AS THE shelling continued, Ghulam Qadir trod down the 6-km road from his village Silikote along the Line of Control to the relief camp in Uri town, carrying two photographs — of his son who lost part of his leg during a cross-border shelling in 2001; and of his wife who stepped out of their house in August 2003 and died after getting shot in the abdomen. For 60-year-old Qadir who has grown up here, his childhood boxed in by bundles of concertina wire, both are reminders that his village had returned to its unending cycle of life and death after a few years of peace.
“Dehshat (fear)” was dominating the conversation again in the seven villages along the LoC here, including Qadir’s, during the days when shelling was in progress.
As the road from Uri town bent towards Silikote, the Pakistani flag came into view across a ridge, against a thick pine forest. The shelling began on February 21. It was later replaced by gunfire, which an untrained ear could mistake for thunder reverberating through the mountains. The roads leading up to the villages, narrow and unmetalled, had few vehicles but for occasional private cars.
Tilawaadi, 8 km from Uri town, where a woman was injured in the shelling on February 20, is located up one such dilapidated road. Haaji Asadullah Mir pointed his walking stick towards a dozen or so houses, located atop a mountain on the Pakistani side but about 800 metres away as the crow flies. “Those are homes of my relatives, my maternal cousins and their children. I wonder if they are still there, or were evacuated as well.”
Mir is the lambardaar or headman of Tilawaadi and has lived here all his life. He used the wars he has witnessed to arrive at his age and settled at 81. “I went to meet my relatives on the other side in 2008 on a visa,” he smiled, recalling the journey he took to reach what is practically just beyond his front yard.
Mir’s wife Mehbooba said that after the 2003 ceasefire, people who were used to being displaced had begun to settle down. The villages here no longer have bunkers. What was left of the neglected bunkers post-2003 crumbled in the earthquake of 2005.
“Once we used to build mudhouses because we were never sure when the next shell would hit. There would be a metre-thick layer of mud on the house to cushion the blow,” Mehbooba said. Now there are concrete houses, and they can’t trust concrete to save their lives, she said.
Mir and she were the only ones among their 16-member household who did not move to the relief camp, set up in the Higher Secondary School at Uri town. “I have to take care of our house and livestock,” Mir said.
Not more than 50 metres away stood a small, blue colour mosque, its windows shattered, with a small crater in the road in front of it. Beyond it, the tin roof of Subhan Najar’s single-storey house resembled a shattered car windscreen. Standing amidst burnt pieces of metal and wood as well as his children’s destroyed notebooks, he said he was in no rush to clear them. “We were all at home on February 22 when the shell hit the house. It is a miracle no one got injured. I sent my family away to the relief camp. I would come home at day and head back to the camp at night.”
Shaheena, also of Tilawaadi village, said villagers call the fence that came up at the LoC between 2003 and 2004, with thorn bushes all around it, as “blade waali kaantedaar taar”. And it doesn’t define just borders, she added. “It cuts into our lives. It divides our families, leaves our lives unsettled.”
The last dozen houses located in the no-man’s land beyond this fence were empty. A soldier kept constant vigil from a post and shouted at any onlookers to move away from the fence.
At the school serving as the relief camp, where more than 1,500 people stayed cramped, the villagers were afraid of going back. Utensils were borrowed from the local masjid committee and the bedding from a tent house at the camp. With temperatures still down in this region, bukharis (small coal stoves) provided heat.
“We do not want to live in fear… I do not want to lose my family. The government should give us plots elsewhere and relocate us,” said Zarina Begum, who was evacuated from Silikote along with others in ambulances and private vehicles.
His eyes fixed towards Pakistan, Asadullah Mir said they have always lived with the possibility of war. “They can fight their war if that is what the rulers in Delhi decide,” he added. “But what will be left behind are ruins. They can then fight over the barren land all they want.”