By Iftikhar Gilani
MUZAFFARABAD, Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AA) - Sitting on the banks of River Neelam, also known as Kishanganga, crisscrossing the city of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir, old and frail Ghulam Sarwar’s eyes are fixed on a snow-capped mountain.
Mist in his eyes, he remembers village he had left behind three decades ago in the Indian-administered Kashmir, which is across the mountain, divided by the heavily militarized Line of Control (LoC), a de facto border between India and Pakistan.
Some 40,000 refugees from Indian-administered Kashmir, also known as Jammu and Kashmir, who had to abandon their villages due to fighting, has been living in the camps in the city and elsewhere over the past 30 years, since an armed resistance erupted in the region.
Sarwar was driven out of his home along with many other villagers in 1990, when Indian and Pakistani armies took the area in order to fortify their positions along the LoC.
“Many villages located besides the LoC for centuries were vacated. We were driven out of our homes. We had nowhere to go, except to cross the mountain and take refuge in Muzaffarabad,” said the old man, while wiping tears in his eyes.
Ironically, while India has a rehabilitation policy for Kashmiri Pandit (Hindu) migrants, who also had to leave their homes in early 90s, successive governments in New Delhi and Srinagar have ignored plight of the people, who were driven across the LoC.
Another irony is that the governments have been offering rehabilitation to those, who joined militant ranks and crossed over to other side of Kashmir, but have no program for the return or rehabilitation of civilians, who had to abandon homes, fearing an outbreak of war.
Sarwar said that in addition to 40,000 people living in Muzaffarabad and other camps in the Pakistani-administered Kashmir, officially known as Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), some 500 families also live in Pakistani city of Rawalpindi.
They are eking out their living either by begging or physical labor. They are not registered either with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or with any other non-governmental organization.
Successive Indian census documents since 2001 have mentioned many villages in Kupwara and Baramulla districts either fully or partially uninhabited.
The areas from where the people have mostly migrated include villages of Bohar, Bichwal, Bogna Keran, Malik Basti Machil, Amroi, Jabri Karna, and Teetwal in Kupwara and Hathlanga, Soura, Sumwali, Churunda, Gowalan, Singhtung, Bara, and Delanaja in Baramulla. Many also migrated from Poonch and Rajouri districts of Jammu as well.
- Nobody’s children
"Nobody wants to take responsibility for us. It is like we do not exist," said Ali Ahmed, a schoolteacher, whose parents had migrated from a Bichwal village form Kupwara district. He considers himself fortunate for completing graduation.
“The government of AJK provide 9,000 Pakistani rupees ($58) a month for a family of five. To sustain ourselves, we do odd jobs. But here in small city of Muzaffarabad, not many jobs are available,” said Sorwar.
“If you try to migrate to Pakistani cities in search of work, authorities detain and drop us back to these refugee camps,” he said.
“The conditions in camps is not so good. Who wants to live in the camp forever?” he questioned.
Mohammad Ilyas, another refugee, was just five years old when in the spring of 1992, he and his family along with 60 other villagers were forced to flee their village in the Kupwara.
“Our village was close to LoC and one fine day, troops descended on the village and asked us to vacate places. There was no place to go, but to cross the LoC,” he said.
Abdul Rasheed, 60, comparatively a later entrant, came in 1994. “I was arrested three times and interrogated on suspicions of acting as a guide to militants [in Jammu and Kashmir]. I pleaded innocence. But was tortured,” he said, showing marks on his limp leg.
“I was left with no option but to cross over with my family to save my life," he said, insisting that he had nothing to do with militancy or anti-India activities.
Usman Ali Hashim left his village Kunan in Kupwara district in February 1991. Few days earlier, Indian security forces, in search of militants, launched an operation in the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora.
Hashim said the troops allegedly raped many women in the two villages. A report filed by a local magistrate reported the 23 women were sexually assaulted.
However, the Human Rights Watch asserts that this number could be as high as 100. The case is still making rounds in different courts. A distraught Hashim, then a young lad left his village, walked on foot for several days and crossed the LoC.
- India’s recent act halts desire of returning
"We're grateful to Pakistan. But we are always made to feel different. It is hard to get a job,” Hashim said.
“Almost all the migrants continue to live in camps and assistance handed over by the government. Occasionally, the camps are spruced up when any foreign dignitary visits,” he added.
Even though, they have crossed the LoC, they cannot be declared as refugees, as both India and Pakistan claim whole of Jammu and Kashmir. “We cannot declare them refugees. They are part of the same state, though from across the LoC,” says an AJK government official.
Many of these refugees or IDPs, want to return to their homes in Indian-administered Kashmir. But the recent acts of New Delhi, stripping the region of autonomy has sent fears down their spine. There is apprehension of another bout of displaced people crossing the LoC, if situation turns bad in Kashmir Valley.
Some among them had tried to return to their villages. Mohammad Kamran had travelled to his native village Bore Payeen in Kupwara district a few years ago by secretly crossing the LoC.
But he found his village a haunted place with no habitation. Recalling his migration, he said in December 1990, the troops descended on his village and resorted to a ruthless marshalling. "We were declared security threat as the village is close to the LoC. Some 17 families stayed back, but they too have now been pushed to the hinterland."
He remembers his village which was divided in hamlets of Bore Bala and Bore Payeen. There was as watermill on a small stream. “That small stream was the LoC diving two parts of Kashmir. For many years, villages from both sides were using this watermill without any interference,” he said.
Kamran said that there were three bouts of displacements. Besides early 90s when armed resistance took roots in Kashmir, people also migrated, when India and Pakistan fought war in Kargil area of Jammu and Kashmir in 1999.
And then again in 2002, when India launched Operation Parakram under which it moved its troops and strike corps to the border, a month after terrorist attacked Indian parliament in December 2001.
Kamran claims that 99% population of Tarkundi village in Rajouri-Poonch region had crossed over to AJK during this period.
- Civilian population forced to move out
Almost two-thirds of Keran, some 180 kilometers (111 miles) north of Srinagar city, comprising around 12 villages, have migrated to AJK.
Nasir Aslam Wani, a former Jammu and Kashmir minister, who hails from the region, told reporters few years ago that most of civilian population who had nothing to do with militancy fell victim to the creation of a security belt running parallel to the LoC.
“When the militancy surfaced in the region, the troops were under intense pressure to stop the cross-LoC movement. The first target was the population that lived either along the LoC or very close to it,” said Wani.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, a revenue official of AJK government said: “Population of as many as five village of Sahoora, Hathlanga, Seng, Tung and Azadbada in Baramulla district had migrated quite early. Some of them later returned but maximum population still lives in the camps.”
According to AJK government records, 29,932 people, had crossed to their side from 1990-92. The IDP population has now swelled to 40,000. Ethnically, 75% of them are Paharis, 20% Gujjars and 5% Kashmiri.
According to government figures, 338 IDPs were also killed and scores of others wounded in 2005 earthquake.
In Uri, Poonch and Rajouri regions of Jammu and Kashmir, the LoC has proven to be more destructive than Germany’s Berlin Wall.
Mohammad Shafi Uri, a former Jammu and Kashmir minister, believes that in these regions, the LoC had divided families physically.
Vijaya Pushkarna, a senior writer from the Week magazine who had visited the villages in early 90s, found homes abandoned.
“For the past three decades, we have been focusing on militancy, infiltration etc, but we have never thought of these people, who had to migrate to save their lives,” said Uri, also a former member of Indian parliament.