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Kashmir's borderline women live in 'abode of ghosts'

Jun 29, 2009

Volatile situation on the Line of Control between India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir between 1999 and 2003 shattered the lives of people living on the border. Women have particularly been affected by the Kargil intrusion and the resultant displacement, writes Prakriiti Gupta.

Srinagar: Whenever Sharda Devi, 45, hears news of ceasefire violations on the border in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) over the radio, she becomes hysterical. More than a decade has passed since a Pakistani bullet from across the border hit her in the head when she was tending to her cattle near her house. Though she survived after several months in hospital, the doctors could not remove the bullet from her brain, as it could have put her life at risk.

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Kashmir has been divided for more than 60 years: One-third is controlled by Pakistan, two-thirds by India. Both nations have fought four wars over this disputed territory.

The last large-scale border build up was exactly a decade ago during the 1999 Kargil intrusion, when at least 100,000 people were displaced. It saw standing crops over hundreds of acres of land close to the border lost to those who cultivated them and an unknown number of cattle die in border crossfire and for want of fodder.

"The last large-scale border build up was exactly a decade ago during the 1999 Kargil intrusion, when at least 100,000 people were displaced"

Though the guns may have fallen silent for the past six years since the November 2003 cease-fire, J&K border refugees, like refugees all over the world, have no place to call their own.

Sharda's family has been living in the makeshift Naiwala refugee camp since 1999. It is one among many other families, which had homes along the border area and on Zero Line.

Just 500 metres from the border, Sharda's home in border village Gigriyal was completely destroyed and the agricultural land it adjoined has been barren for the past decade.

‘As good as dead’

"I am as good as dead – a burden on my young daughters whom I should have been looking after," says Sharda, with tears in her eyes as she talks about her helplessness.

Widow Biro Devi, 70, of Sauma Chapriyal village on Zero Line in Akhnoor sector near Jammu, recounts a similar tale. Her son, Badrinath, the only earning member of the family, was crippled by a Pakistan bullet while working in the fields during the 1999 Kargil hostilities.

During his two-year hospital stay, the family had to also make an emergency exit from their home after firing escalated at the border. Since then, a thatched shed at the Naiwala refugee camp in Akhnoor serves as their home.

"The house is in ruins... the abode of ghosts, perhaps. The cattle is dead, land barren... nothing is left. We used to go there once in a while but for the past few years we have not visited the area. I work as a domestic help with a family in Akhnoor town to support the family," says a visibly disturbed Biro Devi.

"I still have nightmares of how for days on end we had to climb into carts every evening to spend the night in the nearby forest. We felt somewhat safer there than in our wattle and daub huts. I used to wonder, 'What will happen to our buffaloes? Will we ever be able to go back to our homes?' And now look... everything has been left behind," she says.

"I still have nightmares of how for days on end we had to climb into carts every evening to spend the night in the nearby forest. We felt somewhat safer there than in our wattle and daub huts"

Trauma of migration

At 70, Rakho Devi longs to go back home Pallamwalla. Tears roll down her wrinkled face, as she states, "I wanted to die back home where the souls of my ancestors rest but now I have to die in an alien land... in this six-foot tenement at Ram Nagar camp."

There is the sharp note of anger in her tone as she talks of the administrative indifference to her plight.

"After going through the trauma of migration, we cannot trust even our own government. It has, on several occasions, assured us it will provide relief and cash assistance.

Our house was so close to the border that if we threw a stone it would fall in Pakistan. Life was hard but at least we had our own homes," she says.

State authorities claim that those displaced from the border villages – around 21 in all – in the Akhnoor sector, 40 kilometres from Jammu, were being given a suitable package for rehabilitation.

But those who have been affected by the volatile situation on the Line of Control (LOC) between 1999 and 2003 say that they have been offered only a pittance.

At the two makeshift camps in Naiwala and Ram Nagar in Akhnoor, migrants from the border belts of Panjtoot, Pallanwala and Gigrial, Chapriyal and adjoining areas, live in penury in thatched, mud houses or tents.

Shattered lives

Take Rano Devi, 65 of Pallanwalla, who lives in Devipur camp in Akhnoor. A splinter had hit her while she was having a meal in her courtyard. Today, all she wants is that her land be returned to her.

"The army does not allow us to cultivate our land, which they say is in a restricted area since it falls right on the Zero Line. But neither does it provide provisions to us."

Puro Devi, 50, also from Pallanwala, is a widow with four unmarried daughters. Living in a mud house in the camp Ram Nagar camp, the family finds it difficult to survive. Soon after vacating her border home, Puro Devi met with an accident that left her crippled.

Today, so traumatised is she, that despite her problems, she is unwilling to return home although she had once never wanted to leave.

Recalling those difficult days, Puro Devi says, "My daughters had to drag me out saying that mortar shells were descending on us." Today, one of her daughters works as a domestic help with a family in Jammu; another is a helper in a school.

Most of the people in these camps were farmers, accustomed to bountiful yields of wheat or rice stacked high in their storehouses. Now they work as labourers.

Camp dwellers say that over the past four years the free rations and nominal cash incentives that were distributed by the government and social organisations have stopped coming in.

Facing waves of displacements

Since 1947, these border communities have experienced waves of displacement. But in the previous wars, they claim, things would return to normal and they would get their land back after a couple of years of camp life.

However, since the Kargil war, things have never been the same for them they say.

The Government of India announced a relief package of Rs 780 million for the rehabilitation of migrant families from the border areas.

"The Government of India announced a relief package of Rs 780 million for the rehabilitation of migrant families from the border areas"

Officials claim that a partial compensation of Rs 25,000 was provided for the renovation of homes partially damaged in Pakistani shelling and each family was meant to get a five 'marla' (One marla = approx. 225 sq. ft.) plot to construct a house for which Rs 50,000 was to be given.

Kaushayla of Dad Khour village takes a dim view of the package.

As she puts it, "The government had announced a uniform rehabilitation package for all border migrants without considering the worse-affected. Although a majority of them have left the camps for their homes (around 60,000 border migrants have left the makeshift camps), over 6,000-odd families like us remain here because our lands were located on the Zero Line and our houses and cattle had been completely destroyed.

We have nothing to return to and need proper rehabilitation. Can anyone build even a single room with Rs 50,000? And what about our agriculture lands, cattle? What about our future source of income?"

Ten years after Kargil, her questions blow in the wind.

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