On the evening of March 1, Tariq Hussain, 24, was glued to the TV in his home at Salotri village in Jammu’s Poonch district. He was watching developments at the Wagah border, where Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman of the Indian Air Force was expected to return, two days after his plane was shot down in Pakistani territory.

At 9.18 pm, Hussain recalled, there was a loud bang outside his home. “The ground shook,” he said. “None of us moved out. We were scared another shell might not miss the target and hit us.”

Within minutes, they were proved right. Another blast rocked Salotri, a sleepy village of mud and brick houses perched on a hillock along the Line of Control. The second shell landed on the house of Hussain’s uncle Mohammad Aslam barely 20-30 metres away.

According to a police statement, three civilians were killed by that shell: five-year-old Mohammad Faizan, 10-month-old Shabnam and their mother Rubeena Kounsar. Her husband, Mohammad Younis, was injured.

Younis’s father recalled the tragic night. “My wife, my other son and I were sitting in another room,” said Mohammed Aslam. “As soon as I heard the sound of the first shell, I asked Younis to shift his kids and wife to our room and stay together. He said, ‘Whatever Allah wills will happen.’ The moment he said it, the shell landed on the roof of his room. He was at the door of his room which is why he was saved. His wife and children died on the spot.”

A heated front

Members of Aslam’s family were among the first casualties of the latest confrontation between India and Pakistan. After India said it had conducted strikes on Jaish-e-Mohammed training camps in Pakistan on February 26, in retaliation for the Pulwama suicide bombing that killed at least 40 paramilitary men, cross-border firing intensified.

On February 27, Indian and Pakistani fighter aircraft engaged in air combat for the first time since the war of 1971. While Pakistan claimed to have struck some targets across the Line of Control from within its airspace, New Delhi said Pakistani military aircraft violated Indian airspace in the Nowshera sector. Pakistan also shot down Varthaman’s plane and arrested him.

Tensions were defused when Pakistan released Varthaman in what it described as a peace gesture. But frequent shelling and firing continue along the Line of Control and the International Border in Jammu and Kashmir.

Mohammad Aslam, father of Mohammad Yunis whose wife and two kids were killed by the shell. Photo credit: Safwat Zargar

According to Devender Anand, a spokesperson for the Indian Army in Jammu, since February 27, the Pakistan Army has violated the border ceasefire three to four times a day on average. “On the day of the air strikes, Pakistani army targeted around 25 locations along the border,” he said. “Four civilians have been killed along the Line of Control in Rajouri and Poonch districts and a similar number injured. It is because they are targeting civilian areas. They have used artillery, field and medium guns, and mortars.”

In the border villages, battered by mounting ceasefire violations over the past few years, the fear of death looms large once again.

Smell of gunpowder

Three days after the shell hit Mohammad Aslam’s home in Salotri, the collapsed roof and the shrapnel-perforated mattresses remain undisturbed. Blood-stained clothes are scattered around and the walls are pockmarked with holes bored into them by shrapnel. From Aslam’s house, a cluster of Pakistani villages are clearly visible on the other side.

“Rubeena was with her two children on her bed,” said Shameem Akhtar, Aslam’s daughter, pointing towards the heap of rubble. “She was breastfeeding Shabnam when the shell hit the house. Their heads were blown off. The bodies of the kids were perforated by shrapnel. Their arms were dangling by the skin.”

After the shelling on March 1, the local administration shifted several families from Salotri to Kunaiya government high school, some 15 km away. The families visit their homes during the day, tend to their cattle, lock their houses and return to the shelter.

On March 5, Aslam and his two daughters returned home from a shelter to feed their cattle and check on their property. They sifted through the family’s belongings to see if anything had escaped the mortar shells. The smell of gunpowder hung in the air in their rooms. The only things not destroyed were clothes. “Everything else is scrap now,” said Akhtar as she collected the blood-stained clothes. “We have to wash them and see what can be used again.”

Rahul Yadav, deputy commissioner of Poonch, said Salotri’s families whose homes were destroyed in the shelling will get Rs 1 lakh each as compensation. “But the reconstruction of their houses will take time and the weather is bad,” he added. “That’s why we shifted them to a government school in Kunaiya.”

Mohammad Aslam's destroyed home. Photo credit: Safwat Zargar

But Aslam and his family feel uprooted. “We don’t live here anymore,” said Aslam, who had gone to pray at the graves of his daughter-in-law and grandchildren that morning. “We have no idea when will we return to our home and live in peace.”

Intermittently, the silence of Salotri village is pierced by gunfire in the distance. “This is usual,” said Akhtar. “We have known war all our lives. It doesn’t matter.”

Salotri’s villagers said they have never seen such intense shelling along the border since 2001, before the ceasefire was agreed.

They are not sure how Younis is faring. “He is unable to talk,” Aslam explained. “Our relatives keep us informed about him on the phone.”

Younis, 22, is in Jammu’s Bakshi Nagar Government Hospital, some 250 km from home. He is being attended to by his younger brother, Mohammed Fareed, and other relatives. The family have not yet told him that his wife and children have died.

“We told him they had minor injuries and are in a hospital in Poonch,” said Fareed, speaking on the phone from Jammu. Both brothers teach at religious seminaries in Poonch.

Fareed said his brother will not go home anytime soon.“His left leg was almost cut off by the shrapnel,” Fareed said. “The doctors have inserted pins in his leg and put it in a plaster. They said Younis needs surgery once he recovers. We have no idea if he will walk again.”

The family also worries about how to pay for the treatment. “We haven’t received any compensation so far,” Fareed said. “The authorities have asked us to save the medical bills and submit those to them. They said they will reimburse the bill. But what if the treatment is prolonged and I run out of money?”

Younis’ family qualifies for compensation under the rules, said Yadav. “A family is entitled to Rs 5 lakh from the central government and Rs 4 lakh from the state if one family member dies,” he added. “There is another option. If the family opts for a government job then they will get exgratia relief of Rs 1 lakh.”

At the shelter

Younis’s mother, Rahmat Bi, is surrounded by relatives at the temporary shelter in Kunaiya. Inconsolable, she can barely speak. “She won’t be able to speak,” Hussain, her nephew, said. “What do kids know about India and Pakistan? I want to ask Imran Khan what was the fault of those two kids? The cost of hostility between these two countries is borne by people like us from both the sides.”

A classroom of the school that has been turned into a temporary shelter for Salotri's villagers. Photo credit: Safwat Zargar

Three huge classrooms have been turned into makeshift accommodation for around 49 residents of Salotri. Outside, schoolchildren are lined up, preparing to write their examinations in the open.

“Out of five rooms, three rooms have been allotted to the villagers,” said Rohit Kumar Sudan, a teacher at the school. “On the orders of the district administration, we threw open the school kitchen and arranged a cook for them as well.”

People of Kunaiya are also looking after the displaced families staying in the school, Sudan noted. He did not know how long they would stay and classes would be held outside. “Thankfully it’s sunny today,” he added. “If the weather was bad, we would have had to ask our students not to come to school.”

No warning

Salotri’s residents said they received no warning from the district administration before the shelling began on March 1. After Pakistani jets allegedly ventured into Indian airspace on February 27, Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik had directed all border districts to close schools within five kilometres of the Line of Control and the International Border.

“On March 1, shelling first started from our side at around 6 pm. It continued till 8.30 pm,” recalled Aslam. “The Pakistanis began shelling at around 8.45 pm in retaliation. Though we have seen shelling all our lives, this is the first time someone has been killed in Salotri.”

The residents are not sure who fired the shell that landed on Aslam’s house. “A day after the incident, while we were still in mourning, the Army came during the night and took away all remnants and pieces of shells scattered around our house,” Aslam said.

According to Anand, exploded shells are cleared as a “precautionary measure”. “It’s not our duty but we are doing it just to facilitate the civilians,” he said. “In many cases, live bombs or unexploded shells were detected. Secondly, it also helps us in analysing and ascertaining what type of shell has been fired by the other side.”

Salotri’s residents, who constantly live under the shadow of guns, have different opinions on what should be done about the situation. Tariq Hussain yearns for “eternal peace” between India and Pakistan. His cousin, Abdul Aziz, offers a more pragmatic view. “The government should permanently relocate us to safer areas,” he said. “We don’t want to live our lives in constant fear. This war will never end but we don’t want to become its casualty.”

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