Uri (Line of Control): Anwar Hussain was inside his home in the last of Uri’s villages in Jammu and Kashmir when the stillness of the cold day was broken by an exploding shell fired from across the Line of Control.
Before Hussain could react, a splinter hit his elder child’s head. A second one broke the leg of the younger of his two children. Another splinter hit his wife in the back, ripping apart her skin and flesh.
All this happened in less than a minute on 10 March last year.
“Four people were injured in my house that day. My brother’s son was also among them. My house was damaged, but I haven’t got any compensation from the government so far,” Hussain recounts, trembling and pausing each time the cold winds hit his face.
With no hospital in Jabda, Hussain ran around Uri and Srinagar gathering his limited resources to save his wife and children. He was eventually able to save his family, unlike many others in the village.
Jabda is the last village along the LoC in the Uri block of J&K’s Baramulla. The region came into prominence after the 2016 terror attack on an Army establishment.
In the last one year, at least 50 of the nearly 70 houses in Jabda have been damaged in ceasefire violations on the LoC, affecting over 250 people.
For Hussain and hundreds of other Jabda villagers, the threat of shelling and fatal injuries is constant. As of today, Jabda doesn’t have a single bunker for villagers to take refuge. During the thick of shelling incidents, the only option is to flee to other villages.
Army sources tell ThePrint that every incident of shelling affects at least three-four households. Almost 80 per cent of Jabda villagers have faced shelling in some form — either a hit to their house or to themselves. Last year was particularly difficult with massive increase in shelling on the LoC.
Ceasefire violations along the LoC in J&K doubled to 3,200 in 2019 against 1,629 from a year ago, according to the Army. In Uri alone, around 35 instances have been recorded last year.
Such episodes of violence between India and Pakistan peaked twice last year — after the Pulwama attack in February, and the subsequent Balakot strikes carried out by the Indian Air Force across the LoC. After Pulwama, India suspended cross-LoC trade with Pakistan conducted through the facilitation centres in Uri’s Salamabad.
Army sources said there has been a manifold increase in cross-border shelling incidents since August in Uri alone. Keran, Poonch, Akhnoor and Gurez are the other sectors in the region that have remained tense in the last few weeks.
The Narendra Modi government scrapped the special status of J&K and announced the bifurcation of the erstwhile state into two union territories on 5 August.
ThePrint reached G.N. Itoo, Deputy Commissioner of Baramulla, for a comment but there was no response until the time of publishing this report.
The neglected villages of Uri
The Uri block has over 41 villages, of which a dozen lie in proximity to the LoC. It has a population of 75,000, with a significant majority of Muslim Gujjars, according to Census 2011.
In the absence of basic amenities like schools and hospitals, and even jobs, the villagers in these far-flung places are heavily dependent on the Army.
A majority of them are employed by the Army as porters and labourers and other casual workers in construction activities.
The bowl-shaped Jabda is situated adjacent to a snow-clad ridge in the Himalayan range. On the other side of the ridge lies Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), but the imaginary border along the expanse is not easily identifiable.
Jabda is situated at a higher altitude than neighbouring Sultan Daki and Kamalkote. The small and austere houses here are brick-made and silver tin-roofed and are scattered sporadically, each higher than the other as one climbs the broken path strewn with large chunky stones.
Children of the village walk around 10 km every day to reach the nearest primary school in Kamalkote. Higher secondary students walk nearly double to attend a school in Sultan Daki.
Akbar Din, a teacher in a primary school in a neighbouring village, says his institution often shuts down when shelling starts — sometimes for as long as two weeks in succession.
“The children, even those living in the nearby villages, have to stay at home when shelling starts. The exams are postponed, but with schools being closed for weeks together, they are troubled and their education is affected,” he says.
But the locals have resigned themselves to their fate, continually braving the shelling and risking their lives and families due to lack of opportunities elsewhere. There is also the fear of getting shot from across the border, particularly among those working as porters.
What affects them the most is the lack of immediate medical help when there is shelling.
Abdul Kujum, a casual labourer, lost his brother in a shelling incident soon after the Balakot strikes in February 2019. He feels his brother could have been saved if he had received immediate treatment.
“It was around 2.30 pm that day when a shell hit his house. He was not at home but when he heard about the incident, he came back to his home risking his life to get his wife and kids out as his house was completely damaged,” says Kujum.
“But by that time, the shelling increased and a splinter hit him. He lost his legs. We took him to a Srinagar hospital, where he remained admitted for 11 days. He died later. He could have been saved if he had got immediate medical help,” adds Kujum.
In June 2018, then home minister Rajnath Singh had announced bulletproof ambulances and 14,000 government-built bunkers for the border population in J&K affected in ceasefire violations. But these are yet to reach Uri.
A senior government official in J&K, requesting not to be named, tells ThePrint that the population residing near the international border gets the first preference as compared to people living along the LoC.
Why Uri is important
Uri is crucial from a strategic and security perspective. It’s the last block along the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road close to PoK. The Jhelum river, too, passes through Uri before entering Pakistan.
“It is one of the gateways to PoK and thus has several infiltration routes. So, the support of the locals is critical to the security forces and the government,” a senior civil servant in the J&K administration tells ThePrint on the condition of anonymity.
The J&K government has given little attention to these border villages and most official resources were traditionally focused on Srinagar and surrounding areas, admits the official. The only notable exception was when Uri had to be rebuilt in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake.
“Executing agencies also tend to be slack. But Uri needs to be insurgency-proofed and it is important to keep the population here constructively engaged and provide employment to the youth,” the official says. “For example, NHPC should employ a percentage of the population in the hydroelectric project of Uri.”
The official adds, “People have been living in these areas for decades and they have their land, farms and homes here. They can’t get displaced and perhaps should not be displaced as that would completely vacate the LoC. So they should be given livelihood opportunities here.”
The support of the local residents is also crucial in detecting threats, as highlighted in the 2016 attacks.
‘Does anyone care about us?’
For those living in the villages of Uri, there hasn’t been any perceptible change in their lives in the last several years.
Sitting on a carpet in her house, a frail Saleema Begum says the children of the village have been the worst-hit in the violence.
“The children don’t get to go to school or even study at home. How will they clear exams? All we do is run to other villages to save ourselves. What do we do? We don’t have any money to shift from here,” says the Jabda resident.
“An entire generation of children have been destroyed in the violence, but does anyone care about us?”