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No respite for Kashmir, even as tensions between India and Pakistan decrease

A villager sits Sunday near a building damaged in Kalal village, near the Line of Control in Jammu, India. (Jaipal Singh/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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NEW DELHI — When tensions spiked last week between India and Pakistan, mortar shells started falling in Aijaz Ahmad’s village. For hours, he lay awake listening as the two countries shelled each other across the line that divides the disputed region of Kashmir. Some of the rounds damaged nearby houses, while another fell in a market.

“Anyone can pay with his life,” said Ahmad, 35.

For villagers living near Kashmir’s dividing line, the fact that Pakistan and India have taken steps back from the brink is a temporary relief. In this region that is at the heart of the conflict between India and Pakistan, residents have endured three decades of insurgency and cross-border firing with no end in sight.

Last week, India and Pakistan engaged in tit-for-tat airstrikes and an aerial dogfight for the first time since 1971. They also fired mortar rounds at each other across the frontier that divides the Himalayan region. 

Such firing is not uncommon, but it intensified after India targeted what it said was a militant training camp inside Pakistan with an airstrike on Tuesday. Since then, at least eight people have been killed and more than a dozen injured on both sides of the line. 

Tensions between the two countries began to subside when Pakistan announced Thursday that it would release the Indian fighter jet pilot it had captured in the clash a day earlier. The pilot returned home Friday night. A train service between the two countries, suspended during the hostilities, was set to resume Monday.

But even as the fear of outright war recedes, no one expects calm at the place where India and Pakistan face off on a daily basis: the 460-mile long unofficial border in Kashmir, known as the Line of Control.

“When you can’t go to war, you have to vent your anger somewhere,” said Happymon Jacob, the author of a recent book on clashes between India and Pakistan in Kashmir. Both countries use the Line of Control as a “venting mechanism.”

The result is a deadly, low-grade conflict that persists even when there are not heightened tensions between the two nations — so much so that some experts have dubbed it “a war by other means.” In 2018, 50 people were killed on India’s side of the line by cross-border firing, while 36 civilians were killed on the Pakistani side. Soldiers and civilians are killed in such incidents.

In theory, there is a cease-fire agreement in place between the two countries in Kashmir. The accord was reached in 2003 and, for the next several years, the Line of Control was relatively quiet. But after terrorists killed more than 160 people in Mumbai in 2008 — an attack carried out by a Pakistan-based militant group — the number of cease-fire violations began to increase.

A single cease-fire violation can involve multiple exchanges of fire in one area over a 24-hour period using everything from firearms to military artillery, said Jacob. Commanders on both sides have the autonomy to determine when to engage, he added. Sometimes they fire in retaliation, or to prevent the building of fences, or simply because a military unit is leaving (the latter is called “parting fire”).

Since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, the number of cease-fire violations has jumped yet again. Under Modi, it’s “no holds barred,” said Jacob, and Indian commanders have “complete freedom to decide” when and how to fire. Last year was the worst year for such cross-border firing in 15 years, according to data from the Indo-Pak Conflict Monitor, an independent research initiative, with each side reporting 2,000 or more incidents.

When and where shelling breaks out is unpredictable, but villagers say the threat is always present. Some can retreat to underground concrete bunkers, but others have no such shelters. 

In the village of Saidpora, a cluster of houses perched on a hillock in Indian-controlled Kashmir, locals pointed to a nearby snowy peak as the nearest point on the Line of Control. Syed Azizdin, 90, said the area had “a terrible time” a few years ago when mortar rounds landed in the village. “This time, also, we could come in the line of fire.” 

In the Indian village of Kamalkote, close to the line, the shelling intensified after Tuesday and one person was injured. Mohammad Safir, 55, decided the only option was to flee. He left home with his wife and teenage nephew carrying only a few clothes. Now the family is staying in a high school that was converted into a shelter in the town of Uri, about 10 miles away. “We were terrified,” said Safir. He hopes to get home to his crops and cattle soon but does not know when it will be safe to return.

Naseem reported from Uri, India. 

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