“War does not feel far away here,” says Hajji Mohammed Hussain as he picks up the remains of his roof which was destroyed the night before by a mortar shell. Hajji Mohammed’s house is located in the Poonch district of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Several homes have been damaged by shelling in the crossfire between India and Pakistan. Mohammed Riaza, a neighbour holds up a piece of shrapnel, “This is an Indian mortar shell,” he says.
Kashmir is one of the most bitterly disputed territories in the world. The conflict between Indian and Pakistan over the border region has escalated in the last few months following a suicide bombing. In February, an Indian-born Kashmiri drove a car full of explosives into an Indian paramilitary convoy killing 44 security personnel in Pulwama, a district of Indian administered Kashmir. This was followed by a series of tit-for-tat attacks between India and Pakistan. India launched an airstrike that it claims destroyed a terrorist camp, disputed by Pakistan; Pakistan hit back, capturing an Indian pilot.
"This is where my grandchildren sleep, imagine if they had been here at the time."
Civilians living near the “line of control” separating Indian and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir have been caught in the middle of the crossfire. Hajji guides me through what’s left of his home, in one of the remotest valleys in Kashmir. The walls of his bedroom are littered with bullet holes from sniper fire. He points to a bed that has been destroyed, “this is where my grandchildren sleep, imagine if they had been here at the time.”
Hajji silently walks over to the windows. The view outside is mesmerising – lush green valleys are dotted with colourful homes. “Nobody has come to help us, no emergency services or medical aid. There is so much talk of peace on the airwaves but why has nobody come,” he says.
According to the Center for Research Studies and Security Studies, there have been 18 fatalities across Indian and Pakistan-administered Poonch, where Hajji lives, from cross-border shelling.
Official statistics are hard to come by. The former Indian chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, told the state assembly on 23 January 2018 that 172 people had been killed since 2016 in the conflict. However, an Indian-based coalition of civil society groups, reports that 414 civilians have been killed in Indian-administered Kashmir since 2016. The Pakistan-based Center for Research Studies and Security Studies reports that 140 civilians have been killed in Pakistan-administered Kashmir since 2016.
When the firing gets particularly intense, that's when civilians must pay the ultimate price.
A report last year by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for an international inquiry into multiple violations in both India and Pakistan.
“Civilians on both sides of the line of control often bear the brunt of the shelling,” said Michael Kugelman at the Wilson Centre. “When the firing gets particularly intense, that's when civilians must pay the ultimate price. And often times, they do”.
Since the suicide bombing in February, the retaliatory shelling by both sides has had a significant impact in the Poonch valley. Many residents have fled to neighbouring Mirpur. When I visited in March, it felt like a ghost town. According to local journalist Syrus Nisar, 375 residents have left, over 2,500 have been internally displaced and are living in refugee camps and 255 have relocated to relative safety in Kotli.
Sakina Begum, Hajji Mohammed’s wife, is one of the few who has decided to stay. “My husband has a heart condition, he cannot travel and I couldn’t bear it if I left him, I will always be by his side,” she said.
Some of the towns on the line of control are accessible only by mountainous paths too steep for vehicles. Dara Sher Khan, located in the district of Poonch, is one such settlement. When I arrived to meet my stringer Gul Nawaz Ahmed in the remote town, his hands and shalwar kameez were splattered with blood.
“Sharafat, a local resident, was shot in the head by Indian sniper fire, no medical emergency teams were able to access or available, therefore we carried him to safety ourselves,” he told me. Sharafat was transferred to a hospital in Kotli, three hours away, as his condition was considered to be critical.
Gul Nawaz was visibly upset by the atrocities taking place in the region, but as he spoke there was an undertone of acceptance rather than anger. Nawaz said that Dara Sher Khan is targeted because of its schools and shops. “When the shelling begins children run for cover and hide in the limited number of bunkers as not every family is fortunate to have access to a bunker”.
A local resident, Mohammed Nasim, shows me his bunker which has the capacity to fit just eight people. Nasim tells me that sometimes his family spend entire nights in this cramped space. However, Mohammed Nasim is one of the lucky ones to have this option of safety.
The day I visited, mosques made announcements during afternoon prayers telling children to return to school in order to sit their annual exams. But parents are reluctant to let their children return due to the shelling.
Many residents I spoke to were not just concerned about the conflict, but the lack of future opportunities and employment for their children; many had decided to send their children away. In a 2010 survey, Kashmiris on both sides of the line of control said that unemployment was the most significant problem they faced.
In Dara Sher Khan, I met 13-year-old Hifsa who had been injured by crossfire shelling. She recounted her ordeal with poise and detail: “I was sitting in the big room in my house chatting, suddenly I heard firing and felt this sharp pain, and I ran”. Hifsa was injured in the head and shoulder and was transported to a hospital in Kotil for treatment.
Her parents were incredibly thankful that a journalist from the West was here to document the suffering. There was a consensus among the residents that they felt neglected, they felt a common feeling of despondency in terms of outreach by the international community.
“There is no justice in this valley,” said Hifsa’s father. “My daughter is too afraid to go to sleep, let alone think of school. But we are ready to protect ourselves even if the world forgets.”