Just a few minutes before nine richly decorated Pakistani trucks cross the Line of Control (LoC) and enter India from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), the immigration and customs centre reverberates with the sound of gunfire. A short sharp exchange of fire has taken place somewhere along the LoC and very close to the customs complex, a reminder that the trading post between India and Pakistan functions under the shadow of the gun.
The high intensity cross-border firing which was unleashed a few days back on the International Border and the LoC may have subsided to a great extent, but intermittent firing is still taking place. However, after being closed for three days for cargo purposes and one day for the travel of passengers, the trade facilitation centre here is back to business.
The entire area is sanitised and provided security by the Army. Thus, in a way while the Army battles the ceasefire violations along the LoC just a short distance from the trade centre, it also provides security cover for the Pakistani trucks which enter into India carrying goods for local traders.
The Major representing the local Army unit which is deployed in this area understands the irony of the situation. “Just a few months back, this immigration and customs building was also shelled by the Pakistan Army,” he says with amusement. The damage is still there to see. The roof of the building has caved in where it was hit by a 82 mm mortar shell of the Pakistan Army.
A well-practised drill, meanwhile, takes place as the Indian set of drivers who are to go to PoK get their credentials checked and their trucks inspected. Four immigration counters inside the building do the task quickly and 30 trucks go down the road to cross over into Pok.
Cross border trade amist cross border firing. Pakistani trucks cross LoC into Poonch at Chakan Da Bagh under watchful eyes of an Army Jawan. pic.twitter.com/6yE1PHqEM1
— Man Aman Singh Chhina (@manaman_chhina) January 24, 2018
Jamat Ali, the security in-charge, says no passengers will cross over from PoK into India and vice-versa because that takes place only once a week. “The passengers come on Monday while the goods trading takes place from Tuesday to Friday,” he says as he leads the convoy of Indian trucks to the zero line.
The security team returns a short while later with the nine Pakistani trucks which have come laden with dry dates, medicinal herbs, kinnu fruit etc. The trucks are closely inspected before they are parked on the roadside and their drivers are chaperoned inside the customs centre. Care is taken to ensure they do not speak to any Indian or mingle with locals.
The short three-km route from the customs centre to the trade facilitation complex is also well guarded by the Army troops. They keep a close eye on the trucks as they take the short drive down in a convoy. A Punjabi soldier standing on the roadside cannot help grinning and exclaiming in Punjabi that the trucks are beautifully painted. “Saun lagge bada savaar ke rakhde ne gaddi nu (I swear they really decorate their trucks well)”. And as the trucks trundle by, another short burst of gunfire is heard in the valley. “Chalta rehta hai (It keeps happening),” says a Jawan nonchalantly.
Mohammad Tanvir, the Custodian at the trade facilitation centre, says that the number of passengers going to PoK from India has gone down in the past few days. “It is because of this border firing. People are apprehensive. They do not want to get stuck on the other side for days on end if the movement between the two countries is suddenly stopped,” he says. On Monday, nine Indians came back from Pakistan and four PoK residents came in the bus. None went from India to PoK, Tanvir says.
The Indian trucks have lately been carrying bananas, pineapples, tomato, garlic and apples to PoK. “The reason why more Indian trucks cross over and a comparative lesser number of Pakistani trucks come in is because their trucks have higher carrying capacity,” says the Custodian. The Pakistani drivers are taken into an ‘isolation room’ within the complex where they rest till their trucks are unloaded and they are free to go back. Here again, no interaction with locals is allowed. Even the local traders cannot speak to their counterparts in PoK by making a phone call. “They can only receive incoming calls from PoK, because of restriction soon outgoing phone calls to PoK. Emails and exchange of WhatsApp messages help them to communicate better,” says Tanvir.