Jammu: Plumes of smoke billow out of gutted huts on either side of the road. The air is filled with the stench of half-burnt carcasses of buffalos, of which a few were roasted alive.
Till just a few days ago, Jora Farm was a prosperous and thriving village on the international border (IB) in RS Pura sector in Jammu. Today, it looks like a war zone. Collapsed walls and charred window frames tell the tale of the devastation the village suffered because of mortar shelling from across the border last week.
“Everything was lost in a few hours. It is a miracle that we are alive today,” 71-year-old Phool Khan says, pointing towards a heap of ashes where his 12×25 feet kulla (a hut made of mud and thatch), had once stood.
Khan is among a few elderly persons who decided to stay back on January 18 when the village became the target of mortar shelling. But by late afternoon, the situation turned ugly, forcing Khan and other to leave the village.
“We somehow managed to flee and save our lives,” he says, fear still visible in his eyes.
In the line of fire
Jora Farm is a small village made up of of 261 households of Gujjar families. It is less than 300 metres away from the IB and is spread over a maximum of 400 kanals of land, on banks of a gushing stream.
The village is no stranger to violence and has bone the brunt of Indo-Pak hostilities several times. But this time, the intensity of shelling was “like-never before” and according to the villagers, continued for at least three days.
Muhammad Fareez’s hut was the first to go up in flames as his family watched helplessly from a distance. Tall and frail, Fareez says the shelling started early Friday morning.
Around noon, the guns fell silent briefly for 25 minutes, giving the desperate villagers a window to flee their homes.
Tragedy upon tragedy
Every family in the village owns a flock of at least 20 to 30 buffalos. The village supplies milk to Jammu city and has been trading the commodity since 1951 when the farm was set up there.
But since it is surrounded by the border from two sides, it is far more prone to shelling and firing from the Pakistani side.
The last time the village, with a total population of 1,079 people, came under attack was in 2015. “That time around 10 buffalos got killed,” says Imam Hussain, village Lumberdar.
He said before fleeing the village this time many families set their livestock free to take them along. Others thought spending a few more moments could prove deadly. Today, their only source of income is gone.
One among them is 75-year old Shah Din. Din lost his son and a grandson to “intense firing” from Pakistan side “many years ago”, while the family was dining.
“I have seen tragedy very closely. The shadow of death hangs over this village round the year,” a distraught Din said, searching for household items from his burnt hut, his feet buried in a thick layer of ashes. A few half-melted steel glasses and a burnt cooking cylinder was all he could find.
After situation improved on the border, a group of villagers returned on January 24 morning only to find many homes have been raised to rubble.
Soon elderly women joined by young girls rushed to the village late in the afternoon.
Zareefa Bano and her daughter Zeenat cried aloud after seeing what was left of their home – a heap of debris. Bano’s daughter searched with his bare hands for her books and certificates in a trunk. “Everything has been reduced to ashes. What will I do now?” she cried bitterly, some 15 minutes before being told that some of her goats and buffaloes had also become collateral damage.
There are more than 20 families struck by this double tragedy, of losing their home and their livestock as well, said Hussain.
“At least 31 huts have been lost totally in this fresh shelling. Many homes have suffered partial damage,” said Hussain.
Besides 67 buffalos and 35 goats were killed while animals are injured, he said. “Four injured buffalos died last evening and many more won’t survive as they have grievous injuries.”
No option but to go back
That there has been no civilian casualty at Jora Farm brings smile on faces of villagers struck by the tragedy – at least 12 people including five civilians from different border villages have been killed in firing and shelling from Pakistan side that started after January 15.
However it will be take long time before life returns to normal at the farm. The villagers and their animals have been shifted to nearby state agriculture farm. The families are however angry with the government for “leaving them on their own”.
Two blankets and a 20×20 feet polythene sheets was all that each family was provided by the government, said Sher Ali, one of the villagers. “It is a joke for a family which has lost everything.”
A two-storey government building has been kept for the villagers as a shelter place. But it doesn’t have enough space for entire population.
The families however seem to be more concerned about their cattle. There is no water at the agriculture farm and the only hand pump set up years ago is running dry. “Please tell them (government) to at least make this pump functional. Our animals will otherwise die of thirst,” says Ghulam Rasool, milking one of his buffalos in open.
The shortage of fodder for the animals is another worry for the villagers as almost all the haystacks back in Jora Farm were consumed in the fire.
“Each time there is flare up on the border we are the ones who bear the brunt. The politicians come, make hollow promises of relocating us to safer places only to return to repeat the promises the next time we come under firing or shelling from that side,” an angry Musmati Begum echoed her views.
Will the families return to the village now after seeing death so closely? “This is the grim reality of our life. We have no option but to go back despite knowing that a sword of death hangs over our heads round the year,” said Begum, this time she smiled, his daughter Rafeeqa and daughter-in-law Razia by her side.
But beneath her smile and resolve to pick up threads of life again lies the fear: nobody knows when the shells will land again and if the villagers will be lucky the next time.