Kitne hi raaste hain mere dil mein jo Poonch ko jaate hai

Mein jidhar se chalta hun Poonch pohonch jaata hun.

Engraved on a granite plate under the bust of noted Urdu writer Krishan Chander at a public garden in Jammu & Kashmir’s Poonch, these intense lines reflect the writer’s love for this beautiful border district. But even as he penned these lines, little could he have known that the inspiring land will, in the future, become a place of much tragedy and bloodshed for its inhabitants, particularly those disabled by landmines that dot the terrain.

The Poonch district is pockmarked by indiscriminately placed antipersonnel mines on its three sides touched by the Line of Control (LoC).

Unlike 160 countries, India and Pakistan are not signatories to the Ottawa Treaty, officially known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines which came into force in 1999. As a result, this conflict zone has seen many deaths caused by these deadly landmines. Those who embraced death, according to the survivors of such blasts, were the lucky ones as many women, children and elderly who lived on to narrate the horrendous tales are also victims of ignorance, government apathy and poverty.

Deen Mohammad, in his early 50s, currently residing in Deegwar village in Haveli Tehsil, lost his right leg in a landmine blast near his house and eventually his only son, Mohammad Haneef (19) also met the same fate. Both the bread earners of the family are physically disabled now.

“Gangrene has set in the entire leg of my son. It has turned black and shrivelled up like a dead twig making him bed-ridden for life. I sold off everything during my treatment and am helpless to do anything for my son now,” shared Deen Mohammad.

His is not a case in isolation. In Bhagyal Dhara Village, according to Mohammad Safeer, a young boy disabled by landmines, more than 50 lives had been affected by mines, stray bullets and shells.

“Because of my inability to trek for five hours on hilly pathways to school, I had no option but to disrupt my studies. I have to repay Rs. 70,000 borrowed from relatives for my treatment. We had spent everything on the treatment of my sister, Sakeena Bi (15), when she was hit by a stray bullet in 2005,” lamented Safeer.

The impact of these incidents on the mental health of an individual is far more severe. Ninety-one-year-old Keekar Singh not only lost his leg in a landmine blast in his village Khardi Karmarda but also his mental balance. “I cannot risk sleeping at night as I have to keep a check on him to ensure that he does not stray into a landmine area. A fear always follows that militants or Army personnel may shoot him dead,” said a worried Kulwant, Keekar Singh’s wife. The couple lost their only son in an accident sometime ago.

Many young victims of landmines were forced to stop their education, remained single and spent their lives alone, begging in Poonch town or at the mercy of well wishers. The tough terrain snatches away their very right of living an independent life.

The only compensation a few of these victims obtained from the Social Welfare Department is Rs. 400 a month. Even those civilians who lost limbs while working for government agencies did not get any relief.

A senior Army officer said on condition of anonymity, “We ensure that minefields are duly marked and fenced but in spite of taking various precautions, residents of the border areas keep straying into minefields and suffer fatal causalities and disabilities. Due to age, rain and other natural hazards, the landmines laid along the border get dislocated from the original positions, making it difficult to detect and deactivate them.”

An ex-gratia scheme for the causalities was launched by the Ministry of Defence in 2003, under which a victim or the affected family was paid a compensation ranging from Rs. one lakh to 2.5 lakh. 

“Over 90 people injured in landmine blasts in the frontier areas of Jammu and Kashmir during Operation Parakram, the India-Pakistan military stand-off in 2001, are yet to get compensation,” Minister of State for Home, Sajjad Ahmed Kitchloo informed the Legislative Council on April 5 this year.

“The government has been downplaying the total number of mine victims in the State,” said local activist Kamaljeet Singh, adding, “The process of compensation is quite tedious. By the time it is complete, people are tired, insane or dead and only a handful of people have actually benefited. There should be some concrete rehabilitation policy for the victims.”

Poet Krishan Chander couldn’t have agreed more.

(The writer is a media fellow with National Foundation for India working in Jammu and Kashmir)   

(Charkha Features)