Villagers in Kashmir build bunkers as tensions rise between Pakistan and India

Villagers in Kashmir are building bunkers as they brace for more clashes along the fragile line of control that divides Pakistan and India after the recent killings of soldiers on both sides in one of the worst flare-ups in violence in the disputed Himalayan region in a decade.

In the past two weeks, three Pakistani and two Indian troops have died in clashes on the heavily-militarized border, drawing harsh words from both Islamabad and New Delhi. Caught in the middle are villagers who have lived for years near the makeshift border splitting the region.

There has been low-level shooting and shelling across the 750-kilometer (460-mile) line since a cease-fire was signed in 2003. Civilians and livestock have died in the skirmishes, but now soldiers are being killed and many people in this village of 5,000 worry that simmering tension could boil over.

"We are perplexed and scared about recent incidents of shooting on the line of control," said Muhammed Shabbir, a shopkeeper in Chakothi who is building a bunker near his house in the village, surrounded by snow-capped peaks, just 500 meters (yards) from the line.

Some villagers built bunkers a decade ago during heavy violence in the area, but many were destroyed during a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in 2005. Worried about the recent clashes, some villagers are trying to rebuild the shelters.

"We are not certain about our future after these shootings," said Shabbir, whose wife was killed in shelling in May 2003, about six months before the cease-fire took effect.

He added that many residents who used to freely graze their livestock near the line of control are now avoiding the area. Since 2005, both countries have let local residents cross the line to visit relatives.

But Shabbir said that last Monday — the travel day for local residents — none of the villagers from the Pakistani side went to the Indian-held side because they were worried about escalating tensions.

Both countries claim the Muslim-dominated Kashmir region in its entirety, and two of the three major wars the two nuclear-armed nations have fought have been over the mountainous Himalayan region.

Multi-layered barbed wire fences separate the two sides, and Indian and Pakistani troops man guard towers, eyeing each other's territory.

Tensions, however, rose on Jan. 6 when Pakistan accused Indian forces of crossing the line and killing a Pakistani soldier and wounding another in a raid. India denied raiding the post. It said its troops fired across the border in response to Pakistani shelling that destroyed a home on the Indian side.

Two days later, India claimed Pakistani troops had crossed into Indian territory and killed two of its soldiers, beheading one. Pakistan denied the allegations.

Then, on Jan. 10, Pakistan claimed Indian troops fired across the border, killing another Pakistani soldier.

Political rhetoric from both capitals also intensified. Pakistan's foreign minister accused India of "warmongering" while India's army chief urged his troops to be "aggressive and offensive" when dealing with gunfire from Pakistan.

In the latest verbal barrage, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said Sunday that India was reviewing its future ties with Pakistan in light of the "inhuman killing" of its soldiers.

About 30 people from at least seven villages in Indian-held Kashmir met last Monday with government officials in the town of Uri, demanding that the government build bunkers in their villages to protect them from shelling.

Almost everyone there remembers what it was like before the 2003 cease-fire.

"I was born and raised amid firing and shelling," said 28-year-old Nadeem Abbassi, speaking by telephone from his village of Gwalta. "We don't want to live like before. Honestly, we don't have any energy left in us to face such a situation again."

Many people expressed frustration that the deaths of the Indian soldiers had sparked a loud response while there had been little public outcry when civilians have died on both sides.

"There is so much warmongering and hue and cry over the soldiers' killings," said Farid Ahmed, a businessman from the village of Charunda in Indian-held Kashmir. "In our village, three people, including a woman, were killed in shelling. But we're lesser mortals and nobody utters a word when we're killed."

Earlier this week, both Pakistani and Indian officials agreed to work to ease tension along the line of control — a sign that each recognized the risks of an escalating conflict, especially when relations between the two countries had been warming.

Their relationship hit a recent low point in 2008 when Pakistani militants killed 166 people in the Indian coastal city of Mumbai, but last year both countries took steps to mend ties and boost trade. Events during the past two weeks have shown how fragile that progress can be.

Villagers on the front line of a region that has always been the most contentious issue between the two countries are wondering whether Indian and Pakistani leaders can overcome this latest problem.

"Only one or two incidents of firing along the line of control are enough to ruin relations between Pakistan and India, and it is worrying us because we are the ones who would suffer," said Tahir Mehmood, a 28-year-old shopkeeper in Chakothi.


Hussain contributed from Srinagar, India.