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Growing unease in Kashmir over prospect of war

[Pakistan] Conditions at camps in and around Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, are dire following the 8 October quake. [Date picture taken: 11/01/2005] David Swanson/IRIN
Thousands of Kashmiris are already displaced

In the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir, Muzzafarabad, the possibility of war with India is a topic of discussion heard almost everywhere.

In the city, civil defence staff and volunteers have been testing equipment, including sirens. "Pakistan air force jets have been flying over Muzzafarabad. The last time we saw such mock drills was in 2001. Naturally we are very concerned about conflict," said Muhammad Sabir, 20, a student. He told IRIN he was attempting to join up with the volunteer forces, "because we should be prepared".

Tension between Pakistan and India has been at an all time high since the end of November, when terrorists hit the city of Mumbai, India's commercial hub, killing at least 180 people as they laid siege to top hotels and other buildings. India has since said the attackers came from Pakistan - a charge Pakistan denies.

Troops from Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan have been moved to the frontier with India - a fact widely reported by the Pakistan media and international news agencies, including AP.

A spokesman for the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), Maj-Gen Athar Abbas, has declined to comment on the issue.

The situation is particularly tense in Kashmir, a mountainous territory claimed by both Pakistan and India, with administrative control over it currently divided between the two countries.

I have had a small bunker built in my backyard. It is always wiser to be ready for any eventuality, though of course I hope conflict will not happen.

Pakistan and India have fought three wars since 1947 - in 1948, 1965 and 1971. The first two conflicts were over Kashmir.

"I saw each of these wars. Kashmiris have suffered each time, because the Line of Control [LoC] dividing the two parts of our land is always among the areas where shelling and bombardment is worse,” said Aleemuddin Khan, 75, a farmer based near Muzzafarabad.


In the town of Chakothi, just 11km from the LoC, labourers have been kept busy building bunkers. There is a growing sense of panic in the area (population 14,000), some 55km southwest of Muzzafarabad.

"I have had a small bunker built in my backyard. It is always wiser to be ready for any eventuality, though of course I hope conflict will not happen," Mansoor Ahmed told IRIN. He has also sent his wife and three young children to Rawalpindi, "just until things grow a bit quieter".

Kashmiris are no strangers to war. The Washington-based US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, based on a 2007 survey, said some 17,000 people in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, displaced from homes along the LoC by a 1999 border skirmish between Pakistan and India which saw heavy shelling in Kashmir, remained in a “refugee-like” situation and were based at camps for displaced persons.

The Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IMDC) said 40,000 people were displaced at the time and most of those affected received limited or no support. The IMDC also said the fact that the Pakistan military took over land close to the LoC meant some people had lost their homes.

[Pakistan] The Line of Control passes through these Kashmir mountains - scene of decades of dispute between India and Pakistan. Goodwill prevailed in the immediate aftermath of the disaster but it proved to be short-lived. [Date picture taken: 03/21/2006]

Photo: Christopher Horwood/IRIN

The Line of Control passes through these Kashmir mountains - scene of decades of disputes between India and Pakistan

There is another reason for the heightened concern in Chakothi. The earthquake of October 2005 that killed at least 73,000 people in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, hit Chakothi badly. Many of the hundreds of houses affected by the quake have been re-built, but for some families this process continues.

"Previously, we had a solid mud, stone and wood house, able to bear shock. Now there are rooms that are just built with tin and wood. I am scared it will not offer us any protection at all if there is bombing, but I cannot afford to have a bunker built or set up fortifications," said Aqueel Amjad, who lives near Chakothi.

Sense of fear

It is not in Kashmir alone that uncertainty prevails. Military aircraft swooping over Lahore, the capital of the Punjab province, have also created a sense of fear. "In the current environment Pakistan has enhanced its vigilance," chief Air Force spokesman Air Commodore Humaun Viqar Zephyr said.

A week earlier, the Pakistan Air Force said it had chased back Indian fighter plans that had violated the LoC in Kashmir.

"I am buying extra grocery supplies so we at least have the basics at home in case the border situation worsens," Uzma Ansar, 40, buying supplies at a local store, told IRIN.

Unease also runs high in villages along the Wagah border with India, which lies just 30km from Lahore.

"This area always has paramilitary troops and soldiers moving around. But these days there are more. They have advised people to build trenches for safety. Of course we worry about conflict, but let's just hope there is no war so our children don't see the horrors we saw in 1965," said Muhammad Javed, 60, a butcher, who helped supply troops with food during that war as a civilian volunteer. "War would be terrible for everyone here, especially as Pakistan and India both have nuclear weapons" he said.


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

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