Nine-year-old Hilal Ahmed Chopan begins crying as his father shows around the gutted cluster of houses that has left hundreds homeless near the Line of Control in Gurez sector of Jammu and Kashmir after Pakistan’s aggression using artillery guns targeting civilians.
Hilal like many other kids in the Junglee village of Kanzalwan area are in shock after their homes were reduced to ashes on August 27. Pakistan Army used heavy artillery to target civilian areas leaving the residents gripped in fear in Gurez.
Chopan consoles his son every time the little boy starts sobbing haunted by the memory of the horror. Young Hilal continuously pleads to be taken to a place of safety. Chopan tells Hilal that things will be fine, though he is uncertain himself.
“We elders have seen these things before but it’s impossible to explain the same to kids. All the children in the area keep repeating what happened that day and are scared,” he said.
Seventeen homes, in which more than 150 people lived, were turned into rubble due to heavy shelling from Pakistan. The authorities said the violation of ceasefire from Pakistan was unprovoked.
Salam Mohammed Chopan, an old man with a white beard, stands at the spot where his house existed till a few days back. Pointing to something in the debris, he says, “These were utensils in what used to be our kitchen. It’s all ruined now.”
His family included 12 members, who lived in two houses adjacent to each other. Born in 1947, the year India was partitioned and Pakistan was born, Salam says he has seen it all over the years.
Recalling what happened on August 27, he said, “It started with small arms firing and we thought it’s the usual exchange of fire between the armies and will stop. But within minutes there was artillery shelling leaving people shocked and looking for shelter.”
Over 150 people ran for cover and stuffed themselves in a single bunker that the locals call a morcha that was built on their own. But soon this too was hit and destroyed.
“It was Allah’s will that there was no loss of life and we had a miraculous escape,” Salam added. In the Gurez sector, such heavy artillery shelling from Pakistan has been used thrice over the past one month.
Abdul Rashid Ganai, another resident of the area, has an additional worry. His son’s certificates and all academic documents were lost to shelling from Pakistan. “My son held a degree in Bachelor of Education. With his degrees getting burnt, what will he do now,” he said.
This is the worst shelling by Pakistan in the northern reaches of Gurez and Tanghdhar in over a decade. Sources said the last time such heavy artillery fire was seen was in 2004.
While heavy shelling was restricted to areas South of Pir Panjal in places such as Poonch, Nowshera and Rajouri, now ceasefire violations are also being recorded in upper reaches. The people in these areas have traditionally supported the Indian Army.
“By targeting civilians and disturbing their lives, Pakistan is trying to create trouble within locals and the Army,” said an army official.
Terror launchpads are also extremely active across the LoC in the Gurez sector. Sources say these launch pads have 25-30 terrorists looking for any opportunity to infiltrate.
Some of the launchpads are active across the LoC in Macchli, opposite Davar, where an Indian Army Brigade HQ is located. Sonar is opposite Kanzalwan where heavy artillery firing gutted houses.
Sources said more terror launchpads are active in Kel, Losar, Taubat and Drmat across the LoC under the close watch of the Pakistan Army, which is trying to push terrorists to the Indian side.
The heavy cross-LoC firing has had a traumatic effect on school-going children. Overtaken by an unknown fear, they have refused to attend their schools.
“We haven’t been going to school since then. For the higher secondary school we have to walk 4 to 5 km. Nobody wants to risk their lives. What if shelling starts when were walking to school,” says Mohammed Yakub, a Class-12 student.
The area is immensely backward with no employment opportunities. Unexplored natural beauty of Gurez does attract some tourists, many of them travelling from abroad but small hotels and lodges are what people have to depend on for their earnings. At this point of time, even that little tourism economy is under threat.
People in the villages are mostly cattle grazers and sustain on odd labour-intensive jobs, with the army being the principal employer. They employ them as porters.
The Pakistan Army escalated shelling along the LoC in the wake of abrogation of special status of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370. The villagers fear that if Pakistan’s aggression continues, living in the areas will be impossible.
With Pakistan relentlessly targeting the civilian areas, the administration has begun construction of community bunkers on top priority. The residents have been advised to take shelter in these bunkers when shelling is underway.
However, with their home completely destroyed, these families are now dependent on the help from the army and their own relatives living in safer areas.
Targeting civilian areas on sectors that have usually remained peaceful is a new strategy. The Indian Army has been retaliating, and there has been heavy damage to military establishments in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.