Kashmir 'border' Villagers Enjoy Peace
17 December 2006
Srinagar: Three years after India and Pakistan declared a ceasefire along the Line of Control that divides the disputed region of Kashmir, life has changed for the better for the people of the border village of Makri. Nestled in a valley amid high mountainous terrain, Makri in Jammu is surrounded on three sides by Pakistan and lies just about 100 metres from the border. Though the wounds received during the constant shelling from across the Line of Control are yet to heal, people here are slowly rebuilding their lives. Before the ceasefire of 26 November 2003, firing and shelling between the two sides were a daily occurrence. Both sides blamed each other for provoking it. But now, with peace in the air, concrete and painted houses are replacing the bullet and mortar-pocked mud houses. The village has fertile soil, and local people say its maize crop earned a name for the area before 1947 when India and Pakistan were one. Untold miseries Chet Ram, 96, says the primary occupation of the village residents is farming and cattle rearing. 'We used to sell our maize crop in Mirpur (now in Pakistan-administrated Kashmir) before 1947. Our maize was of superior quality and used to sell for five to six rupees per maund [an old unit of measurement equalling 40kg], while the local variety would fetch only four rupees,' he says. But after the partition of the subcontinent and creation of India and Pakistan, the hostile relations between the two countries made life difficult for the people of Makri. The villagers here suffered. And suffered plenty. Two wars between India and Pakistan in 1965 and 1971, the eruption of armed separatist militancy in Kashmir since the late 80s, the Kargil conflict of 1999 and frequent shelling from across the border even in peace times brought untold miseries for the villagers. Som Nath Randhawa, a middle-aged resident, says people had to often take refuge in relief camps for the displaced away from the village. 'We would stay in these camps or take shelter with our relatives in their houses, but in either case it was life without dignity.' Groups of villagers would visit the village for a few hours a day to survey the damage and report the losses, if any, to the authorities. As most villagers were farmers, displacement affected livelihoods too. And this meant a change in lifestyle as well. A better place 'Most villagers started working as porters for the Indian troops and paramilitary forces. Others took up manual labour in the construction of roads and some found work with the forest department,' says Mr Randhawa. Today, Makri - a predominantly Hindu village with about 120 families - is a better place to live. During a visit to the village, we found women working alongside their men folk and children returning from schools - just 50 metres from the border. The new life is a welcome change. Ten-year-old Ravi Kumar says he is happy to be back in school after the ceasefire. He says now he will be able to fulfil his ambition to 'study and become an officer'. 'I wanted to study. But living at the migrant camp meant no studies. It was fun all the time but at times we also had to work,' Ravi says of life in the camp for the displaced villagers. We catch up with Sita Kumari, 40, tending to her cattle herd. 'During the shelling, a lot of our cattle got killed. So we stopped purchasing animals. But after the ceasefire, we have again started rearing them,' she says. But not everyone is so upbeat. Bihari Lal, who says he is 110 years old, has seen the good times and the bad times. Though he is happy with the ceasefire, due to his past bitter experiences, he is apprehensive too. Living in hope The hope about how long the ceasefire will last is sharply divided in this village between the elders and the relatively young residents. While Mr Randhawa is happy that the mud houses are being replaced by the concrete ones, Mr Lal says: 'The villagers are committing a folly. 'My experience says that the governments on either side should not be trusted.' But for the moment, the villagers are making the most of the peace. Chet Ram says during his daughter's wedding, the groom's party could not reach Makri due to heavy shelling and that they had to take the bride to a safer place for the marriage to be solemnised. But today, most social and religious functions can be organised in the village. Obviously then, most villagers hope the ceasefire will continue. 'Our cattle used to get killed. Our land remained uncultivated and turned barren. Our children had no future and we lived like nomads despite having our own houses,' says 60-year-old Vidya Devi - a widow who lost her husband in firing from across the border. Of course, peace cannot bring back the dead, but the villagers here are looking forward to a peaceful future for their children.