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‘Never Thought Pakistani Mortar Fire Would Reach Here’: Left Shell-Shocked, Kashmiri Villagers Flee.

 Bashir Ahmad Kataria was returning from the mosque after offering evening prayers. On reaching the porch of his house, he leaned forward to remove his shoes. Suddenly, a “rocket-like” projectile landed in the lawn and there was a loud explosion.

The windowpanes shattered as shrapnel sprayed around like bullets. The whole house shook. Then, everything was still. Only Bashir’s cries broke the silence as the dust settled.

Zarina Begum, 48-year-old Bashir’s wife and their four children came running out. Lying in a puddle of his own blood, his right shoe laced up, Bashir was screaming for help. For half-an-hour, Zarina and her children couldn’t take him to hospital as many more mortar shells rained down on their north Kashmir village, Reddi, about 30 kilometres from the Line of Control with Pakistan (nearly 70km by road).

“We thought a war between India and Pakistan had begun and planes had started dropping bombs,” Zarina told.

Zarina and other locals couldn’t comprehend what was actually happening. They dropped to the floor, trying to shield themselves as around two-dozen mortar shells descended on different locations of the village on the evening of October 24.

These were long-range artillery shells coming from the other side of the LoC. That night four people including a woman got injured.

Skirmishes between India and Pakistan on the de-facto border are a usual affair. This year alone, over two-thousand ceasefire violations have been reported. However, Reddi, a small village in the Chowkibal area of Kupwara district, surrounded by densely wooded mountains, is a fair distance away from the LoC. Villagers say they had never before witnessed a shell from other side falling in the area.

“We had never thought that mortar would reach here. It had never happened,” Yaqoob Din, a 75-year old resident of the village, who is an Indian Army veteran, told.

A local villager in an audacious act amid the shelling took Bashir to the hospital in his car. He was later shifted to Srinagar for tertiary treatment as his legs were badly wounded.

The mortar shells continued to bombard different locations. One landed near the road leading to the LoC. Two cars parked close by were also damaged.

The scene of vehicles with burnt holes and disfigured bodies, lying on the roadside, seemed to be straight out of a warzone.

Many people fled the village during the firing at night. They escaped — in cars, motorcycles, trucks, and even on foot — seeking refuge in neighbouring areas.

“We took our children and started to flee. Some had cars at home, but most started running,” said Siraj Din, a local shopkeeper.

That night, as almost everyone fled the village, two stayed put: Mir Basit, an 18-year-old school student and another local, who does not want to be identified. As the humans had left the village, Basit and his associate stayed to check on the cattle.

Most of the villagers in the area are farmers and rearing cattle is part of life in an agrarian society.

“We went to every house and checked on the cows and goats,” Basit told News18. “Because of the shelling, the animals were also terrified. Some had got tangled up by their ropes and were choking,” Basit said, claiming he saved many of them.

The next day, as some villagers made their way back, they were warned by the Army to stay away for some time.

“The Army told us that the situation could be bad for a few more days. They asked us not to stay here, at least at night,” said Siraj Din, who had come to check on his shop after leaving his children and wife with relatives in another village.

News18 visited the village on Saturday and found people struck by fear and helplessness. The residents say, apart from the local police officer and an Army party, no one came to see them.

“We had to leave the village on our own and look for places to stay at,” Siraj told News18. “No one provided us any help. We are displaced people but there is no rehabilitation centre.”

The government has provided concrete bunkers to people who live near the LoC. However, this time the shells landed in a village that had never felt the need for a bunker.

Between the LoC and the area where the shells landed, there are some high mountain peaks, including the Sadhna Top, a mountain pass at an elevation of 3,130m, which connects Tangdhar area with Kupwara.

On October 19, a civilian and two Army personnel were killed in Tangdhar sector near the LoC. Army chief General Bipin Rawat later said that Indian troops had given a “befitting reply” to all “unprovoked ceasefire violations” by which Pakistan has been “targeting civilian” areas.

Rawat said that India had “caused severe damage to terrorist infrastructure (in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir)”, and “6-10 Pakistani soldiers have been killed, three camps have been destroyed”.

The unusual landing of shells close to Kupwara town has put the Army and the local administration on alert.

“This area comes in range of shells but it has never come under fire,” said senior superintendent of police, Kupwara, Ambarakar Shriram Dinkar.

However, he said that civilians had not been asked to leave the area. “People might have left taking precautions,” he said.

An officer in the civil administration, however, raised concerns over the situation. “Fortunately, the shells didn’t hit any residential house directly. It would have caused huge damage to civilian lives,” the officer, who requested not to be named, told.

If the shells start landing at such a distance, we cannot say things are happening around LoC, the officer said. “The shells have landed in the hinterland.”

There has been an upsurge in incidents of cross-LoC shelling all across Jammu and Kashmir since the government of India scrapped J&K’s special status under Article 370 of the Constitution and reorganised the state into two union territories.

But the latest mortar fire is something new; the shells have landed just 25 kilometres from the district headquarters.

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