A town called Uri — How the September 18 attack may now change it

A town of walnut traders and farmers, of memories of mortar shells raining down on rooftops, of a garrison town where Army and civilian lives blend effortlessly. Photographs: Shuaib Masoodi

Updated: September 25, 2016 2:40:16 pm

On the map, Uri tehsil is a ‘C’ or a toppled ‘U’, with the dotted lines that mark the Line of Control (LoC) running along its three sides. The town of Uri, surrounded by villages all the way up to the LoC, is only 6 km from the nearest point on the border. This geography meant that in the post-Kargil years of the early 2000s, the nearly 50 km stretch of National Highway-1 — between Uri and the district headquarters of Baramulla — would be lined with Bofors guns pointing west.

However, the ceasefire that India and Pakistan reached in 2003 proved to be a game-changer. Though news of violations kept trickling in, the whiff of lasting peace between the two warring nations changed the lives of people in the town. The sense of relief that followed the truce brought with it some permanence — dilapidated school buildings and marketplaces were rebuilt, and development, which had been too much to ask for in a shelling-prone zone, picked pace once again. Over the years, business in Uri looked up, and in 2005, the town got its first college — the Government Degree College, Uri — in the main town, although it’s still all bricks and barracks. Before the college came up, students had to travel to Baramulla after school and to Srinagar for further studies.

uri, uri attack, uri town, uri kashmir, uri town news, uri army camp, baramulla, baramulla army base, uri army base, army base near uri, india news The entrance to the 12 Infantry Brigade HQ.

September 18 brought back some of those fears. That day, four heavily armed terrorists sneaked into the administrative buildings and store complex of the 12 Infantry Brigade and killed 18 Army personnel. The attack snapped Uri and its people back to a past they had barely begun to forget.

“Before the 2003 ceasefire, there was the constant threat of losing life and livelihood. The mortar shells could drop anywhere — in the fields, right through your home. Very few people had the luxury of moving out of Uri,” says Nasir Khan, who grew up in Uri and now lives in Srinagar, where he works with the state government.

Babar Inaam, who moved from Uri to Chandigarh for his higher studies, still remembers the sound of those shells and the damage they caused when he was growing up. “You would hear this shrill sound piercing through the sky and that was the only warning you had. Our house got damaged several times and after a point, we just gave up on repairs. All we wanted was to be safe,” he says. He also remembers pulling his mother and sisters out of their house to the fields outside, in the seconds before the shells hit.

Today, as you walk uphill in the main town, there are a few other reminders of those days. Like the tin sheets, pockmarked and torn apart by shells, which still mark the boundaries of some houses.

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In Uri, there’s little to tell one day apart from the other. Like most small towns, Uri decides its pace. It is a town with one small health centre, a police station, no petrol pump, three government schools and, for a state that contributes over 1,200 MW of electricity to the state sector and about 2,000 MW to the central sector, patchy electricity. It also houses the 480 MW NHPC power station commissioned in 1997.

On nights that there is electricity, Ghulam Nabi Mir, a 56-year-old farmer, makes sure he tunes in to the evening news on television. His son Irfan Nabi, a teacher in the Uri higher secondary school, says, “At 7 every evening, my father scans all the news channels — English, Hindi or Urdu — looking for information on Kashmir in general and Uri in particular. I have often heard him saying that the national media doesn’t give us enough coverage.” On Sunday, Irfan adds, his father didn’t complain. Every channel had visuals from Uri on their screens.

About 75 per cent of Uri’s population depends on agriculture — growing and trading in fruits, dry fruits and paddy. According to members of the market committee of the town, Uri does business worth about Rs 80 crore a year, fuelled largely by sales of fresh and dry fruits.

uri, uri attack, uri town, uri kashmir, uri town news, uri army camp, baramulla, baramulla army base, uri army base, army base near uri, india news The main market in Uri town. Even when the rest of Kashmir erupted in protests, Uri stayed largely peaceful.

The tehsil, with a population of approximately 60,000, has the added advantage of being slightly warmer than the rest of the Valley — this helps the fruit ripen faster and Uri’s supplies are usually the first to reach markets in Delhi.

In the main town, which has a population of roughly 10,000, the day starts early. So when gunshots rang through the villages in the early hours on September 18, people were already up and knew that this was a break from normal. “I was out walking when I heard the first gunshots. I thought it was probably the soldiers practising in the firing range. Then I heard the blasts and some Army vehicles zipping past on the main road outside. Almost immediately, memories of my childhood, when we would wake up thinking of war, came flooding back,” says Shamima Lone, 33, who teaches in the Government Girls Middle School.

“Those days, whenever there was tension between India and Pakistan, Army officials would call the elders of the area and tell them to stay back and make sure others did too. That, I think, helped avoid panic. Then, public transport was limited and not many had the means to leave the town, but that is not the case now,” she says.

Today, the 100-km, two-lane stretch between Srinagar and Uri has vehicles plying through the day. “If a situation like in those days were to come up again, people would simply leave the town right away,” adds Lone.

The residents of Uri believe that their proximity to the border makes them different from the rest of the Valley. This Uri exception marks their daily lives — in their relationship with the Army and in the way they have largely stayed away from uprisings in the rest of the Valley.

Residents here understand that since theirs is a border area, the Army is an inevitable presence. “Uri is not Srinagar, where the Army establishment (the Badami Bagh Cantonment) is at one place and the soldiers are scattered all around the city. Here, every few kilometres, there is some kind of a garrison. De-militarisation may be an option in the rest of the Valley, but not here, at the border. We understand that,” says Arif Shafi, a walnut trader in Uri.

uri, uri attack, uri town, uri kashmir, uri town news, uri army camp, baramulla, baramulla army base, uri army base, army base near uri, india news Walnut trade fuels the town’s economy.

The Army has reached out too. In Uri, locals have access to Army canteens, they often consult Army doctors, and shepherds trim the grass in the helipad and carry it back to feed their livestock. Since Uri is so close to the border, forces are not allowed to keep their families, but the Army has a school within the camp that caters to children of the town. With no petrol pump in the town, the Army is known to sometimes help residents with fuel. Besides, there is no boundary wall that separates the Army camp from the civilian areas around it.

Some, however, fear that events such as the attack on Sunday could create a sense of mistrust between the forces and the people. They fear that if, in reaction to the attack, the Army clamps down on the town and its people, the unsaid understanding between the two might snap.

A day after the attack, on the lawns of the town’s community health centre, there is a heated conversation about the attack. “I am not surprised the militants entered the Army camp. It’s so easy to get in,” says one. “Some villagers even dig under the wire fence around the camp, sneak in, trim the grass in the helipad and get out. If it is that easy for them to enter, how difficult would it have been for militants,” another asks.

Every day, around 300 patients come to the health centre, which has 17 doctors on its rolls. More serious cases are referred to the St Joseph’s Hospital in Baramulla, 50 km away.

While the rest of Kashmir witnessed violent protests after the July 8 killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, Uri was largely peaceful. Soon, curfew was imposed in all 10 districts of the Valley, including Baramulla, and during the curfew, people in Srinagar and the rest of the Valley had taken to travelling late in the night to avoid clashing with the forces. Uri too followed that schedule and there were few incidents of trouble. But after the September 18 attack on the 12 Infantry Brigade headquarters, residents say night travel has became more complicated, with security checks all the way to Srinagar.

“I was taking passengers to Srinagar two days after the attack and at three places, the Army stopped us for checking,” says Adil Manzoor, a taxi driver. He says he now races past Army settlements because “I am worried about these places coming under attack. Now, I never forget to carry my identity card.”

While schools in the rest of the Valley remained shut for over two months, those in Uri have largely stayed open. The state board examinations are in October/November and teachers say they hope to stick to the schedule. “Most schools in Uri tehsil have completed at least 80 per cent of the syllabus. For schools that haven’t, the government may have to give either a curriculum relaxation or postpone exams,” says A Tehmina, who teaches in the Uri middle school.

Two days after the attack, only three students showed up for her class and the teachers decided to shut the school and wait for a few days. “I understand… parents are probably concerned about more attacks taking place or are worried about checks by the Army,” she says.

uri, uri attack, uri town, uri kashmir, uri town news, uri army camp, baramulla, baramulla army base, uri army base, army base near uri, india news NH-1 that connects the border town to the district headquarters of Baramulla.

The Uri degree college has, however, faced disruptions during the current unrest — most teachers travel to the college from Baramulla or Srinagar and haven’t been able to do so in the last couple of months.

For over two months, Idress Ahmad, who studies in an engineering college in Srinagar, has been home in Salamabad village in Uri. His college has been shut since the protests began. But here in Uri, he could be living in a bubble, far from the anger that has consumed the rest of the Valley.

“In Uri, the situation is different. I live on one side of the cantonment and my grandparents on the other. There are times when I pass through Uri Cantonment several times a day and there has never been an issue. Civilians walk through the garrison and those who do so often have friends among the guards. An attack on a sleepy town like ours is shocking,” he says.

His sister Tehnaaz remembers how, on September 18, she was in her attic and wondered where the smoke was coming from. “Our main market is notorious for fires but when I finally heard on TV about the militant attack, I instinctively looked at the spot in our field where a shell had fallen in 1999. My grandfather was walking towards our house and the shell landed a few inches away from him but he survived it.”

Idress and Tehnaaz also remember playing in the crater that the shell had created in their field and “pretending to shoot from inside it like Armymen in a bunker”.

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On September 18, a few hours after the attack, when the entire town had shut down, the only vehicles to pass though the gates of the garrison were the vehicles of the Karvan-e-Aman motorcade.

The bus service, which connects Srinagar to Muzaffarabad in PoK, runs through Uri. In Uri, the bus goes right through the garrison and makes a stop at Salamabad, a village just across the Army camp. From there, it reaches Aman Setu, the peace bridge which passengers cross on foot to reach Muzaffarabad.

uri, uri attack, uri town, uri kashmir, uri town news, uri army camp, baramulla, baramulla army base, uri army base, army base near uri, india news The Jhelum river that cuts through the tehsil.

Since it began in April 2005, the bus has so far been used by more than 3,000 people. “It was reassuring that they didn’t stop the bus after the attack. The bus has helped families meet. I hope they never shut it down, no matter what,” says Samina Ahmad, 39, who has relatives in Muzaffarabad and Rawalpindi.

Till resilience — or collective amnesia as some call it — takes over, Uri will be on the edge. As prime time television seeks revenge and retaliation, Ghulam Nabi Mir, the 56-year-old farmer in Uri town, is hanging on to every word, possibly trying to understand what a “befitting reply” from one nation to another could possibly mean for him.