Villagers tired of living dangerously along Kashmir frontier

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Special report from border

Villagers in Chakothi on the Pakistani side of Kashmir are frustrated with living in constant fear of fighting along the heavily militarized frontier in the disputed Himalayan region

Their situation has been exacerbated since India’s government, led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, imposed a security lockdown and communications blackout just over the Line of Control from Chakothi in Indian-administered Kashmir, which is majority Muslim.

Pakistani soldiers watch over potential Indian troop movements with binoculars in a bunker at the Chakothi post, some 52 kms from Muzaffarabad near Pakistan-India border on February 23, 2019. – Pakistan’s military warned India on February 22 against “misadventure”, saying it was capable of responding to any threats as tensions simmer between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. (Photo by SAJJAD QAYYUM / AFP)

The move followed the Indian government’s Aug. 5 decision to downgrade the region’s autonomy, raising tensions with Pakistan and touching off anger in the Indian-administered portion of Kashmir. “India has been killing our brothers and sisters in Indian-occupied Kashmir and the world is silent,” 65-year-old Mohammad Nazir Minhas told reporters Thursday. “It compels us to say that freedom will come only through war. We are ready.”
Journalists were escorted to the village in Azad Kashmir by the military to show them the plight of villagers living along the frontier. From where Minhas stood, an Indian post could be seen without using binoculars.
Kashmir is split between Pakistan and India and claimed by both in its entirety. Pakistan and India have fought two of their three wars over the disputed region since gaining independence from British rule in 1947. India on Thursday said it has information that Pakistan is trying to infiltrate “terrorists” into the country to carry out attacks amid rising tensions between the two countries.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Ghafoor rejected the Indian claims, saying Pakistan was a responsible state and “we would be insane to allow infiltration” across the Line of Control.
Minhas, who said he lost his daughter in 1971 when she was shot in the chest by a soldier firing from the Indian side, is among local Kashmir residents who say they often spend sleepless nights because of nearby skirmishes between Pakistani and Indian forces.
The nuclear-armed rivals were close to going to war again in February, when a suicide bombing in Indian-administered Kashmir killed 40 paramilitary soldiers. India responded by carrying out airstrikes in Pakistan. Pakistan then claimed it shot down two Indian air force planes. Pakistan also captured an Indian pilot who was later released amid signs of easing tensions.
“Even last night, there was an intense exchange of fire here,” said Mohammad Salman, 75, a Chakothi resident as he stood in the middle of a deserted market. The market stands about 200 meters (220 yards) from the region’s “Friendship Bridge,” which was opened for a much-awaited bus service in 2005.
Pakistan suspended the bus service and trade with India in response to the Aug. 5 changes to Kashmir’s status by New Delhi. Pakistan has also expelled the Indian ambassador and closed train service to and from India.
Pakistan has indicated it may soon also close its airspace for Indian overflights, forcing them to take longer routes. Residents of Azad Kashmir in Pakistan hail these measures, but they complain the government never constructed community bunkers to protect them from gunfire from the Indian side.
“When our children go out to play, we don’t know whether they will come back alive as India opens fire ruthlessly,” said Mohammad Sajid, 45, as he stood at a nearby mosque. Authorities say mortar fired across the Line of Control that divides Kashmir struck a home in the village of Kail a day before, killing three civilians.

A Pakistani Kashmiri vendor looks on outside his shop at a market near the Line of Control (LoC) — the de facto border between Pakistan and India — in Chakothi sector, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir on August 29, 2019. / AFP / AAMIR QURESHI

Pakistan’s army says it only returns fire when there is a cease-fire violation by India. “Our response is always measured and we only target those Indian posts from where fire hits our civilian population,” Ghafoor, the army spokesman, told reporters. He said their troops cannot “ruthlessly return fire like the Indians do” because it could cause civilian casualties on the other side of Kashmir where divided families live.

India accuses Pakistan of training and arming insurgent groups that have been fighting since 1989 for Kashmir’s independence from India or its merger with Pakistan, a charge Islamabad denies. Pakistan says it only provides moral and diplomatic support to these groups.

Most Kashmiris support the rebels’ demand that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control. Villagers at Chakothi say they are waiting for the time when they will “ruin the Line of Control” to hoist Pakistan’s flag in Srinagar, the main city in Kashmir.

The Muslim-majority region has long been a flashpoint between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. Both countries rule parts of Kashmir while claiming it in full. India has battled separatist militants in its part of Kashmir since the late 1980s, accusing Muslim Pakistan of supporting the insurgents.
Pakistan denies that, saying it only offers political support to the people of Kashmir, who Pakistan says are oppressed by the Indian government and its security forces. India stripped its part of Kashmir of a special status on Aug. 5, blocking the right of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir to frame its own laws and allowing non-residents to buy property there. The government said the reform would facilitate Kashmir’s development, to the benefit of all.
But the decision by the Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi infuriated many residents of the region, which has been under a security clamp-down ever since with telephone lines, Internet and television networks blocked and restrictions on movement and assembly.
India’s decision also angered Pakistan, which cut trade and transport ties and expelled India’s ambassador. Pakistan has sought the support of the United States, former colonial power Britain and others to press India over Kashmir. But India says it is an internal matter and that it would only hold talks with Pakistan if it stops supporting militants operating from its soil.
Pakistan has for decades called for the implementation of UN resolutions on Kashmir.
The UN Security Council adopted several resolutions in 1948 and in the 1950s on the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, including one which says a plebiscite should be held to determine the future of the region. Another resolution calls upon both sides to “refrain from making any statements and from doing or causing to be done or permitting any acts which might aggravate the situation”. UN peacekeepers have been deployed since 1949 to observe a cease-fire between India and Pakistan in the region.