Baramulla, Kashmir: Towards the end of February 2022, Fatima Begum, a 68-year-old widow who lives in Tarbal village of Gurez tehsil in the northern Kashmir district of Bandipora, began to decorate her two-storey wooden house, damaged two years ago when it was hit by artillery shells fired from Pakistan.
Tarbal is the last Indian village of Gurez’s Bagtore sector, about 123 km north of the capital Srinagar and barely two km from the Line Of Control (LoC), the 740-km-long de facto border and military control line across Kashmir’s region.
“There will never be any cross-border shelling again, I hope,” said Fatima.
Other residents of the village were busy with routine chores. Children played in the meadows framed by snow-capped peaks. The rattle of gunfire, which had in the past severely damaged six houses and a mosque in Tarbal, had fallen silent.
Located in one of the world’s most militarised border regions, the Gurez valley, once the gateway to the Silk Route connecting Europe in the west and Kashgar in China in the east, attracted at least 3,000 tourists in 2021-22. The previous year, only 200 tourists were permitted to visit, with the valley under border shelling for most of the year.
In the last 19 years, this is the first full year that a ceasefire has held, the first full year of peace since 2003, prompting reports of a possible diplomatic upgrade, including the reinstatement of high commissioners in the capital cities of both countries.
The ceasefire agreement benefits both countries and was the result of a back-channel dialogue, according to Manoj Joshi, author of two books on Kashmir, a senior commentator and a former member of the task force on national security. “There has been a back-channel dialogue going on, perhaps with a US push, to improve relations between the two countries,” he told Article 14. “Prolonged hostility only enhances the value of the Sino-Pak relationship,” he added.
There were at least 12,000 “ceasefire violations”, which include mortar shelling, artillery shelling and firing of automatic guns, between 2003 and 2021. “The bombardment along the LoC is used by Pakistan as a cover for infiltration. India gains nothing in return,” said Joshi. The huge casualties, of civilians and military and police personnel, affected both countries, he said.
Residents of Tarbal still saw the concertina wire fences, barely a few metres from their homes and establishments, and the security forces continued to be deployed in the same numbers, but residents said these appeared less alarming since the guns fell silent.
After more than 19 years, north Kashmir’s farmlands located near the LoC witnessed a full farming season, with potatoes, mushrooms, cumin and maize fields to be harvested in the summer. Silkworm farming resumed too, with cocoons almost ready for harvest.
Ceasefire violations grew slowly from a single violation in 2004 to 21 in 2007 and 77 incidents in 2008, a 266% rise in a year. The violence was sharper from 2014 onwards, with 153 ceasefire violations that year; 228 violations in 2016; 860 in 2017 and 1,629 incidents in 2018.
In 2019 over 3,200 instances were reported, or an average of nine a day, a nearly 2,000% rise since 2014.
Of these, 1,565 ceasefire violations took place after August 2019, when the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi struck off Article 370 of the Constitution, removing the guarantee under which the former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) joined India, and reduced the state to a union territory.
The year 2020 recorded the highest number of ceasefire violations over the previous 18 years: 5,100 incidents that claimed 36 lives and left more than 130 people injured.
‘We Lost Loved Ones, Saw Our Homes Destroyed’
In Nambla village of Uri tehsil in the northern district of Baramulla, recounting an incident from 2019, 65-year-old Muhammad Jabbar said several neighbours had gathered in the courtyard of his house for a relaxed evening when an explosion shattered parts of his house.
When the cloud of smoke from the shelling cleared, they realised two neighbours were dead and six others were injured. Two men injured in that incident were still bedridden.
Nambla is located one km from the LoC.
Jabbar said he is hopeful now that the governments of both countries would allow citizens to lead normal lives.
In north Kashmir’s Bandipora, residents of five villages located in the Tulail valley, in close proximity to the LoC, told Article 14 that previous ceasefire violations were traumatic experiences.
Mehnaz Khursheed, 24, an undergraduate student from Titwal, a small village of Karnah tehsil located on the banks of the Kishanganga river in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district, said she prays for peace on both sides of the border. “We have relatives across the border,” she said.
Titwal is located 500 m from the LoC, and was once a trade centre along a pony route connecting Srinagar with Rawalpindi and Muzaffarabad in Pakistan. The establishment of the LoC divided Karnah tehsil, and relatives, friends and ethnic groups were separated too.
The Titwal crossing point, constructed jointly by India and Pakistan in 1988 for separated Kashmiri families to visit one another across the LoC, was closed in 2018. A white line was drawn across the middle of the bridge, separating India from the Neelam valley of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
“During festivals and weddings, we miss our families living just across the border terribly,” Khursheed told Article 14.
Known for its vast forests, pastures and serene environment, the Gurez valley was also home to the Dards or Dard Shins, an ancient tribe who now number around 25,000, cut off from their tribespeople in Astore, Gilgit and Chilas by the LoC.
Mohammad Sultan, a 60-year-old resident of the Karnah tehsil, in the western corner of the Kashmir valley between the Qazi Nag and Nanga Parbat mountain ranges, said his settlement was safe last year, for the first time in recent memory.
"For decades, the shelling made our lives a living hell. We have lost loved ones and seen our homes destroyed."
Murtaza Hussain, a resident of Tulail, said schools in the Gurez and Tulail valleys were now open every day. “Earlier, days were spent only saving our lives,” he said. “Now education is getting back on track.”
Farming, Grazing Livestock, Local Events Pick Up
Farmers along the LoC said cultivation work was restricted earlier due to the constant threat of firing and shelling, but since February 2021, farmers have been able to tend to their land including plots beyond the barbed wire fences.
Irshad, a daily wage labourer from Izmerg village of Gurez, said finding work locally was almost impossible earlier. “The wages we earned were barely more than what beggars earned,” he said.
Bashir Ahmad of Garkote village near the LoC in Uri said after three decades, people were moving about freely. “Before the ceasefire agreement, farmers were not able to cultivate their lands or graze their cattle due to the fear of cross-LoC shelling,” he said.
In the border villages, residents told Article 14 they were now hopeful that important development works in their villages will now be initiated.
Mohammad Suliman, a resident of Tangdar and a shopkeeper by profession, said that barring this past year, most of his working life was spent helping to build community underground bunkers (to be used for shelter during shelling incidents).
Since February 2021, he slowly began to rebuild his livelihood. "My shop is now open from morning till evening every day,” he said. Owner of a small grocery store, he said people have begun to discuss what development work they want in their respective villages.
An official said that infrastructure development works including repairs to government buildings, schools and huts affected by the ceasefire violations have gathered pace.
Suriya Manzoor, 26, a resident of Karnah, got married in 2019 in a week marked by a ceasefire violation, the guests at her wedding were fearful for their lives.
"Everyone was worried about being killed if guns started roaring."
Her cousin, Qamar-un-Nisa, 25, was married in 2021, after the fresh ceasefire agreement. At this wedding, Suriya said, guests appeared to have forgotten that they were border residents in a fraught security environment. “In the evening, the bride was sent away by a large crowd.”
In August 2021, an incident brought unexpected hope to residents of Tulail valley. The Pakistan army repatriated at least 30 cattle including cows, buffalos and zombas (a local hybrid of the yak) that had crossed the Line of Control (LoC) while grazing.
Irfan Ahmad, 32, an electrician and an eyewitness to this incident, said that for over a week after the cattle strayed across the LOC, people in four villages including Budaab, Gaykoot, Kilshay and Sheikhpora had no milk.
“Locals then approached a local army unit for help,” said Ahmad.
Officials said the army unit allowed villagers to search for their animals in the upper reaches of the forward posts along the LoC.
A week later, following a meeting of officials with their counterparts across the border, the animals were sent back. The Lower Saleem post in Pakistan handed over the animals to the Nadaan post in India, a repatriation event attended by civil administrative officials of Gurez.
Demands To Resume India-Pak Trade, Bus Service
With the ceasefire agreement appearing to survive, residents along the border areas have demanded for cross-LoC trade to be resumed, a measure that would bring significant economic benefits.
Abdul Saleem, a local resident of Uri tehsil and a labourer by profession, said along with trade across the border, the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, also known as Karwan-e-Aman, should be restarted too. “The shelling from both sides is over,” Saleem said. “The government should take more steps now for the well-being of residents.”
The bus service was started as a ‘confidence-building measure’ between India and Pakistan in April 2005, allowing thousands of divided families to meet relatives without a passport. The last cross-LoC bus on this route operated on 25 February 2019. In 2008, cross-LoC trade was also introduced for the first time since 1947 but was suspended in 2019.
Salamabad’s trade facilitation centre (TFC) in Uri, where about 50,000 labourers used to be employed, wore a deserted look, closed since April 2019. Residents of 40 villages in Uri would keep an eye out for the green-painted trucks from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) entering the TFC.
Thousands of ‘coolies’ or labourers in pink uniforms would rush to unpack goods including spices, vegetables, dry and fresh fruit, carpets, rugs, embroidered fabric, shawls, papier-mache goods, clothes and wooden furniture from Chikoti in Muzaffarabad, 20 km away across the LoC.
“The closure of the cross-LoC trade left more than 50,000 Uri residents, especially traders, labourers, drivers and small hoteliers jobless,” said Irshad Ahmad, a resident of Uri. Those who then migrated in search of other livelihood were still awaiting the resumption of trade, he said.
The value of cross-border trade from October 2008 to March 2019 was about Rs 57.2 billion (US$770 million), according to official sources.
Sajad Ahmad Lone, 40, now struggling to find work, was among the labourers at the TFC. He used to earn Rs 1,500 a day. “Everything was going fine. I could take care of my family and kids then,” he added.
Border Surveillance Continues, Says Army
Surveillance along north Kashmir's borders continued as earlier, said officials.
While Army chief General M M Naravane said at an event in October 2021 that there had been “sporadic incidents” in preceding weeks, in January 2022, Inspector General of the Border Security Force (Kashmir frontier) Raja Babu Singh said during his annual press conference that after the ceasefire agreement of 2021, the overall situation on the LoC in Kashmir remained peaceful, though there were intelligence inputs about more than 100 militants preparing to attempt an infiltration.
No ceasefire violation occurred along the North Kashmir border, but several infiltration attempts were made in the Uri sector and in Kupwara.
According to official figures, in 2020, 50 AK-series rifles were recovered in foiled infiltration bids by militants, along with 6,861 rounds of ammunition, 10 under-barrel grenade launchers, 187 hand grenades, and 3 improvised explosive devices. “In 2019, only 3 AK-series rifles, 30 rounds of ammunition were recovered. In 2018, 47 AK-series rifles with 3,135 rounds of ammunition were recovered at the LoC,” a source said.
(Sajid Raina is an independent journalist based in Kashmir. He tweets at @SajidRaina1) .