When 36-year-old Shameena Bano heard the shells ripping through her village, she decided to make a run for it. She had locked her house and was crossing her compound when it hit. “A shell landed some three-four feet away from her and the splinter tore through her body,” said her brother-in-law, Farooq Ahmad. “Her leg was severed and her flesh was hanging from trees. She died on the spot.”

Bano had been trying to run to a relative’s house for safety, Ahmad said, her children had already been sent there when the first shells landed.

According to Ahmad, such was the fear caused by the shelling that no one dared to reach Bano for at least half an hour. “We were all taking shelter wherever we could find space,” he said. “We called the police and they came with an ambulance. Only then did we manage to go near her body.”

Bano lived in the Reddi mohalla of Chowkibal village in North Kashmir’s Kupwara district. Around 5 pm on April 12, at least 13 artillery shells landed on Chowikbal and the neighbouring villages of Tumina and Hachmarg. of Kupwara district. According to an Indian Army statement, it was an “unprovoked ceasefire violation” by the Pakistan Army.

“Pakistan is now targeting the civilian population in Kupwara sector near the Line of Control resulting in the killing of three innocent civilians including one woman and a child,” said Rajesh Kalia, the army spokesperson in Srinagar.

Apart from Bano, 17-year-old Javid Ahmad Khan and eight-year-old Zain Bashir from Tumina village were killed on April 12.

Fleeing under fire

Reddi emptied overnight. “As soon as we finished the funerals on Sunday night, all of us fled the village,” said a farmer from Reddi mohalla, who did not want to be named. “Whoever could find a car or vehicle, just boarded it and left for safer areas.”

In the chaos that ensued, all careful social distancing measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus were forgotten. Jammu and Kashmir, which had 278 cases as of April 14, is under strict lockdown to contain the virus. “When the shelling happened, the lockdown vanished into thin air,” said the farmer. “Everybody huddled together in huddles. Cars with a capacity for 5 people squeezed in seven or eight people in order to escape the village.”

But taking shelter in other villages is also complicated by the pandemic. According to government data, Kupwara district alone had 23 Covid-19 patients as of April 14. Several villages in the area have been declared “red zones” where the chances of infection as well as the restrictions are high.

With fears about the virus spreading, some are uneasy about giving shelter to fleeing families. “Even if somebody came to my home for shelter, I would be reluctant,” said Farooq Ahmad. “At a time like this, a brother can close his doors on a brother,” Ahmad said.

Still, they have found refuge at a relative’s house. Since Sunday, Ahmad’s schedule has changed: “We come to the village in the morning and stay here through the day. We don’t bring women and children with us. In the evening, all of us leave for our relative’s places for the night.”

Villagers in Kupwara inspect the damage. Credit: PTI

Lockdowns and ceasefires

As the pandemic crippled global trade and diplomacy, placed half the world’s population under lockdown and threatened to destabilise governments, the United Nations called for a ceasefire in conflict zones across the world. Syria and Yemen have seen tentative attempts at ceasefire, and Myanmar is contemplating one.

But there has been no let-up in cross-border hostilities between India and Pakistan, even though both countries are reeling from the virus. The last two weeks have even seen heightened tensions at the border.

Tempers have been running high since August 5, when the Centre scrapped special status for Jammu and Kashmir and split the state into two Union Territories in August last year. A total of 3,200 ceasefire violations were reported in 2019, nearly double the 1,629 violations in 2018. Of these, 1,553 ceasfire violations took place after August 5, 2019.

A fresh phase of violence began after March 31, when the ministry of home affairs announced new domicile rules for residents of Jammu and Kashmir. They drew protests from Pakistan and were unpopular in Kashmir.

A day after the rules were announced, a group of five militants allegedly trying to infiltrate the Valley were intercepted by the army in the Keran sector of Kupwara, triggering a gunfight. The operation lasted for days. By the time it ended on April 6, all five militants had been killed, the army said. The army also lost five special forces personnel in the operation.

Over the last week, Indian and Pakistani armies have traded fire along the Line of Control in Kupwara as well as the Poonch and Kathua districts of Jammu division. Then on April 13, Pakistani authorities said Indian troops had “initiated unprovoked ceasefire violations along LOC”, which killed two-year-old Muhammad Haseeb in the Dhudnial sector of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. The shelling had also seriously injured four civilians, including a woman and a 72-year-old, said a statement issued by the spokesperson of the Pakistani armed forces.

Security officials connect the surge in gunfights around this time of the year to the melting snows. As spring arrives, according to traditional wisdom, infiltration attempts go up. In December last year, Jammu and Kashmir police chief, Dilbag Singh said 143 militants had infiltrated in 2018 and 130 in 2019. Most of these infiltrations take place during summer in the Valley.

An army officer in North Kashmir, speaking off the record, said the shelling from the Pakistani side is meant to provide cover for the infiltrators.

‘Never saw shells land here’

The shelling on April 12, however, reflected a troubling new trend. While ceasefire violations normally affect villages along the Line of Control, the villages shelled in the incident are about 22 kilometres from the Kupwara district headquarters. By road, they are about 70 kilometres from the Line of Control.

Kupwara, which is close to the Line of Control, is one of the most militarised districts of Jammu and Kashmir. But the villages of Chowkibal and Tumina had not faced shells from the other side before October last year.

“In the 40 years of my life, I had never seen shells landing in our village,” said Sajad Ahmad, a resident of Rawathpora mohalla in Chowkibal. When shells flew into the area in October, there were injuries but no deaths, he said.

Now, local residents have learned the ways of shells. “When shells hit a structure, the ground shakes and it looks like an earthquake,” said Sajad Ahmad. “So, everyone rushes out of their homes. But it is not safer out there either. A shell can hit you anywhere.”

Local residents counted damage to at least six homes, a government school building and a few private cars on April 12.

A municipal worker sprays disinfectant at GB Pant Children Hospital in Srinagar. Credit: AFP

Angry fields

In the run up to April 12, the area around the three villages that were pounded had already become a flashpoint.

“On Friday (April 10), Indian troops heavily shelled the Pakistani side of Kashmir from Panzgam airfield – it was really scary,” said a bachelors student who lives in Panzgam village and did not want to be named.

Panzgam village is about two kilometres from Reddi Chowkibal. “There’s an elevated open field in the area which is surrounded by villages on all sides,” said the student. “The field is close to the army’s Panzgam artillery unit. The army has taken it on lease. On regular days, boys play cricket on this ground and residents use the field to reach other villages.”

On April 10, the army brought its artillery tanks and fired shells towards the Pakistani side from this field. “In the past, Indian troops used to fire those shells from inside the camp,” said the student. According to residents of Panzgam, houses surrounding the airfield suffered cracks and damages as the ground shook with gunfire.

“People here are worried that if Pakistan starts shelling, it might land on our houses since there’s not much distance between the camps and civilian population – so basically, we are being used as human shields,” the student said.

The army official in North Kashmir tried to explain the use of the field for artillery fire. “It’s been taken by the army on lease,” he said. “The issue is that the army camp is not much far away from the field. So, how does it matter if the shell is being fired from one point or at a distance from that point? It’s not an easy decision to make. It’s a dynamic situation and needs to be looked at in the proper context.”

But local residents grew increasingly irate about the guns being moved to the field. On the afternoon of April 12, a video showing local residents arguing with the army went viral on social media. “They removed the guns from the field during the night – it is eerily calm here now,” said the student from Panzgam.

But fear still reigns in Chowkibal. “Please tell the government to make shelters for our safety,” said Farooq Ahmad. “This war is not over yet.”