Living just 850 metres away from the Pakistan Army positions on the hill slopes of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), villagers of Balkote and Silikote near the Line of Control (LoC) in Baramulla’s Uri are finally picking up the threads of life, which was badly frayed by frequent shelling and sniping in the last three years.
It has been over a week since the guns have fallen silent on the LoC after the renewed pact on the ceasefire between India and Pakistan . However, people here are waiting and watching how long the ceasefire will hold, as the two countries have begun tentative contacts after a gap of five years.
While the soldiers manning the LoC in Uri remain on guard, a sense of calm is visible on their faces. Keeping a close watch on the movement on the other side of the LoC, many soldiers, not officially authorised to talk to the media, told The Hindu that the ceasefire was being adhered to strictly from both the sides .
“The free hand given to the soldiers earlier is no more in vogue,” a soldier, on the condition of anonymity, said.
Scores of posts where small boards read ‘No open movement, sniper zone’, now see milling around of relaxed soldiers, who, nevertheless, report each and every suspicious movement to their seniors. Earlier such zones within the installations were no-go areas to escape any sniping from Pakistani soldiers, located in elevated pickets on the opposite hill slope on the PoK side.
“Online funny videos, like TikTok, are entertaining the soldiers in free time now,” said another soldier.
For scores of the border residents, the peace may come as a time of healing though many scars remain fresh.
The eldest of five siblings, 15-year-old Shahista Bano, daughter of labourer Bashir Ahmad Dar, has been forced to take on the role of a mother at a young age. Her mother, Farooqa Begum was killed on November 13 last year by a powerful shell fired from PoK that hit their home even as she was climbing to the attic to store firewood.
Last week, Shahista cleared her Class 10 examination, securing 233 marks out of 500 despite the tragedy that struck two days ahead of the English paper on November 15.
“There was a loud explosion. The house was filled with light followed by dust. I turned into a stone. What I saw later was the mutilated body of my mother. She was lying dead, while the smoke had turned every wall black,” recalled Shahista, her voice breaking with grief.
Now she takes care of her siblings, as her father goes to work. “I doubt if I can continue my schooling. My dream of donning the uniform of a policewoman was dashed with the killing of my mother,” the teenager said.
Shahista’s uncle Lassa Dar hoped that the ceasefire agreement, though fragile, would change the lives of the border area residents.
“We are not cattle. Our lives matter too. How long will we watch shells leaving behind amputated bodies of our kith and kin? We could not even hold a burial in the daytime for my sister-in-law because of shelling. We managed to do so only after the sundown in the absolute darkness,” said Mr. Dar.
However, of late, Mr. Dar has started tending cattle freely in open and is busy sowing seeds of maize in the terraced fields. “If the ceasefire ends, my cattle and crop will again be on the cross-hairs of Pakistani cannons,” he added.
Officials said 22 civilians have been killed in the over 5, 133 incidents of border skirmishes along the LoC in 2020, the highest number of violations since the Kargil war.
Uri — like the border villages of Rajouri, Poonch, Samba, Kathua, Bandipora and Kupwara districts — too turned into a theatre of war at least 21 times last year. Five civilians and three soldiers lost their lives, five suffered major injuries, and around 16 houses were damaged in the cross-border firing, according to official figures. Nadir Hussian Shah, a resident, said his both limbs had to be amputated after shell shrapnel hit his legs.
In a changing pattern, Pakistan resorted to unprecedented heavy calibre artillery shelling and firing in June and November last year.
“It was no more a minor picket-to-picket skirmish but would engulf a wide range of area immediately after the first bullet was fired. It was a bloody year in 2020, where civilians were finding it hard to find shelter. We did our best to save their lives,” said Junaid Wali, Sub-Divisional Police Officer, Uri, showing a sophisticated, lead-heavy bullet that hit his office in Uri in June last year.
“The shrapnel of the shells would cut through even the hard surface of pressure cookers as if a piece of paper,” he added.
Around 21 villages of Uri bore the brunt of the firing from both sides.
“Requests from residents for concrete shelters touched 5,710 bunkers in 21 villages, housing a population of 34,000 in Uri last year, as more and more areas were getting affected by artillery shelling,” an official at the Sub-District Magistrate (SDM)’s office said.
However, the government has so far managed to build only 44 bunkers and over 80% of the population of Uri of 1.5 lakh remains vulnerable to any Pakistani aggression.
Circled by multi-layered barbed fencing on three sides and the PoK pickets on the fourth side, the people of Silikote village live in a grim gated community.
All members of around 16 households in the village have to share their biometrics with the Army every time they pass through the single, well-guarded entry.
“No one would like to live in a cage. The Army closes the gates by 9 p.m. Our children, many times, get stuck in schools for the night when shelling takes place. But it has been a week and we hear no exchange of fire. We can finally have a calm sleep in the night,” said Ghulam Qadir Chalkoo.
The 67-year-old retired employee has come face-to face with trauma often. He lost his wife to Pakistani shelling in 2003 and his son lost both his legs in 2001 when a shell exploded.
“I have gone through the tough times being a border resident, though we are happy with the ceasefire agreement. It will allow our kids to move around freely and play cricket. They deserve a better life than mine,” Mr. Chalkoo said.
About half the villagers, out of over two dozen houses, have already left their property in Silikote and shifted to safer locations in Uri town.
But not all can afford to do that. “Where will we go? We are farmers and depend on fields. We lost our concrete house in shelling last year and now live in a relative’s house,” said Saja Begum as she points to the mound of debris which once was her house.