Caught in the Crossfire, Residents of Mountain Villages Along the LoC Continue to Live in Fear

"There should be peace between the two countries. Then only we can live in peace here in this border area."

Dilapidated road leading to Charunda village. Credit: Majid Maqbool

Dilapidated road leading to Charunda village. Credit: Majid Maqbool

Silikote, Charunda (Uri): Each time there is news of firing across the border between India and Pakistan, the people of Silikote begin to worry. The mountain village in Uri sector, about 110 kms north of Srinagar, is one of the closest settlements to the Line of Control (LoC). From the main road of the village, a Pakistani mountain post is visible, its flag fluttering.

The roads leading up to this village, which is a few kilometers away from the main Uri town, are in terrible shape. There are no shelters for the civilian population here to protect themselves in case of a hostile exchange between the Indian and Pakistani forward posts. Shells fired across the LoC have landed on homes here, blowing off rooftops and upper stories, killing livestock and at times injuring the villagers.

“It’s not easy to live here with the border tension,” says Habibullah Chalkoo, a resident who often grazes his herd of sheep downstream close to the border fencing in this village. “Sometimes in the night these days the Indian and Pakistani posts exchange fire. We hear the sound of bullets fired into the dark.”

The sounds bring back painful memories for Chalkoo. On the morning of November 10, 2001, when he was working as a porter with the army unit stationed in the village, a shell from the Pakistani side suddenly landed in front of him. He and four other local porters received wounds from the shrapnel. He still has a scar on his forehead.

A view from the road closer to Silikote village. Cedit: Majid Maqbool

A view from the road closer to Silikote village. Cedit: Majid Maqbool

Chalkoo says firing from both sides near the village was frequent till 2005. “We have suffered the most here since the 1990s,” he says. “Those were terrible years here.”

High school student Safeer Ahmed says they’re afraid when they hear the sound of bullets fired close to the LoC. “Kids are frightened more”. Having grown up in this village, Safeer says he and other children have learnt to distinguish bullet sounds from shells fired in the night.

“There’s a house on the top here,” he says, pointing to a nearby mountain. “Its upper story was hit by a shell from the Pakistani side a few years ago.”

When asked what he expects from the government, Safeer said, “There should be peace between the two countries. Only then we can live in peace here in this border area.”

Stuck on the fence

In Tilawari, just across the river from Silikote, villagers say about 70% of their land is within walking distance, but beyond the military fencing by the LoC.

“When the troops fenced the border here in 2006, they said that people can have access to their land inside the fence through a few open gates,” says resident Sajid Ahmed. “But for the last three years, all those gates have been closed for us by the army. Even the cattle are not allowed to graze near the fencing.”

The villagers recently had a meeting with the local administration, asking them to prevail on the army to give access to the fenced-off lands. There’s been no response.

In Charunda, tucked even higher in the mountains in Uri, the Pakistani posts and even residential buildings are visible across the stream. Residents can hear the azaan from the mosques on the other side. Sometimes they spot people on the other side – people they can’t meet even if they’re relatives, living on the other side for decades.

Haji Pir stream below Silikote village. Credit: Majid Maqbool

Haji Pir stream below Silikote village. Credit: Majid Maqbool

A border fence of concertina wire runs parallel to the LoC, cutting off villagers from the exclusively military zone on the far side. “Half the land belonging to the villagers here is outside the border fencing,” says Muhammad Ismail, 70, of Charunda. Abdul Qayoom, another resident, says villagers have written a letter to the sub-divisional magistrate seeking permission from the army to access their land on the other side of the fencing.

Even to visit land that lies close to the fence, villagers are required to leave their identity cards at the last army post. The cards are returned only when the villagers come back.

Ambulances rarely come to these villages, and residents say they often have to carry sick people on foot down to the hospital in Uri town. There is one health centre in Silikote, which villagers say has remained closed for the past six years.

“When we have a delivery case here, we are sometimes forced to take the ladies on our shoulders and walk for more than two hours to the nearest health centre,” says Iqbal Ahmed.

“Politicians do come here only during the election time to seek our votes,” another Silikote resident says. “And then they forget us after that even if we die here.”

Majid Maqbool is a journalist and editor based in Srinagar, Kashmir.