New Delhi and Islamabad seem to covet only territory. They do not seem to care much about their own civilians who have become refugees of this undeclared war. Himal’s writers on either side of the Line of Control find that civilian life is hell.
Chikothi is a small village in Azad Kashmir barely 15-km from the Line of Control. Villagers stand about in the bazaar when the air suddenly reverberates with the sound of artillery. The booming gets louder, but no one panics or runs for cover. “It´s a routine,” said one shopkeeper nonchalantly. Nearby, a mosque and a small clinic lie half-destroyed by recent Indian shells. A market had been burnt to ashes and a pile of rubble is all that remains of a shop.
Chikothi is one of scores of small villages and towns on the Pakistani side which are directly exposed to the Indian guns on the mountains beyond. “Don´t stand here in a group,” advised a resident. “You can´t see them, but they are watching you and the civilian population is their main target.” Even as he was saying this, a young man with a bleeding leg is being taken to the Combined Military Hospital (CMH) in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Kashmir. Civilian injuries have become commonplace.
The favourite target of the Indian Bofors guns seems to be Khalyana, a village about six-km from Chikothi. Arshad Abbasi, the chairman of the Khalyana Union Council, said that at least 18 neighbouring villages have been hit badly. Even so, many of the villagers have not moved out of the area.
They know that life in the refugee camps may be safer, but not any better. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Line of Control pass their lives in squalid tented camps that punctuate the scenic hills. Their survival conditions are tough, having to battle against harsh weather, scarcity of food and lack of shelter. Some have been living in these camps for years, others arrived after the recent fighting broke out—neglected victims of an undeclared war. But still, you don´t run into many who speak out against the war. In fact, quite a lot of them support the mujahideen cause.
The worst affected in this conflict are the residents of Neelum Valley. The valley is a sitting target for Indian guns from the mountains beyond the Neelum, the river that flows into Muzaffarabad from the LoC in the east. “Wounded people are brought to the hospital every day,” said a doctor at the CMH, once a military hospital, but which has been treating civilians for several years now. Over the past month since the latest fighting broke out, 33 civilians have been treated at the CMH.
Even as the doctor was explaining the situation, a young boy, Farid, is rushed in with injuries in his legs. “Farid had gone to the bazaar to buy some food for the family when he was hit,” explained Abdus Salam, who had accompanied him from Nagdar in Neelum Valley. After examining him, the doctor says Farid will have to be sent to Lahore. “Most of the victims are hit in the lower parts of their bodies,” said the doctor. Just then, news comes in that a muezzin and a woman have died from exploding shells. “Every day, 100 to 150 shells are fired on our villages,” said Salam, weeping.
Ghulam Rasul, the local member of the legislative assembly, says about 150,000 people have been affected in Neelum Valley. The tension has closed businesses and tour operations, leaving thousands without jobs. The valley has lost four of its six major markets in the Indian shelling.
Neelum Valley now has no hospital, college or school. It did have a 20-bed hospital, before it was destroyed in the shelling. This means that all the injured have to be taken to the CMH. Even that is not easy. There is no ready transport, roads have been badly damaged and cannot easily be repaired because of the firing.
Schools and colleges in Azad Kashmir have either been destroyed or forced to close down. Schools are built like bunkers for students to take shelter from the incessant shell ing. But that could hardly provide cover for nine of them recently, when they succumbed to shells falling on their school. Literacy in Azad Kashmir used to be higher than the rest of Pakistan, but it is now on the decline.
For the moment, though, all that the refugees are worried about is food. Last year on, the government started giving each of the displaced 200 rupees a month as assistance. “You cannot even pay for tea with this amount,” said one woman sitting next to her makeshift kitchen with her children. Even voluntary relief oganisations have stayed away mainly because of difficulty of access.
Some families have been forced to live on wild plants, while others have adopted a rationing system of their own. If the father eats in the morning, says a refugee, he doesn´t take his share in the evening. The children get preference and the adults may wait for 24 hours for a meal. “We have become nomads,” said Ghulam Rasul, his face clearly reflecting anger and frustration.
The authorities, on their part, are in no state to provide adequate relief. This year, an estimated 51,000 people have been displaced from the Neelum Valley alone, but there aren´t even enough tents to house them all. Hundreds of refugees are living in the open, braving the cold winds sweeping down from the mountains. Some have taken shelter under the trees, while a few have found shelter in caves. The lucky ones have put up with their relatives and about 1500 families have been shifted to various other places in Pakistan. The prices of essential commodities are five times more than in the city.
Given how concerned the government of Pakistan is about this disputed territory, its apathy towards the plight of the people living here is quite incomprehensible — especially given the fact that the valley´s importance is not purely strategic. This is, after all, an area rich in resources. Its rivers can generate hydropower, and then there are timber and rubies.
In Chikothi, Abbassi explains that his people are ever alert to the sound of guns. They have all built their own bunkers. “Whenever they sense danger, they go into the bunkers till the firing stops.” However, after the Kargil escalation, the Indian shelling became so intense that many moved out. Having lost so much and suffered so heavily, the people here say they are determined not to see their sacrifices frittered away on the negotiating table. They want a final solution to this problem, and not a compromise that gives away everything they have fought for over the last 50 years. The final solution, of course, is the “freedom of Kashmir from the Indian yoke”.
by Idrees Bakhtiar
In war, all attention focuses on the battlefront. The soldiers are the main concern of the media. This is natural. However, this one-sided coverage often ignores or plays down the plight of civilians caught in the conflict. Civilians get killed, maimed and dispossessed. They are forced to leave their homes. The government often fails to come to the rescue of helpless villagers as it gets pushed along by the momentum of war. During territorial wars, the border population gets pushed around by the very army which is supposed to protect it.
The ongoing war in Kargil has displaced about 200,000 people on both sides of the Line of Control. An official of the Jammu and Kashmir government reported that the heavy shelling by Pakistani forces in Akhnoor sector of Jammu has forced about 70,000 persons to leave their home and take refuge in school buildings and tents. While the government claimed that all arrangements had been made for proper relief of the refugees in Kargil and Jammu sectors, there were newspaper reports that the government had failed to provide even the basic necessities. The refugees complained that they were forcibly evacuated from their homes without proper notice. A few newspapers also reported that in the Kargil sector civilians were forced to work as porters for the army without any pay, even though others said that they were doing this willingly.
I visited Gagan Geer, a village of Gujjars, the nomadic pastoral tribe of Kashmir on 21 June. Lying at the base of a craggy mountain ridge that rises to about 6000 metres, Gagan Geer is about 6 km southwest of Sonmarg, the summer tourist resort on the Srinagar-Leh road. The village is home to about 60 Gujjar and 20 Kashmiri families.
Just outside the village, next to the Forest Department´s check-post, is a makeshift refugee camp. It consists of four tin-roofed storage sheds of the Public Works Department of the Srinagar government. On 2 June, about 400 Kargil war refugees were brought to this camp.
All of them came from Pandrass, a village situated at a height of 2200 metres across the Zoji-la pass between Matayan and Drass, the area of military engagement. Pandrass has a mixed population of Gujjars, Baltis and Dardic people. While the Gujjars of Pandrass have no kinship bonds with the people of Baltistan across the other side of the Line of Control in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, the Balti and Dardic people of Pandrass have cultural, linguistic and familial ties with Baltistan. All the residents of Pandrass are Shia Muslims and they survive by rearing goats and sheep and growing high-altitude millet.
Having heard on the radio and television that the Jammu and Kashmir administration had made adequate arrangements for the Kargil war refugees, I was more than a bit surprised to see their living conditions at Gagan Geer. Each of these tin sheds measuring 1800 square feet has become the home for 20 families. Every evening, the people pack themselves inside, where night temperatures drop to 5 degrees Celsius. They had hardly any cooking utensils, very little bedding and virtually no extra clothing.
The refugees said they were not allowed to bring their own survival food and gear because there was no space in the small trucks which brought them to Sonmarg on the evening of 2 June. The famous tourist resort has many well-equipped huts owned by the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation, but the Deputy Commissioner told them that they could not stay there and should instead proceed to Gagan Geer where arrangements had been made for their stay.
No official of the Jammu and Kashmir administration was present at Gagan Geer refugee camp on the morning of 21 June. The camp had no electricity. There was only one water tap, which provided water for about four hours a day for the entire population of 400 refugees. There were no bathrooms or toilets. Several Kashmiri ministers and politicians had visited the camp and promised electricity and tents, but till the end of June, nothing had happened.
Carrying the army’s load
On arrival at the camp, the refugees were given five kilos of rice per person and four litres of cooking oil per family, but they had no money to buy fuel wood, vegetables or meat, the last being part of their staple. Meanwhile, the local public health centre was unable to cope with the sudden influx of refugees as it was designed only for the small resident population of the village. All said, it was obvious that the civilian authorities, ill-prepared to handle the refugee influx, had just dumped the refugees at Gagan Geer and gone away.
The refugees themselves claim that there was no reason for them to have been moved. Situated between Matayan and Drass, Pandrass is protected from the shelling by the high mountains on both sides. These mountain shepherds say that while it is possible for intruders to sneak into Matayan on the west and Drass on the east, there were no trails leading into Pandrass from the Pakistani side. Till the time they were forcibly evacuated by the Indian army, their village had not been attacked.
On 14 May, an Indian army major and some soldiers had visited the village and indicated that the army might need to evacuate the village as they were planning to set up heavy artillery guns there. The villagers pointed out that they did not have to leave even during the 1947-48 war in the Kargil sector. The major was not convinced, and, according to the villagers, he suggested that they should agree to be evacuated to Sonmarg, or go over to the Pakistan side.
Later in the day, all the residents of Pandrass were ordered to go down to the Leh road to get new identity cards. However, this turned out to be a ruse. While the rest were transported to Sonmarg, about 45 able-bodied men were forced into an army truck and driven to a place called Bhimbet. They were told that they had to help the army in carrying guns, ammunition and other supplies to a high mountain post called Shaduri. Abdul Gafur, Wazir and Ghulam Mohammad (not real names), who were used as porters, described working for seven days under excruciating conditions. The mountain was covered with snow, and there were large patches of exposed old ice. There was no cover and there was regular firing by the intruders and Pakistani soldiers from the heights they occupied, forcing the shepherds to climb only at night. Each of them loaded with about 30-kg of military equipment scaled the sheer icy slope for about six hours to reach Shaduri post during the night. With little food and without proper clothing and shoes, the ´porters´ were heavily exposed. Abdul Gafur and six others suffered severe frost bite and were finally taken to Kargil hospital.
Upon discharge from the hospital ten days later, the shepherd learnt from a bus driver that the entire village had been evacuated on 2 June and that the villagers were now living in the Gagan Geer refugee camp. He got a lift in a local truck to Sonmarg and finally reached the camp on 7 June.
The Jammu and Kashmir administration is not unaware of the camp conditions. But visits by politicians like Mian Altaf, a minister of Jammu and Kashmir, and Mehbooba Sayeed, the opposition leader in the legislative assembly, have only yielded promises and nothing else.
It is clear that the refugees will not be able to return to Pandrass this winter, even if the war comes to an end by September as is being indicated by the Indian defence establishment. By the middle of August, the Zoji-la pass gets snow-bound. After September, it is closed. It will be impossible for the villagers to carry back adequate quantities of food and fuel to Pandrass after the onset of winter, making it impossible for them to survive the severe winter of Kargil. They have also lost most of their animals, the main source of their livelihood. The government has to therefore, plan a longer stay for them, at least till the spring of 2000, and then these people will need help to re-start their life
Without belittling the sacrifice made by soldiers at the warfront, it is necessary to point out that the lives of the non-combatant civilians are as important. The countries that go to war do suffer huge losses by way of war expenditure, but what is not computed is the loss of production, destruction of civilian assets and overall disruption of civilian life.
The Kargil war has already created 200,000 refugees in Pakistan and India. Gagan Geer is just one example of an ongoing and growing humanitarian disaster in the making. Governments need to defend their borders, but the real challenge of governance must go beyond territorial security and include human security.
by Tapan K. Bose