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May 28, 1999


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Where daily life is deadly business

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Chindu Sreedharan in Kargil

You live. And if you want to continue living, you learn.

No one understands this better than the people of Kargil, this once-peaceful town situated 204km north of Srinagar, almost midway to Leh. They will tell you that there hasn't been a day in the near past when they haven't heard Pakistani artillery spitting shells over the hills. Since May 9, there hasn't been a day when they haven't run for their lives, into the shelter of buildings or bunkers.

And so, they have learnt to live with it. Shelling, today, is a part of their lives.

During last year's shelling, you wouldn't have found anyone in the town. "Kargil was deserted except for a few," says the local MLA and Jammu and Kashmir Public Works Minister Qamar Ali Akhoon. "This time you will see that more than 50 per cent are still around. Also, despite the prolonged shelling, we have had only one casualty till now. The people have learnt what to do and what not to during shelling."

Life in Kargil, you find for yourself, is deadly business. It looks peaceful and quiet -- in fact, the very place for a recluse. You need to cross the famous Zoji La, the famous Gumri, which records the highest snowfall in the world, and the equally famous Drass, the coldest inhabited place after Siberia, to reach this town, over 2,600 metres above sea-level. You pass white-capped hills, sheets of muddy snow on the roadside, and ridges that look ready for a landslide anytime.

And when you do reach Kargil, you find that the line dividing war and peace is pretty thin.

Life here means alternating between the two. One minute you find the market place populated enough to exorcise the tag it has of being a ghost town. The next you hear the swishing sound of shells overhead and the locals run for shelters. Unless the shelling persists, just a few minutes later they are back on the road, most nonchalant.

"Yeh roz hota hai (This happens regularly)," says Muhammad Ali, a trader here for 15 years. His was the only shop open some 10 minutes after shells from across hit Goma-Kargil, a village on the hills behind the town, on Wednesday afternoon. "If it is only a few shells I don't bother. But if the shelling is heavy, I down shutters. Log aate hain, ji (Customers do come). But they don't linger. They buy what they want and run home."

Kargil's vulnerability has much to do with its location. The Line of Control is about 8km to the north. More importantly, the ranges belonging to Pakistan dominate the area. Though Indian troops had captured the ranges twice -- in 1965 and 1971 -- they magnanimously returned these to Pakistan.

As you enter the town from the Srinagar side, you see the Suru river on your right, rushing madly into Pakistan. A little beyond, to the north, are the Indian ridges, speckled with forward positions. They are the only protection against the guns from across the border.

On your right you have, again, hills. The town runs by its foot, east to west, for about 2-3 kilometres. First come the residential area, which have not yet been hit, then the market place, which was hit last year, then Lal Chowk and Baru, where the town ends. Baru is where all the government offices were located. Now most have been moved out, though the army is still there. It was here that Monday's strikes killed a civilian.

Another notable thing about Kargil is that most of its citizens are Shia Muslims. They probably feel safer in India, given the reported attacks on them in Pakistan, where they are a minority, by the Sunni majority.

This probably is why that, unlike in the rest of Kashmir, Kargil has never supported separatist militancy. In fact, even when the valley was burning, the township saw no trouble. The residents to whom we spoke were all pro-India; many of them, though apprehensive that the air strikes may lead Kargil into more shelling, supported the action.

People in the valley may be still unimpressed by the Indian government, but the residents of Kargil have no complaints. This is amply reflected by 15-year-old Tasena Akthar Lone.

"Oh good!" she said when told about the air strikes. "They deserve it!"


"Because Pakistan is our enemy and we are Indians!"

But most residents feel little anger towards Pakistan or India. These are, in the words of a state official posted here, "highly submissive" people. People who just want to get on with their lives. People who want only peace. People who are not interested in "Azad" Kashmir, or any other variety for that matter.

So they conduct special prayer meetings to pray that they be saved from shelling. This happens both in the town and villages.

Kargil's troubles also owe their genesis to another fact -- that the Srinagar-Leh highway passes through the town. This is the only road to the Ladakh region and the Siachen glacier. Once it is cut off, the supplies to the Indian Army -- and to civilians too -- will be severed. The alternatives are few -- ferrying cargo by chopper or transport via the Pathankote road, which is over 1,300km long and not operational at present (the distance to Leh from Srinagar is around 450km.)

Kargil is, in fact, so vulnerable that army officers admit Pakistan can take it "any time they want". It is only the fact that there are even more vulnerable areas across the border that restrains the Pakistani forces from acting, they say.

The area was pretty peaceful till about three years ago. Last year, some 20 civilians died when a shell hit the mosque in the market area. This year the intensity of shelling has increased; in fact, Monday's pounding was the heaviest, say locals.

The schools as well as 95 per cent of the shops have been closed since then. Many of the residents choose to find beds in the suburbs at night and return in the day, though there are a few that do the reverse -- work in villages like Mingi and then come to their bunkered houses to sleep.

The shelling has crippled the town's economy, locals admit. There is hardly anyone who does business. Seventy per cent of the people are dependent on agriculture, mainly growing barley, but they haven't been able to work for 20-odd days now. Since the town, like the rest of the Ladakh region, is cut off for eight months a year and the climate is not conducive for barley then, they grow it only between May and June.

Many of the fields, as of now, are untended. The villagers will face trouble if they are not allowed to work in the next two months peacefully.

"Jaan to bachaana hai (We have to save our lives)," sighs a resident, Ali, "but what can we do? It is beyond us to control such incidents."

"Accha kiya India ne (India has done well)," he comments on the air strikes, asserting that bringing things to a crisis could help resolving their problems soon, either through negotiations or by clearing the area of infiltrators.

Despite the grim situation, the locals are unwilling to shift permanently. The state government had, after last year's shelling, proposed that the township be moved out to safer areas. Later, the plan was dropped after Vajpayee's bus ride to Lahore. Also, the exercise will be very costly.

"Kaun jayega (Who will go)?" asks Muhammad. "We may move out temporarily if the situation deteriorates, but we will not move permanently."

Adds another, a policeman who wanted anonymity: "You cannot pluck people out and replant them like that. If you shift, yes, we will escape the threat of shelling. But then we will have to face the threat of poverty."

Akhoon agrees. "That is not a solution," he says, "We cannot keep relocating our entire border. Now it is Kargil and Drass. Tomorrow they can target another place; then what will we do?

"The government will consider the exercise only as a last resort. As of now, the situation does not call for it," adds Akhoon.

But they all know that, at some time, it just might.

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