TUCKED away in a corner of Kashmir ever since the Line of Control pierced through it dividing families between India and Pakistan, Uri is generally so far from headlines and news debates that the day seems one long hour. Even when militancy was at its peak, the mountainous town located on either side of the Jhelum river and its adjoining villages were hardly affected. The only time there was a stir was at the news of an infiltration attempt.
The last time Uri actually made headlines was for a reason entirely different. In 2005, the road to Muzaffarabad in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir was opened here, allowing the movement of people and goods through Kaman bridge.
The physical distance from a Kashmir in turmoil is only one reason for Uri’s calm — just one road links the town to the rest of the Valley, currently closed due to the protests in Baramulla, and cellphones and the Internet have been disconnected for two months here too in attempts to bring peace.
The other reason is the special relationship Uri shares with the Army: this is perhaps the only place in Kashmir where people aren’t in conflict with the forces.
Uri is a town with one small hospital, a police station, no petrol pump, few government schools and sporadic electricity supply. People are dependent on the Army. The garrison itself isn’t a walled compound out of bounds for civilians — though there is a fence. Even the road connecting Uri with villages towards the Salamabad and Kaman bridge, all the way to Muzaffarabad, pierces through this camp.
Villagers regularly visit the Army hospital for treatment, their children study in the Army school, and a shrine revered by locals and a museum dedicated to the history of Uri are inside the garrison. The locals know many of the soldiers on the base, even consider some as friends.
Three hours on Sunday morning may have changed all that.
When the mountains reverberated with the sound of gunfire, initially the town didn’t pay much attention. There is a firing range close by and the sound of gunshots isn’t new. Plus, Uri is located in a narrow valley and the sounds always reverberate.
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After the gunshots, there were a few loud blasts and smoke started to billow out from the garrison. Still, there was no panic. Locals thought a building inside could have caught fire. Some guessed the market had burnt down again. It had happened several times over the past few years.
When news finally filtered in that militants had stormed the garrison and killed 17 soldiers, fear swept over the town.
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Could the Army close the gates of the garrison to the local population now? Could the Kaman bridge be shut, closing the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road and ending the only successful confidence building measure between India and Pakistan since 1947? The road had reunited divided families in Uri too. What about the business that would be affected?
But was not the biggest worry. It was whether the attack meant the end of ceasefire along the LoC — a return to years of living in panic of Pakistani shells landing across the border, killing and maiming people.
Uri spent the day counting sorties of helicopters over the base. Though it is harvest season, people stayed glued to TV sets to know what was happening in their town.
Waheeda Lone, who lives only a few metres from the main gate of the Army camp, talked about how she witnessed the attack without realising what was happening. “Such an attack has never happened here so I thought something may have caught fire. Once the TV vans started arriving, I switched on my own set. I sat at my window all day.”
Locals with friends inside grieved that most of the men who were killed had arrived in Uri only a day ago. “The 6 Bihar unit had come yesterday and was going to replace 10 Dogra unit,” a local said. “I don’t think the 6 Bihar men were even armed.”
A resident with sources in the garrison said the militants had cut the fence to get in. “The Army’s Devi Post is located 100 metres above the place where the attack happened. Perhaps the Armymen didn’t see them (the terrorists) sneaking in. Those who spoke to me are certain the militants came from the side of Sukhdar village, 4 km away. That is the only village there, and the LoC is an hour-long journey away, through a jungle.”
The locals also worried about what would have happened had the encounter gone on. “It would have been mayhem. There is a depot of petroleum products and an ammo depot very close to the place of the attack. The brigade commander’s residence is barely 150-200 metres away.”
Talk soon went around town about seven-eight unknown boys seen roaming around the area. Some claimed to have seen them a day ahead of Eid, asking for directions near the TV tower overlooking the garrison. They were looking for Gawahalan Singtung village, others said. Locals claimed they had informed the police, and for the next few days, soldiers patrolled the main town — also a rarity here — and carried out low-flying sorties.
When nothing happened, things quietened down.
As the night set in on Sunday, Uri looked peaceful again. But appearances were deceptive.
While people were allowed to go to the market, a lock now blocked the spot where the road entered the garrison, manned by soldiers. No greetings were exchanged; there was only a wary silence.