As part of a small study to document the experiences of women living along LoC and International Border, I visited some of these villages, bordered along northern side of Kashmir. The interaction revealed, life in these villages has become absolutely meaningless!
These zero line villages have been bearing the brunt of the post Partition hostilities between the two warring armies , for no fault of theirs. Given their typical topography, they are not just physically locked but the hostility between the two nuclear powers, Pakistan and India has further alienated these people from the rest of world, physically as well as psychologically.
Gwalta, is one amongst dozens of such villages located alongside the Line of Control with Pakistan Administrated Kashmir. The road from Srinagar to Gwalta is picturesque. The pine trees along the route especially after Uri town present an eerie quiet, occasionally broken by the screeching of monkeys, while the river Jhelum flows alongside quietly on its way to Pakistan.
The scene is serene and gives no sign of the dispute or any skirmish along the border, between Pakistan-Administered-Kashmir and Indian-Administered-Kashmir. The only stark reminder of the harsh reality being the presence of many olive-green Indian Army trucks, ferrying soldiers along the slopes of pine and deodar covered mountains along the winding road to Uri.
The drive beyond Uri, along a mud track, leads to an Indian Army outpost, a few miles from the Line of Control. Over here documents indicating purpose of visit, authorization from district administration, the concerned SDM have to be presented before permission to proceed to the "locked villages" can be given. It's only after thorough investigation and proper scrutiny of papers, by the personnel posted that one can get past.
Beyond this post, many villages of the Pakistan Administered Kashmir are visible alongside the road, some separated by a fence, some by tiny streams demarcated and designated as the Line of Control – that has confined thousands of villagers to a precarious life, between the actual lines of divide. At many places, across the stream, on the rugged high mountain, Pakistani Army posts dauntingly stare, from its peak.
The residents of many of these villages like, Silikot, Chunda, Dulanja, Balkot, Jabda, Madiyaan, Muriyaan, Golahan and Gwalta, have to deposit their identity cards at the check post, before leaving and entering the village. An iron gate is present in the fence, manned by armed soldiers, to regulate the movement of these villagers. These are the "locked villages" of Uri.
Gwalta is one such village, home to 360 families and approximately 2300 people. Life for the inhabitants of the village is difficult.
Nadeem Abbasi, Sarpanch Gwalta shared, "many of the people living here are members of divided families. Our close kith and kin live in the part of the village beyond the fences and streams".
"Living here is a curse," expressed Basharat, whose legs bear the brunt of the border hostility. He is a landmine victim. "We are stuck between India and Pakistan."
During the interaction, the women in the village shared that in the early 90s frequent exchange of fire between the two rival armies had become a routine. The wounds inflicted as a result of this are physical, and emotional. The scars of which are visible in the form of more than 30 landmine victims in this village.
During the course of the interaction, it was revealed that not a single woman living in this village, situated on top of the hill, has ever travel beyond some 50 kilometers. None of them even knew where the summer capital Srinagar existed, except 29 year old Rubeena who had visited Srinagar city in 2005 as she suffered severe fractures in leg and arm after her house collapsed in the devastating earth quake that rattled the two sides of divided Kashmir.
Sixty year old Shareefa Bibi shared a compelling narrative of her life. Despite being the mother of three sons, at this age she is still forced to work in fields and graze the cattle alongside the LoC where the landmines are planted by army for security reasons.
She lost her elder son in 2005 during the earth quake and the second son is suffering with polio. Her only source of support, her third son, is married and father of six children. With the limited resources, he is facing daunting task to feed his ten member family as "in addition of his own eight member family, he is also taking care of me and my husband," says Shareefa. He is working as a porter for the army, as such I am forced to work in the fields and graze cattle, while risking my life.
Though the village has recently got a macadamized road under Prime Ministers Gram Sadak Yojna Scheme and regular bus service has now been provided, there are a number of women who have lost their lives due to not receiving medical aid or help during pregnancy and child birth.
Faced with the economic and social issues, the villagers ruin their lives at this caged place where the forces and government spies roam freely to maintain psychological pressure and vigil over its inhabitants.
"If only one could choose where to be born, who would choose to be born here? Though there is no physical harassment but we are under continuous vigilance all the time. A psychological pressure is being built on us besides the restriction on our social movement by the forces," shared a lady.
Interestingly, the village along with so many other zero line villages is also out of bounds for the outsiders and only people with special permission issued by the government authorities can visit.
On being asked what changes they would like to make, if they could, to improve the quality of the life they are leading. The women in unison responded, please ask the Government to do something about making ceasefire a permanent reality. We want to live in peace and not under constant fear and threat of the uncertain future. Please help our voices for peace to go louder.
(Ezabir Ali is a Commonwealth Professional and Harvard Alumnae. She is a women's rights activist and coordinator of EHSAAS group and has been documenting impact of conflict on the lives of women living near borders)