Cross-border hostility, something that comes with the territory for the residents of villages located along the India-Pakistan International Border (IB) here since Partition, is now allegedly “worse than it was during the 1971 War”.
Residents of adjacent villages along the IB at Suchetgarh and near similar settlements at the villages of Badri Gulabgarh, Avdal, Kapoorpur and Kushalpur — located 11 km from Sialkot and 141 km from Lahore — claim they have become “new targets”. Villagers living in the twin villages of Samka and Shahbad Tankan Wali, which lie five kilometres from the Suchetgarh border, allege they increasingly find themselves in the cross-hairs “like never before”.
The mostly agrarian population of around a dozen such villages 30 km from Jammu is, admittedly, used to routine evacuations followed by a few days of a nomadic existence, or community camping, before a return to “normalcy”, since as long as residents say they can remember. But the intensity, frequency and unpredictability of “enemy fire” on their homes, livestock and fields has spiralled since August 2017, they say.
Things worse than ’71
“In 1971, there were just two shells that were dropped here. Since August last year, there have been 250-300 artillery shells that have been used to target 170 families — every house has been shelled. Even if there’s a knock on the door of a house, children ask whether that was the sound of firing from across [the border],” says Swarn Singh, a retired Army man, now the sarpanch of the Shahbad Tankan Wali village.
Among other ‘normal things’, relieving oneself has become a prospect that threatens their existence, irrespective of gender and where one chooses to do so, in this village where the space between adjacent bomb shelters serves as a cricket pitch for children. Most walls have shrapnel marks and Pakistani flags hoisted on look-out posts are visible in the distance.
According to Beena Devi, while most homes have toilets located in the courtyard and only a handful of residents needed to use adjacent fields, both were risks these days.
“There was heavy shelling on January 24 which began at 9 p.m. as soon as I made my first roti ka peda (ball of dough). We had to sleep without dinner because the shelling was continuous. One of the shells exploded through the roof of our bathroom. That’s why we, both men and women, choose not to even urinate during firing, whether or not we have toilets or go in the fields,” she said.
Things are a far cry from the ceasefire of November, 2003, and have deteriorated immensely since last August, says Sarika Sona. “Ab Pakistan ka koi bharosa nahin (‘We can’t trust Pakistan at all these days’). I got married and came to this village in 2004. The first time I witnessed shelling was in 2006. Alerts from the Army to evacuate our village and shift to camps were more accurate back then, which has not been the case since August,” she said.
On January 18, for instance, Ms. Sona said, “There was no alert about possible shelling. Artillery shelling began at 6 p.m. and continued till early in the morning. Our house was among the ones hit. Everything made of glass, from our windows to cutlery, was broken. A portion of the concrete railing on our terrace was also hit,” she adds.
“This is the first time that shelling has taken place as much as 3-4 km towards Nawanshahr on our side and targeted all the villages from Suchetgarh to Kushalpur,” says Balwinder Singh, a resident of the latter.
He adds, “It depends on their mood: the time of day, the number of shells, everything. Sometimes, there are inputs asking us to evacuate, leaving all these villages abandoned for days, sometimes there aren’t. At least they were nice enough to let us live in peace after the 24th of January, in the run-up to Republic Day, when they decided to shift their guns towards Rajouri.” Mr. Balwinder points to a Pakistani flag fluttering in the distance beyond a fenced field adjacent the Border Security Force (BSF) camp, denoting the Suchetgarh border, indicating their proximity to hostility.
Devender Singh, a resident of Suchetgarh village, was tending to a buffalo calf which cried out in pain after sustaining shrapnel injuries, when another 81mm artillery shell landed in his courtyard on January 19. He had to rush to the Jammu Medical College for treatment. Mr. Devender returned home with his broken right arm in a plaster cast after his acquaintancese assured him the “action” seemed to have shifted. Two days of peace on January 25 and 25 were followed, however, by the attack on an Army installation in Rajouri, which claimed the lives of four Indian Army personnel.