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Kargil: The Other Face of War

In war, all attention focuses on war news. The soldiers are the main concern of the media. This is natural. However, this one sided coverage often ignores the plight of the civilian population who are affected by the war. Non-combatant civilians get killed, maimed and dispossessed. They are forced to leave their home and hearth. The government often fails to come to the rescue of these hapless victims of war as it gets tied up in war efforts. There is enough evidence to show that during war the border population gets pushed around by the very army which is supposed to protect it. The media also tends to ignore or play down the plight of the war refugees as these stories are perceived as less important.

It has been reported that the ongoing war in Kargil has created about 35,000 refugees. I was told by an official of Jammu and Kashmir government that the heavy shelling by Pakistani forces in Akhnoor sector of Jammu has forced about 70,000 persons to leave their home and take refuge in refugee camps set up in school buildings and tents. While the government claimed that all arrangements were made for proper relief of the refugees in Kargil and Jammu sectors, there were newspaper reports that the government had failed to provide even the basic necessities to the refugees. The refugees had complained that they were forcibly evacuated from their homes without proper notice for military purpose. A few newspapers had reported that in Kargil sector civilians were forced to work as porters for the army without any pay while others claimed that the people of Kargil region were willingly carrying loads for the army.

Gagan Geer, a vilage on way to Sonmarg

I visited Gagan Geer a village of Gujjars, the nomadic pastoral tribe of Kashmir on June 21, 1999. Gagan Geer is situated at the base of the lofty mountain range about 6 km south-west of Sonmarg the summer tourist resort, on the Srinagar-Leh road. Gagan Geer is the home of about 60 Gujjar and Kashmiri families. Each summer the Gujjars take their goats and sheep up the mountain trails to pastures in the upper regions of the mountains for grazing. Most of the Kashmiris are engaged in farming, while a few are in the government service.

About 85 km from Srinagar, on the road to Leh, just outside the village of Gagan Geer, next to the Forest Department’s Check Post is a makeshift refugee camp. It consists of four tin roofed storage sheds of the Public Works Department of the Jammu and Kashmir government. On June 2, 1999 about 400 Kargil war refugees from the area between Matayan and Drass were brought to this camp. Since then, each of these tin sheds measuring about 1800 sq. feet has become the home for the families. Approximately 100 persons, including women and children were packed inside each of these dark cold sheds, where night temperature still went down to about 5 degree Celsius.

The Refugees of Pandrass

All the refugees living in this camp belong to the village of Pandrass. This village is situated at a height of about eight thousand feet above sea level, across the Zoji-la pass, between Matayan and Drass where the Indian soldiers have been engaged in a fierce battle against the "intruders" and Pakistani soldier since early May. Pandrass has a mixed population of Gujjars, Baltis and Dardic people. The Gujjars of Pandrass have no kinship bonds with the people of Baltistan, on the other side of the Line of Control (LoC) in Pakistan controlled Kashmir. However, the Balti and Dardic people of Pandrass have cultural, linguistic and familial bonds with Baltistan. All the residents of Pandrass are Shia Muslims. The main occupation of the people of Pandrass is animal husbandry. They rear goats and sheep for wool, milk and meat. They also grow a variety of high altitude millet for local consumption.

Unhygienic accommodation and poor relief

I found the refugees in rather poor condition. Having heard on the radio and television that the Jammu and Kashmir administration had made more than adequate arrangements for the Kargil war refugees, I was a bit surprised to see that the refugees in Gagan Geer had very little bedding and virtually no extra clothing. When I asked about the lack of cooking utensils, clothing and bedding, the refugees informed me that they were not allowed to bring these essential materials due to paucity of space on the small trucks which brought them to Sonmarg on the evening of June 2, 1999. Whatever food they had stored in their homes and all their animals, their entire wealth in this world, had to be abandoned. They were assured that they would be provided with all essential materials at the relief camp. However, on arrival at Sonmarg they found that no arrangements were made. Sonmarg, a famous tourist resort has many well equipped huts. These are owned by the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation and are rented out only to the tourists. The Deputy Commissioner told the refugees that they could not stay in Sonmarg. He told them to proceed to Gagan Geer where arrangements were made for their stay.

No official of the Jammu and Kashmir administration was present at Gagan Geer refugee camp on the morning of June 21, 1999. The camp had no electricity. There was only one water tap, which provided water for about four hours a day for the entire population of 400 refugees. There were no bathrooms and toilets. The refugees and the local people of the area told me, that several Kashmiri politicians, including ministers of Jammu and Kashmir government had visited the camp. The refugees were assured that soon they would get electricity and tents would be set up to ease congestion in the tin sheds. Unfortunately, nothing has happened till date.

On their arrival, the refugees were given five kilos of rice per head and four litres of cooking oil per family. They had no money to buy fuel wood or vegetables, leave aside meat, which was a part of their staple diet. Several women, old persons and children were suffering from cold, dysentery and influenza. They had to go the local Public Health Centre (PHC) at Gagan Geer. The PHC at Gagan Geer was unable to cope with this sudden influx of 400 refugees as it was designed for the small resident population of the village. It was obvious that the civilian authorities were ill prepared to handle the refugee influx. It seemed that they had just dumped the refugees at Gagan Geer camp and gone away.

Evacuated for military reasons

The refugees claimed that Pandrass was a safe place. Situated between Matayan and Drass, it was protected from the shelling by the intruders and Pakistani soldiers by the high mountains on both sides. According to these mountain shepherds, while it was possible for the intruders from Pakistan side to sneak into Matayan on the west and Drass on the east, there were no trails leading into Pandrass from Pakistan side. Till the time they were forcibly evacuated by Indian army, their village was not attacked. An old resident of Pandrass told me that they did not want to leave at all.

On May 14, 1999 an Indian army Major and some soldiers had first visited their village. The Major had indicated that the army might need to evacuate the village as they were planning to set up heavy artillery guns in the village. The residents of Pandrass had apparently welcomed the Indian soldiers and offered to help them. They pleaded that instead of forcing them to leave the army should use their services for logistics supply and information gathering. They pointed out that during the 1947-48 war in Kargil sector, their village was not evacuated and the villagers had helped the Indian army in many ways during the war with the intruders from Pakistan. According to the refugees the Indian army Major was not convinced. In fact he was rather rude and told them in no uncertain terms that either they should agree to be evacuated to Sonmarg, or they should go over to Pakistan side.

Later in the day all the villagers of Pandrass were ordered to go down to the road for issue of new identity cards. A resident of Pandrass, Mr. Abdul Gafur ( not real name) aged about 28 told me that the issue of identity card was a ruse, the actual objective of the army was different. As the villagers assembled at a place below their village on the Leh road, all the able bodied males of Pnadrass were separated from the elderly persons, women and the children. About 45 men, between the age 18 to 30 years, were forced into army trucks and taken away. They were driven to a place called Bhimbet.

Forced Labour

At Bhimbet the villagers were divided into three groups of fifteen persons each. They were told that they had to help the army in carrying guns, ammunition and other supplies to a high mountain post called Shaduri. I was told by Abdul Gafur and two other persons Wazir and Ghulam Mohammad ( not real names) that the climb from Bhimbet to Shaduri was extremely difficult. The mountain was covered with snow. There were large patches of exposed old ice as last year this region had received less snow. As there was no cover and the intruders and Pakistani soldiers at the heights were regularly shelling the area, the shepherds were forced to climb only during the night. Each of them loaded with about 30 kilos of military equipment scaled the sheer snow covered steep slope for about six hours to reach Shaduri post during the night. If they were unable to climb down under the cover of darkness they had to spend the day in Shaduri hiding in the snow. As there was no food for them in Shaduri, they went without food. They did not have proper clothing and shoes. Abdul Gafur said that he was forced to work as a porter for seven days in Bhimbet-Shadur area. After about seven days several of them fell sick. He and six others suffered severe frost bite. He showed me his injured feet which were still bandaged.

Abdul Gafur and six others were taken to Kargil hospital for treatment for frost bite. He claimed that while his injuries were not that severe, the condition of six others from Pandrass was critical. These persons were still under treatment in Kargil hospital.

Abdul Gafur said that after being treated in Kargil hospital for about 10 days he was able to walk. In Kargil he learnt from a bus driver that his entire village had been evacuated on June 2 and that they were now living in a refugee camp in Gagan Geer. He said that he got a lift in a local truck to Sonmarg and finally reached the camp on June 7, 1999.

It was obvious that the condition of the inmates of Gagan Geer refugee camp was very poor. They had virtually exhausted the meager supply of ration of rice and oil that was given to them on arrival. Lack of electricity, water and proper sanitation has created a serious health problem, particularly for the aged and the children. The local people who were kind to the refugees and helped them with fuel wood and other supplies, are not in a position to support them for much longer. Immediate arrangements need to made for improving the living conditions at the camp and supply of food, clothing, bedding and medicines. The Jammu and Kashmir administration is not unaware of the condition at the camp. Mian Altaf, a Minister of Jammu and Kashmir and Mehbooba Sayeed the leader of the opposition in Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly have visited the camp. Several promises were made, but none has been kept.

It is also clear that the refugees will not be able to return to their village, Pandrass this winter even if the war comes to an end by September as is being indicated by Indian Defence establishment. By the middle of August Zoji-la pass gets snow bound. After September it gets closed. It will be impossible for the villagers to carry back adequate quantities of food and fuel to Pandrass after the onset of winter making it impossible for them to survive the severe winter of Kargil. They have also lost most of their animals, the main source of their livelihood. The government has to therefore, plan for a longer stay, at least till the spring of 2000. These people also need to be helped to re-start their life as most of them will have lost all their possessions.

It may be said that this not the time to raise these issues when the country is facing a war and soldiers are getting killed every day at the front. These issues will be taken care of after the war. Without belittling the tremendous sacrifice being made by the soldiers, it is necessary to point out that the lives of non-combatant civilians are as important. War takes a heavy toll on the lives of soldiers and civilians. The countries that go to war suffer huge losses due to war expenditure. What is not computed is the loss of production, destruction of civilian assets and the disruption of civilian life. Governments who do not seriously address the "other face of war"- the civilian side, do so at their peril. The humanitarian disaster created by the Pakistani army in erstwhile East Pakistan was the reason for India’s armed intervention which led to the the emergence of independent Bangladesh. More recently, the human suffering of the Albanians in Kosovo at the hands of Serbs created an opportunity for the western powers to go to war against the Millosovic regime in Yugoslavia.

The Kargil war in its seventh week, has already created 35,000 refugees in Pakistan and India. Gagan Geer is just one example of a growing humanitarian disaster in the making . Thousands of farmers have lost their crops and livestock. As tension mounts and the war escalates, several thousand more will be displaced. Governments need to defend their borders, but the real challenge of governance is not only to ensure territorial security, but more important, human security and to build peace as a space for enjoyment of peoples rights. Kargil is a test case of defending much more than merely territorial rights. The governments have to demonstrate the moral right to govern by giving priority to peoples right to peace.

Tapan K. Bose
South Asia Forum for Human Rights

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