External Affairs

As the LoC Heats Up, Border Villages Fear the Repeat of a Deadly History

The residents of the breathtaking Neelum Valley only want peace, so that they can go on with their lives and livelihoods without constant fear.

People protest in Athmuqam this year, demanding peace between India and Pakistan. Credit: Amiruddin Mughal

People protest in Athmuqam this year, demanding peace between India and Pakistan. Credit: Amiruddin Mughal

In the summer of 2014, my husband and I decided to celebrate our first anniversary in Neelum Valley in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, known as Kishanganga in India. I had heard about the breathtaking beauty of Kashmir since I was a child. My father had been posted there in the 1980s while serving in the Pakistan army. The family of our cook who lived with us were Kashmiri. Every summer they would return home to visit their relatives and return to Lahore with vivid memories of mountains, rivers, walnuts and apple trees.

During the 1990s, I recall my mother begging them not to go for there was news of cross-Line of Control firing. They refused, insisting that Kashmir was home and they had to go back. Telephone lines would not work and we would have to wait for several weeks before getting news of whether they had made it there alive. Close to 3,000 people died in Neelum Valley alone during the 1990s, with thousands more received life-altering injuries and psychological scars. During my visit to Kashmir in 2015, I met a young boy who was caught in the middle of mortar shelling when he was six months old. In the frenzy to get inside the bunkers to save their lives, his family accidentally left him lying outside on a charpoi. As the mother wailed to be let out to get her child, others in the bunker held her back to save her life. They thought the baby wouldn’t have survived. As luck would have it, he did and is now a teenager. But he cannot say a word even all these years later for he is mute. Some tell me he lost his mind that day, as a six-month-old baby, never able to recover from the loud sounds of the mortar shelling and the screams of his family.

Neelum Valley. Credit: Muhammad Zeeshan/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Neelum Valley. Credit: Muhammad Zeeshan/Flickr CC BY 2.0

When India and Pakistan agreed to a ceasefire in 2003, thousands of families rejoiced at the prospect of peace. And peace did come. Since 2003, Neelum Valley has largely been spared from violence even when other parts of the LoC have remained active due to ceasefire violations. Though occasional post-to-post firing has taken place in Neelum Valley, the civilian population has been pardoned. As a result, the Valley has developed as one of the most popular tourist destinations for Pakistanis. Kashmiri journalist Ershad Mahmud reports, “Since 2003, more than 500 hotels, motels and guesthouses have been established in the region. Since 2010, the Neelum Valley has received an average of 300,000 tourists every year, facilitating thousands of local people to earn their livelihood…tourism share in the local economy has reached up to 40%.”

My husband and I were one of these tourists in 2014. We had stayed at a local rest house in Keran,  situated on the banks of the Neelum river, which serves as the LoC in the area. From where we sat, we could see the Indian side. A mosque situated across the LoC would serve as a call for prayer to both sides. Young girls and boys could be seen roaming around across from us. If they yelled, we could hear what they said. I am told that after the ceasefire, many divided families would sit by the river and talk to each other. The river, which was meant to divide, became their only source of connection with each other.

As we were having dinner one night, near silence engulfed us and all we could hear was the river gushing beside us. Across, we could see the Indian post, lit up; behind us, the Pakistani post. In the middle was the resort and hundreds of homes. My husband and I discussed how frightening it would be if firing began at that moment. Out of the piercing silence would come a deafening blast and a blinding orange-ish light, annihilating everything in its way. It was a disturbing thought but one that we knew had few prospects of coming true, given the relative peace in the area.

As India-Pakistan relations took a turn for the worse this year, in late October, two years after our visit, a mortar shell hit the tourist resort in Keran where I had spent my first anniversary. Two tourists from Lahore were injured. Since then all hotels and resorts have shut down, stifling the bustling tourist industry. The bunkers that had turned rusty after not being used for over a decade are now being restored. A generation that had only heard about the firing is now a witness to it. As in the 1990s, people are leaving their homes and livelihood behind and trying to move to cities like Muzaffarabad, further away from the LoC. Rent prices are high, availability of rooms low. Some have resorted to staying at local darbars, others have moved in with relatives for a few nights. They don’t know when they will be able to go back home. Last time, the period of war in the Valley lasted 14 years. Children did not go to school for over a decade; a whole generation remained uneducated. Some wonder if this is a repeat of that time. Uncertainty looms in the Valley. One man has already died; he was running to seek shelter during the firing when a mortar hit near him. Just hearing the all too familiar sound was enough to startle the life out of him; he died immediately of a heart attack.

An elderly man injured during the firing. Credit: Amiruddin Mughal

An elderly man injured during the firing. Credit: Amiruddin Mughal

Those who have nowhere to move and no place to go are adamant to keep the peace alive in their area. Dozens of women have come out in protests, telling both governments to stop the firing. These are the same women that many hold responsible for bringing peace back to the Valley after the intense period of shelling in the 1990s. I met with some of these women in 2015 and they explained, “During the 1990s, the passion for securing freedom had reached new heights. As refugees poured in from across the border, we opened our doors to them, we gave them warm clothes and meals. We told them we were with them in their struggle, they were our brothers and sisters. But what happened? We were unable to get Kashmir after all the fighting. We lost so much in the process. We lost our sons, we lost our homes, we lost our livelihoods…our children could not go to school…our men could not go to work. We just wanted peace. So we would march in great numbers to the commanding officer in the area and tell him to bring peace at all costs. If the men protested, they would be beaten up but with us women they couldn’t do that. We had more power in that way.”

Over the years, whenever the women heard of rumours of infiltration across the LoC, they would come out to protest. They would lead marches, insisting that the Pakistan army must come down hard on any militants trying to cross over and creating trouble for the locals in the area. In 2013, the BBC documented these protests and published an article titled ‘Housewives take on Militants in Kashmir‘. In the hopes of securing peace once more, the women have come out again. They have become a force of resilience and strength in the area. One of my contacts in Kashmir, who works closely with the women, told me over a phone call a few nights ago, “In the 1990s, the locals, including these women, had supported the idea of an armed struggle. There were camps all around; even I had wanted to pick up arms. The atmosphere was such. Today, the environment is very different. We have all lost too much. No one is willing to sacrifice everything again. We just want peace and that’s what the women have come out to demand.”

Meanwhile, my cook’s son is getting married. He has been saving up to make clothes and jewellery for his soon-to-be wife for a year. However, when the time came to leave for his wedding ceremony earlier this month, he began to cry. He did not know if he would make it there alive. “They’re hitting cars,” he wept. My mother asked him to delay the marriage. He insisted he had to go. “My fiancé’s family is there, my grandparents are there, my relatives are there. It is my home. How can I stay away?”

The begging, the crying, the fears and protests are an eerie reminder of the 1990s, a decade that no Kashmiri nor no Pakistani or Indian can afford to revisit but many are bent on reenacting.

Anam Zakaria is the author of Footprints of Partition: Narratives of four generations of Pakistanis and Indians.