Indian Army Praised For Aiding Kashmiris
17 October 2005
Salamabad: Indian soldiers are helping Kashmiri earthquake survivors rebuild their shattered lives, unexpectedly finding themselves welcomed by grateful villagers in this disputed territory where the troops have often been seen as occupiers.Kashmiris' deep distrust of Indian soldiers, who have for 16 years battled a separatist insurgency in the territory, prompted protests against the army and civilian authorities over delays in providing relief in the days immediately following the quake. Much has changed since then, and now many in Kashmir are clamoring for all aid distribution to be handed over to the army, contending that civilian authorities have bungled the effort. 'There is no shortage of relief. But there are delays,' said Mohammed Irshad Mir of Jabla, a village in the Uri valley, one of the worst hit parts of India. 'Relief should be distributed only through the army,' he said. 'If they have 100 blankets, at least we know that 100 people will get them.' At least 140,000 people in the region have been left homeless by the 7.6-magnitude Oct. 8 quake, and civilian authorities say they are doing the best they can with limited supplies. The quake killed 1,361 people in Indian Kashmir, including 103 soldiers who died when posts collapsed along the Line of Control, the heavily militarized frontier between India and Pakistan's parts of Kashmir. Despite the military's losses, soldiers trekked to remote villages within hours of the temblor and pressed on into other hamlets in the days after the quake, flying out the injured. 'There were bodies all over the village, and we thought the injured would die too,' said 12-year-old Mehmood Hussain from the village of Sirai. But the army 'came on the very first day, and they took away the injured.' He added: 'Allah bless them' - words the Indian military rarely hears in Kashmir, where soldiers and civilians live together uneasily in a land rife with suspicion, mistrust and, at times, rage. Kashmir, a largely Muslim land, was split between largely Hindu India and overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan after a bloody partition of the subcontinent following independence from Britain in 1947. Both countries now claim it in its entirety, and each have hundreds of thousands soldiers positioned along the frontier. Many Kashmiris would likely vote for independence if given the choice. A small group - no more than a few thousand - have been fighting since 1989 to wrest Kashmir from India. That has made the army's enemy hard to distinguish: teenagers in long flowing Kashmiri tunics; bombs hidden in fruit carts. The soldiers are also known to have committed excesses. Civilians regularly face humiliating body searches, and charges of rape and extrajudicial killings against soldiers have been made repeatedly since the insurgency began in 1989. While the army has in recent years tried to crack down on human rights violations and improve its image in Kashmir by building schools, bridges and clinics, commanders said their work after the quake should improve relations between soldiers and civilians. 'This will make bonds stronger,' said Lt. Gen. S. S. Dhillon, the army's commander in Kashmir. 'The situation demanded quick action and we, in spite of our own casualties, were very prompt.' International aid groups agree - Hans de Weerd of Medecins Sans Frontieres said the army had done 'a commendable job.' The military's work has left a lasting impression on Ghulam Mohiuddin of Salamabad, a village near the Line of Control. 'I have been running behind relief trucks everyday. I got nothing,' he said, waiting in line to receive clothes from soldiers. 'But look at this - this is so disciplined,' 'I shall remember their help,' he said.