India-Pakistan clashes bring fear to Kashmir villages

1 August 2008
Reuters


Nambla: When Indian and Pakistani troops exchanged fire for 16 hours on the disputed Kashmir border earlier this week, the worst violation of a 2003 ceasefire, the news sent a chill down Usman Khan's spine. 'It is so scary ... It makes me remember the shells landing here and there, the ground shaking and ear-splitting artillery explosions,' Khan, 65, said in the small village of Nambla, around 50 metres from the military line of control separating India and Pakistan Kashmir. After years of relative peace, villagers in this Uri sector of Indian Kashmir are in fear again. They live around 50 kilometres (31 miles) from the site of the latest clash. 'I pray it does not happen again,' Khan said. Nestled among pine forests west of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir, this sector has been a battlefield in all three wars fought by the nuclear-armed neighbours since independence. Nearby shrapnel holes in an abandoned old tin-roofed house are grim reminders of the ferocity of the barrages. Hundreds of people were killed on both sides of the Kashmir frontier before the 2003 truce as India and Pakistan's armies engaged in daily lethal artillery duels and small arms clashes. 'I know pain and I know what peace is,' said Mohammad Shamas, another villager, whose daughter was killed when an artillery shell fired by Pakistani troops slammed into his house in 2001. Thousands of weary people living in villages near the military control line fear they will again be caught in the crossfire after the recent border clashes. One Indian soldier was killed in the latest exchange of fire. It was the third incident in the last month, and some analysts believe there are deliberate attempts to destabilise the ceasefire line. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority region, since a revolt against Indian rule broke out in 1989. 'If it flares up we will be sitting ducks, like we were before the ceasefire,' said the village head, Tariq Manhas. 'I pray sanity prevails on both armies and they don't turn again our villages into a firing ranges.' At a distance in a concrete bunker an Indian soldier stands guard, his finger on the trigger of a machinegun. But, says another soldier, Ramesh Singh, a gun hanging over his shoulder: 'I don't see or feel any tension here, we are all relaxed.' INFILTRATION BIDS Barely visible on the Pakistani side is the black barrel of a rifle poking through a hole in the wall of a sandbag bunker. Big artillery guns are draped with wire netting. The ridges and trees hide hundreds of military posts on both sides of the U.N.-monitored Line of Control or ceasefire line along the heavily-militarised border. 'There is nothing serious. I am sure the recent firing was aimed to give cover to terrorists,' said a senior army officer on the frontline, who did not want to be identified. New Delhi says Islamist guerrillas slip across the frontier under cover of shooting by Pakistani troops to fuel an insurgency in Kashmir that began in 1989. Islamabad denies the charge. 'We have successfully foiled major bids of infiltration and that has helped us a lot,' he added, pointing towards the silver-coloured fence in a gorge on the banks of the Jhelum river, which snakes its way up on a rocky hillside in the Uri sector. But villagers are sceptical, and fearful. 'I can only pray that madness does not return,' said Rashida Bibi, 55, in another border village of Saraie. She lost one eye and a hand in an artillery explosion five years ago. Not too far away, men and women work in maize fields and a sign warns villagers: 'Caution, you are within 500 metres from enemy posts.'