Standing outside a damaged tea kiosk in Jura bazaar with her young son, Maroofa Bibi said she lives in “constant fear.”
“When the shelling starts, we rush to cower in the makeshift basements of our home,” she told CNN. “The power supply gets cut and we wait in the darkness with our terrified children, waiting for it be over.”
This year alone, Pakistan says India has violated a ceasefire agreement by firing upon or shelling its territory thousands of times. However, an Indian government source claims all ceasefire violations this year were committed by Pakistan.
Small towns along the militarized line that divides Indian and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir are on the frontline of ongoing tensions over the disputed region. On both sides of the border, shelling has ruined buildings and driven families from their homes.
A decades-old dispute
Pakistan has denied those charges, saying its backing for the Kashmiri struggle is a moral one.
A deadly day of violence
India and Pakistan most recently agreed to a ceasefire in border regions in November 2003, but the agreement has been repeatedly violated. This year alone, India has fired and shelled in the border regions 2,608 times, leaving 44 civilians dead and another 230 injured, according to Pakistan military spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor.
However, an Indian government source said there had been 2,500 ceasefire violations in 2019, all initiated by the Pakistan Army.
On October 20, Pakistan and India once again exchanged fire, making it one of the deadliest days since New Delhi revoked Kashmir’s special status.
India said two Indian soldiers and one civilian died. Indian Army chief Bipin Rawat said India had managed to significantly damage terrorist camps in Pakistani- controlled Kashmir, killing six to 10 Pakistani soldiers and about the same number of terrorists.
Rawat alleged that Pakistan was sheltering terrorists, and said Pakistan didn’t want to highlight the damage that India claims to have inflicted as the “world will know that there is no action being taken to curtail the acts of terrorism.”
Pakistan, meanwhile, said five civilians were killed and six others injured in what it called “indiscriminate and unprovoked firing” from India. Pakistan hit back at India’s claims that it was targeting terror camps and denied that it was harboring terrorists.
Both sides accused the other of starting the gunfire and shelling. And on both sides, residents are left to deal with the damage from the ongoing tensions.
The people living in fear
The Himalayan town of Jura sits in the Neelum Valley, just 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the de facto Indian-Pakistani border.
To get to the remote town from the country’s capital Islamabad, one must take a two-hour helicopter and bus ride over rolling hills and lush, emerald green vales — a visual reminder that this area of ongoing, sometimes violent disputes was once called “Paradise on Earth.”
But on Tuesday, Jura looked like it had been hit by an earthquake.
Small and large holes dotted the walls of houses where chunks of plaster appeared to have been blasted out. Pakistan military spokesman Ghafoor said those were all signs of the October 20 violence.
“I lost half my livelihood in one night,” said Pir Zada Qasim Shah, standing by the charred façade of his furniture and mattress store. Inside, his wares were strewn everywhere.
China is also a significant stakeholder in the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan, having its own claim on the Kashmiri region of Aksai Chin along the Indian-Chinese border.
But Jura is not the only border town to be hit.
Across the Neelum Valley, which is home to about 191,000 people, other towns were also targeted in the October 20 strikes. Around 60% of the inhabitants of Sharda, a village northwest of Jura, were forced to evacuate over the weekend, according to the Pakistan military.
Three of the people who were believed to have been killed by Indian fire in the deadly day of shelling were members of the same family in Nousehri, a village by the Neelum-Jhelum hydropower project around 40km or 25 miles from Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.
Hajra Bibi said her husband, son and a cousin were killed in the strike as they sheltered in a tunnel. “We dragged the bodies into the tunnel and sat with them all night because we were too afraid to get out,” Bibi said. “We weren’t even able to tell the rest of the family what happened.”
Family member Tariq Mir said they had opted not to hold a proper funeral for the men because they worried they could come under attack by Indian forces. He said Nousehri villagers began fleeing to cities or the mountains for safety. “Our village has begun to empty out,” he said.
Life in Indian-controlled Kashmir
Indian-controlled Kashmir is only kilometers away from Nousehri but getting there requires scaling a Himalayan mountain range and passing through a heavily militarized border.
“There is silence and fear here,” said Farooq Bigh, a council leader and resident of Uri, one of the most volatile areas in Indian-controlled Kashmir which is close to the Line of Control. “When their shells come, we don’t know how many will come and where they will land.”
In Uri, schools are inaccessible for most as buses aren’t running, Bigh said.
In the Kupwara region north of Uri, a few houses were damaged in the recent shelling, according to the area’s deputy commissioner, Anshul Garg. He has sent a request to the Indian government for another 14,000 public bunkers to be constructed. India’s Ministry of Defence declined to comment when asked about the request.
Why the ceasefire violations occurred
As with the death toll and the ceasefire violations, there is no agreement between India and Pakistan about what prompted the deadly attacks earlier this month.
In a briefing during the organized media trip Tuesday, Pakistan military spokesman Ghafoor said Pakistan does not target civilians.
Instead he claimed the current rise in hostilities was an attempt by India to distract from the plight of those living under curfew in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
India dismissed Pakistan’s claims.
On Tuesday, Rajnath Singh, India’s defense minister, told reporters that India had never been on the offence. “India has never attacked another country and nor has laid claim to even an inch of land in any other country,” he said.
“But the Indian Armed Forces are capable and strong. Whomsoever looks at India with bad intentions, then we will give a befitting reply.”
Sophia Saifi reported from Jura, Imad Mir reported from Nouseri, Swati Gupta reported from New Delhi, Mukhtar Ahmad reported from Srinagar, Julia Hollingsworth wrote from Hong Kong, and Sugam Pokharel contributed reporting from Atlanta.