The Valley At The Centre Of The Kashmir Insurgency10 June 2010
Islamabad: The recent disappearance of two men in Pakistani-administered Kashmir has once again raised questions over Pakistan's role in the murky militant war in Kashmir. They had once worked as guides, who are used by militants needing their local and navigational expertise to traverse the treacherous mountain passes that separate Indian-administered Kashmir from Pakistani-administered Kashmir. Relatives of the missing men say they were 'picked up' by a couple of Pakistani intelligence officials on the morning of 25 May from their houses in Falakan - a village in the Neelum valley region - and coerced into once again working as guides. The story is a familiar one for most Kashmiris living near the 720km (447 miles) Line of Control (LoC) - the de facto boundary that divides the disputed Kashmir region between India and Pakistan. But this is the first time the locals have been willing to speak publicly about it. Relatives of the men and other residents of Falakan village blocked the main road between Athmuqam and Muzaffarabad on Thursday. The protest took place because the administration failed to provide them with any information about the missing guides by the promised date of 10 June. The local assistant commissioner and senior police officers negotiated with the protesters, who gave them another week to investigate the matter. The protesters have threatened further demonstrations if either the men or their bodies are not handed over to the relatives. 'No contact' Map 'Two men of the agency [the name used by local people to describe Pakistan's ISI intelligence services] came to our house on 25 May and asked my husband, Mohammad Iqbal, to accompany them,' Zulfan Bibi, a mother of five, told the BBC Urdu service. 'My husband told them he was getting old and his eyesight had weakened and so it was difficult for him to walk the mountain trails he used to cover in the past. But they threatened us with consequences if he did not go,' she said. 'Later in the evening, those officials came back to inform me that my husband went across the LoC and has since made no contact with them.' Another woman, Taslim Bibi, whose husband Mohammad Salim was taken away by the same officials, tells a similar story. 'They wanted him to lead mujahideen [militants] to the other [Indian] side,' she says. Their story came to light on 2 June when the people of Falakan village blocked traffic on the road that connects Athmuqam, the administrative centre of Neelum valley, with the regional capital Muzaffarabad. They were protesting over the refusal of local intelligence officials and the administration to inform them about the status of the two men. Militant manpower An embarrassed local administration ordered a police inquiry, but residents believe the police have no leverage over the security agencies operating in the area. Neelum valley The area has frequently been subjected to Indian shelling The question is, why would the Pakistani intelligence officials 'abduct' these men? Two reasons come to mind. One, the men received advance fees for leading a group of militants into the Indian part of Kashmir and then became reluctant to fulfil their promise. Second, like most guides and porters, they switched to other professions when Pakistan put tabs on militant activity in 2004, and were therefore not willing to get back into the game. Pakistani intelligence services are widely believed to have organised and regulated the infiltration of Islamist militants into Indian-administered Kashmir since 1988-89. That year, the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan left a surplus of trained militant manpower which they could divert to Kashmir, analysts say. Since most of these militants were non-Kashmiri, their handlers needed local people with the knowledge of the terrain to work as guides. Worst hit During 1990s, tens of thousands of villagers from the LoC region were earning a living by working as guides and porters for the 'agency' during the May-September timeframe used by militants to launch their attacks. Soldier in Indian-administered Kashmir The mountains of Kashmir are renowned for their harsh terrain Every time the Indians suspected a forthcoming incursion, they would start shelling the Pakistani positions and militants' camps - both invariably located in or close to villages on the Pakistani side. Neelum valley was the worst hit. The entire 200km (124 miles) stretch of the Neelum River gorge that runs in an east-west direction is exposed to Indians who command heights along the left bank of the river. Along with Bagh region and Lipa valley to its south, Neelum valley is also the most suitable launching point for militants, as it offers plenty of cover in terms of forests, deep ravines and high altitude passes that are difficult to traverse. In the 1990s, the Neelum valley was subjected to devastating Indian fire that completely destroyed its roads, health and education infrastructure. For more than a decade, it remained under virtual siege. Bunkers became an essential part of civilian life. The situation eased in November 2003, when Pakistan and India called a ceasefire across the LoC and started peace talks. The ceasefire still holds, but since 2008 there have been reports of renewed militant activity along some sections of the LoC. The first independent confirmation of this came in May 2009 when 12 people died in an avalanche in the desolate Bimla mountain range of Neelum valley, close to the LoC. Official sources have since confirmed the victims were members of a militant team trying to cross the boundary. In June 2009, the BBC Urdu service published excerpts from a secret police report confirming that militants had started setting up bases close to the LoC in Pakistani-administered Kashmir. These developments are making the people of Neelum valley nervous. In August 2008, hundreds of people twice hit the streets in Athmuqam town to protest against renewed militant activity in the area, saying they feared the Indians may resume shelling of their villages and homes. The protests of 2 and 10 June are the latest reminder that Pakistani officials may not have abandoned the militant option just yet.