It is one of the most serene settings in the world. Roaring snow-melt ravines, coniferous trees, small hillside meadows, lofty peaks and a refreshing nip in the gentle breeze. But the stillness is routinely shattered by artillery, mortar and gun fire from the two armies that straddle the jagged terrain and precipices of the disputed Kashmir region. While the world waits for the ongoing Kashmir border conflict between India and Pakistan to turn into war, for the thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire it is already, and has been for many years, a bloody reality. Apart from the deaths and horrific injuries, several thousand Kashmiris have left their villages across the 740-km Line of Control (LOC), which divides the mountainous region between arch-rivals Pakistan and India. Many have been refugees in their own land since 1989. "I was preparing the field for maize," Muhammad Sharif Qureshi told IRIN. "But had to escape when mortars landed nearby," Qureshi said in Muzaffarabad, state capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, after escaping on Saturday from his border village near Chakothi. He is one of thousands who have loaded their few possessions on carts and headed away from the fighting. The situation is the same on the Indian side of the disputed border. International media has reported that at least 40,000 people living near the LOC in Indian-controlled Kashmir have fled due to constant artillery fire from Pakistani forces. "Our lives have been miserable," a Kashmiri woman told IRIN. "We are now strangers [refugees] in our own land," she lamented, after abandoning her small village of 10 families right on the LOC last week. Some refugees IRIN spoke to have harrowing tales of how they escaped and ran for their lives when thunder clapped and shrapnel flew in the air; wounding, maiming and sometimes even killing their relatives. "The plight of these people is not confined merely to bombs and firing," said an NGO worker Najamul Qadir. "These are very poor people and any displacement means they will have to live even more frugally," Qadir told IRIN in the scenic Neelum Valley, where he is a programme officer for Islamic Relief, a UK-based NGO, also active in Afghanistan. There is no official estimate of how many Kashmiris have left their homes in the wake of recent heightened tension between Islamabad and New Delhi. However, Kashmiris estimate the number to be in thousands. "Already very few people lived in those villages which were right in front of the border," Qureshi said. "Those who had lingered on for years were either too poor to leave or were hopeful that things might improve," he added. "But is there any hope now even for those who are not right at the border but live further away?" The international community including UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, has expressed strong concern at the high level of casualties due to persistent firing along the LOC and has called upon the two sides to exercise maximum restraint to prevent further escalation. The call for restraint is crucial as the two nuclear-capable countries have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947. Two of the wars were on the Himalayan territory of Kashmir. They were also on the brink of their fourth war in summer of 1999. Given the sensitivity of the situation and vulnerability of the border residents, most of whom are either subsistence farmers or rely on livestock, the Islamic Relief set up a disaster preparedness centre in the Neelum Valley last June. "The main cause of poverty in this area is firing, which is going on since 1990," Qadir said. "The people are very impoverished and firing adds to their woes," he noted, explaining that the local government had not done much to help the people. Islamic relief has started developing community organisations in about 26 villages, providing them with first-aid training, first-aid kits, stretchers and guidelines to build bunkers. "We also train them on booby traps and unexploded ordnance. Besides, we also work on evacuation plans," Zulfikar Ali, a social worker with Islamic Relief told IRIN. Almost 20,000 people in the Neelum Valley, prone to artillery exchanges and small arms fire from across the border. Most are continually on the move, shifting from settlement to settlement to avoid the fighting. But the process invariably means loss of cattle or crops, further impoverishing these marginal communities. "They are already extremely poor and leaving in a haste means losses," said Ali, standing in an open field right below the Bimla Top peak that overlooks the beautiful village of Kuttan in Neelum Valley. Aid workers say that in case of a full-blown war several thousand residents of Neelum Valley may be trapped as the main road to Muzaffarabad and a treacherous bypass are within range of Indian guns. "These routes are frequently shelled so every passage is extremely precarious," a resident, Noor Ilahi told IRIN. "We still cross it even though many people have died and many vehicles have been destroyed on these roads. We have no other option," he noted. Qadir said Islamic Relief's disaster preparedness initiative - part of a four point Neelum Valley Integrated Development Plan - should be adopted in all the border towns of Kashmir. "We cannot do it alone," he admitted. "But there is a huge need to do something similar in all the villages running along the LOC," he added. Syed Mukhtar Ahmed, another farmer uprooted since 1989 from his town near Chakothi, complained that the world had forgotten the plight of Kashmiris. "Since 1989 we have lived here after firing, intense firing, made us run," he told IRIN. "Over these years several NGOs have helped us, but not the United Nations," he complained, adding that the world body should help Kashmiris on both sides with funds so that they can survive the bad times. While international intervention may mean war will be averted this time between the two neighbours, without a negotiated settlement the miserable existence for civilians involved in the ongoing border dispute looks set to continue.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions