen such terror before. Earlier they (the Pakistan Army) would target (Indian) army posts but this time our homes are being targeted,” he said.

A large number of the border residents here are manual labourers; many are porters with the Indian Army. At the camps, there is no work and border residents seek permanent rehabilitation in safer areas. “Our lives and children are not safe,” said Yaqub. “India and Pakistan have been fighting each other for 70 years. Either the issue should be resolved, merge the other side (of the LoC) with this side or give us, border people, a safe place to live in.”

“Our villages have been under fire for long. This will be over in 10 days but may start again, as has been the case in the last 70 years,” said 55-year-old Ahmed Jan, a resident of Silikote. “We should be given small lands elsewhere. We can’t live there [in the border areas] anymore.”

All photographs by Rayan Naqash.