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Syed Nazakat in Churunda, India-Pakistan border

Abdul Rahman, 35, a farmer of Churunda village, like other residents of this nondescript village of 230 families, is facing a strange problem. It is four in the evening and he has to go to the market at Uri – the nearest town about 26 kms away. But his dilemma is that whether he would be able to make it back home on time, that is, before sunset. Else he would be left in the lurch since his Indian village falls on the Pakistani side of the barbed wire fence, but well before the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC). A little delay would mean that the gates of the fence are closed for the night.

“I have been planning for the last couple of days to go to Uri. But you know the days are so short in winter that the time you plan to leave it is already by evening. And you know if you return late you will not be allowed to enter the village,” he says with a resignation that other distraught people in this remote areas also show.

Rahman’s ordeal has been on for some time. For over two years now the villagers of Churunda village of the border town of Uri have been left fending for themselves. At night they are literally cut off from the national mainstream as the security forces lock the only entry point, a steel gate on the partition fence. Now often the villagers wonder which place do they actually belong to – India, Pakistan or No Man’s Land. They find themselves literally trapped by the fence and live in what they call ‘closed military area’.

“It is impossible to go on living like this,” Ghulam Ali, 50 and a father of seven, says angrily. For years he worked in Uri town and other places, but now he is neither here nor there. Ali earns his living entirely from farming.

How did this problem start? After the Indian Army began putting up a fence all along the 720 km Line of Control, some villages like this one have inadvertently fallen on the Pakistani side of the barbed wire fence. The fence should actually have come right on the LoC (an imaginary line) but Pakistani shelling had forced the Indian Army to move the fence a little inside Indian territory forcing some villages on the wrong side of the fence. A little beyond is no man’s land.

Ever since the fencing in 2003 the residents can stay in their homes only after they have special I-cards jointly issued by the army and police. “We must deposit our I-cards at the checkpoint every time we leave or enter the village. We need permission to go to the grocery store, to go to the doctor in Uri town, to visit the family and to attend a wedding or funeral in the nearby village on the other side or fence,” rued Ghulam Ali.

In a sense the gate on the fence now regulates the villagers’ lives. Most of their lands and grazing pastures remained outside the fence and they have to depend more and more on the mixture of sheep feed that they bring from Uri. “We cannot take our livestock for grazing in the jungle anymore. Anyone caught roaming around in the jungles, as we used to do before the fencing existed, has to face punishment,” a resident lamented.

Yet, their woes now appear to be perennial. Looking down from the snowline atop the mountain, the glow of conifers emerges across their earthquake devastated village as the temperature plummets, each flicker signifying another homeless family out in the freezing cold. Spell out the word ‘government’ to them and they line up to lodge complains. Incidentally, the only sign of the government’s presence in this village is a primary school that has now been reopened after the devastating quake flattened the village completely some two months ago. Bringing in some respite though the army and some NGOs have helped villagers to construct tin sheds to protect them from the chilly winter. Still, to add to their problems, it is not easy for the relief teams and NGOs to visit this isolated village regularly. “They are not reaching here because they also need special permission to come here. Whatever help we are getting, we are getting it from the army. The NGOs came here but it is not easy from them to come here frequently,” Umwer Din, a 28-year-old farmer, said. He added; “Even I rarely step out of the village. This village means the whole world to me.”

Umwer sounds realistic in his confessions. There is no transport to the village. To approach it, the villagers have to walk past the Mike post, the last Indian army camp on this side of the Line of Control (LoC) in the southern side of the Uri sector. Then they climb the snow clad slope up to the final seven kilometers to Churunda. Here, the road cuts through number of bankers and a check posts, where every incoming visitor has to show his identity and write down his or her name. Villagers in traditional phirans [traditional loose gowns] deposit their I-card before leaving or entering this village at the checkpoint.

Since the ceasefire at the border, Churunda has remained peaceful, but that hasn’t ever stopped the fear of unprovoked firing by the Pakistani army. “Today there is a ceasefire. God forbid tomorrow if the firing at the border starts again where will we go” There isn’t any peace of mind here any more,” says ninety-two year old Noor Din. The old man’s relatives live in neighbouring villages but cannot meet him regularly since the gate remains open for only 8 hours a day.

Today only a small stream divides Churunda and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. With the stream too remaining dry for most of the time, there is literally no natural border. Given the hardship in this forsaken village, the natives say that already about 28 families have migrated to the other side of the border.

The army though rebuts such claims.. “That villagers live on the other side of the fence does not mean that we have left them to Pakistan. Our posts are also on the other side of fence. And we are there to look to the grievances of the people,” says Col Praveen Sharma, commanding officer, whose troops guard the border in this sector.

But that is not enough for the villagers. Today, when an icy wind shuffles the bare willows surrounding the village, in the east, the snowy crests of the towering mountain range float like drifts of clouds. A group of children play in one corner of the graveyard and by the edge of the stream. Obviously they are confronted with the ironies of a left-out world. Eight-year-old Adnan Ahmad, a second grade student, wants to be an engineer. Mohammed Hafiz is 12 and he wants to become a doctor. How? ”I will study,” he says as he holds his cricket bat.

Obviously these children are the only hope of getting an identity for Churunda – which has otherwise been fenced out from the rest of the country.

Perhaps forever!

(Sahara Time, November 7, 2005)

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