Women on the edge

Imaging by Prathap Ravishankar

Imaging by Prathap Ravishankar  


Zahid Rafiq looks at the effect of cross-border shelling on the local female populace in Jammu and Kashmir.

When Ashu Rani married a soldier in Chilayari village in Jammu’s Samba district, the last thing on her mind was the fact that the barbed wire between India and Pakistan cut through her village. Her husband earned enough to run a household and that was all that mattered to Rani and her family.

But, last month, sitting at a makeshift refugee camp on the Samba-Kathua highway, Rani wondered about the possibilities of a life not so close to the border. “Things could have been so different,” she said. “We would only have our personal worries to deal with. No bullets to worry about, no shells, no sirens, no broken houses.”

Her house, Rani says, has been damaged twice before due to shelling. This time too, she is sure it won’t be spared by the mortar shells raining around it. “If not for the border, life could have been quiet and peaceful.”

In October, when the border between India and Pakistan in the Jammu region reeled under fire from the two armies, life was eerily quiet in Chilayari, Rani’s village. All the inhabitants had fled expecting yet another night of shelling. The roads were deserted and no children played in alleys; the vacant houses were bereft of any sound. The only sound was the mooing of cattle that echoed in the immense silence of the empty streets and vast fields of ripe crops.

“We would have been in our fields right now harvesting our crops but there are bombs falling all the time and we are here in hiding,” said Jamuna Devi, an old woman from Chilayari. Shelling and displacement has always been a part of her life.

Chilayari is one of the thousands of villages that lie right along the 220 km border between India and Pakistan in Jammu & Kashmir; next to it are three Pakistani villages. Each time, the border forces of the two countries — the Border Security Force and Pakistan Rangers — violate the ceasefire and start firing and shelling, these villages turn into small war zones.

“I heard that a shell hit my school. Is that true?” asked Anita Devi, a Std. IX student from Chilayari. Devi had been living at the camp for three days and four nights and had brought a bag with some clothes, a small sanitary pouch and her school bag. “I want to go back home. There are so many people in this hall sleeping next to one another that I feel like I am on the streets,” she said.

Almost 200 people from Chechwal, Mangu Chak and Chilayari villages lay next to each other in the ashram that was converted into a camp after the shelling began. Most are children and women; men have gone walking or to the villages to feed the cattle.

Cross-border shelling scars the lives of people on the border, but more so the women on whom the burden of the household lies in visible and invisible ways. “Conflict enhances the implications of patriarchy. Women are pushed inside the four walls of the house and told that the world outside is not safe for them,” says Rekha Choudhary, a former Professor at the Jammu University who has worked extensively on the lives of people living on the border. “In the border villages in Arnia, cross-border firing is a feature of everyday life and it destroyed the fabric of people’s lives there. And women bear a lot of the brunt of this firing.”

In RS Pura sector, Jora Farm village empties before dusk. In August, when shelling began in the night, people crouched against the walls of their mud shacks for safety. Kali Bibi and Bibi, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, were killed when a mortar shell fell right before them. Three people from the family, including Bibi’s two children, were wounded.

“A girl from the border will die on the border. No one will know and no one will help,” Bibi’s aunt said the next day, pointing at an armful of clothes that her niece had left behind. “She is not the first girl to be killed here and she won’t be the last.”

The shells on the border, unlike bullets, kill and wound several people simultaneously and often, as in Bibi’s case, from the same family. In Ward 11 of the Government Medical College hospital, more than 25 patients lay on beds with bandaged arms, legs and ribs and pipes attached to their noses and mouths. They were all from the border villages and most are members of seven families. Bano Bini (24) was biting her lips in pain but was worrying about who would look after her household and her three children. She had been returning home with her husband, children, and sister-in-law after a night at a camp when a shell fell right next to their cart. Her legs, arms and ribs were hit by splinters. On another bed lay her husband with a splinter close to his spinal cord. Another splinter had pierced the left ear-drum of her youngest son, Rafiq. Her sister-in-law, Fatima, too lies with both legs bandaged.

“Will I be able to walk?” asks Bano Bibi. “I can’t afford to not walk, not work. There is place for me only when I can run around. I am better dead than as an invalid.”

While there are no accurate figures, thousands of people living along the border have been wounded by splinters and bullets over the years of cross-border shelling and countless people live with disabilities. The villagers say that they are only sought for their votes during the elections and then forgotten.

Far away from the power centres and under fire frequently, the women of these border villages only want a quiet life and a piece of land away from the ‘skirmishes’ of an unending war.

(Photos: PTI)

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2020 5:53:50 PM |

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