Living on the Line

The landmark meeting between the Director Generals Military Operations of Pakistan and India on 24 December 2013 to strengthen mechanisms to ensure the sanctity of the ceasefire on the Line of Control (LOC), signalled a new turn in the Pakistan-India relationship. The meeting, hosted by Pakistan, was the first in the 14 years since the Kargil War. A joint statement issued following the meeting said, “Both DGMOs showed their commitment to maintain the sanctity and ceasefire on the Line of Control.” It went on to say, “Both sides reiterated resolve and commitment to continue efforts for ensuring ceasefire, peace and tranquility on the Line of Control”.

Talks were also held in late December between the DG Rangers and his counterpart from the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) – the two forces that patrol the Working Boundary between Pakistan and Indian-occupied Jammu & Kashmir – to resolve ceasefire violation issues in that region. Sources say that during the meeting, the BSF alleged that firing by Pakistan Rangers resulted in deaths of their troops. The Rangers made it clear that Pakistani troops fire only in response to BSF fire. A climate of positivity emerged from these both sets of talks, which is hoped, will lead not only to ensure peace along the LOC and Working Boundary, but also a more positive bilateral engagement at other levels. Since the election of the PML-N Government in Pakistan in 2013, Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif has made fresh overtures to India for peace talks and has committed the government of Pakistan to resolving the Kashmir situation. In this, he has had the support of the Pakistan Military. The PM has also advocated for stronger trade ties. At a meeting of the trade ministers of the two countries in New Delhi on 18 January 2014, Pakistan and India agreed to allow daily round-the-clock movement of trucks and containers through the main Wagah-Attari border crossing. They also approved a liberalized visa policy for businessmen to help expand two-way trade, and Pakistan also agreed to provide non-discriminatory market access to Indian companies. It is hoped that closer integration on an economic level will contribute to lowering of political tensions between the two countries. Trade between Pakistan and India slowed almost to a halt over the past year due to a series of ceasefire violations on the Line of Control and Working Boundary. The meeting between two DGMOs was a step forward that eased the situation and cleared the way for these new bilateral trade initiatives to progress. However, many consider that the border issues are likely to remain fragile in the foreseeable future, calling for a clear-headed approach from both sides.

The history of conflict along the LOC dates back to when it first came into being in 1949 as the Ceasefire Line (CFL). It became known as the Line of Control on 3 July 1972 with the signing of the Simla Agreement. Wars have been fought and although it has been more peaceful since the end of the Kargil war, many smaller skirmishes have occurred along the CFL. Incidents escalated significantly in 2013, with both sides accusing the other of responsibility. A series of ceasefire violations targeting villages along the Working Boundary near Sialkot, shifted the focus from the northern areas to the south. During the 2012/2013 period, of the numerous ceasefire violations, 56 occurred in which civilians were directly targeted along the LOC and Working Boundary, resulting in the deaths of 11 civilians with 92 injured, leaving behind widows and children who, with the main earner in the family gone, then struggle would surely to survive. Many Pakistani troops were also martyred and injured during this period. It is hoped that the DGMOs' meeting will result in a reduction of such incidents. However, the positive climate did not take long to be shattered. In early January, a new ceasefire violation in the Tatapani Sector was reported in which a Pakistani civilian was killed by firing from Indian troops. Pakistan held India responsible. However, aggressive comments by the Indian Chief of Army Staff, General Bikram Singh, at a pre-Army Day press conference on 13 January 2014, took Pakistan by surprise. Although General Singh noted that “the frequency of ceasefire violations have come down remarkably ever since the meeting of the DGMOs (Director Generals Military Operations) of the two countries last December 2013”, he launched an astonishing tirade against Pakistan saying that “India was not bound to follow the rules if Pakistan was up to breaking them.” He boasted of the killing of Pakistani soldiers to avenge Pakistani violations on the LOC. General Singh also said it is virtually a “mini war at the local level” whenever ceasefire violations take place on the LOC.

Responding to the Indian Army Chief's statement, Pakistan Military's spokesman Major General Asim Saleem Bajwa, DG ISPR, said, “It is contrary to the facts on ground. Pakistan Army respects the ceasefire agreement in letter and spirit.” The DG's statement added, “After the meeting between the Director Generals Military Operations (DGMOs) on December 24, 2013, the situation along the LOC has improved considerably. Such accusation and provocative statements are regrettable and counterproductive.” General Singh's comments also led the Pakistan Foreign Office Spokesperson, Tasneem Aslam, to respond when questioned on these comments, “We believe that it is a regrettable statement. It is provocative and unfortunate and as the DG ISPR has already pointed out, statements like these and claims of this sort tend to deteriorate the situation. We have always tried to maintain tranquility on the Line of Control. It was with this in view that our DG Military Operations had invited his Indian counterpart for talks. They had a constructive meeting and they agreed on a number of measures. We expect India to abide by the agreement.” Ms Aslam also commented, “There have been incessant violations of the Line of control (LOC) from the Indian side since January last year. In these firing incidents, some soldiers and some civilians were martyred.” A Brigadier-level flag meeting at the Chakkan-Da-Bagh crossing in the Poonch area on 17 January 2014 was held to defuse the most recent situation, with both sides raising their protests. It is worth looking back at events over the past year to comprehend why all this matters and how the violations of the ceasefire, and outcome of these meetings, affects the lives of the thousands of ordinary Pakistani civilians, who are living along the LOC and Working Boundary. Villages that have been targeted in recent times include Chakhoti, Batal, Cherrikot, Satwal and others on the LOC, and Phuklian, Chaprar, Patwal, Khokar, Jhang, Janglora, Dhamala, Shakargargh, Charwa and Harpal along the Working Boundary. Many of these villages have a population of as many as 5,000 – 10,000 so, combined, it is a significant number.

My primary concern is always to learn more about the humanitarian impact of disasters and conflict on local populations and how their situation can be improved. So, to better understand what life is for civilians who live along the disputed territory border – the people whose lives are most affected when the ceasefire doesn't hold – late last year I visited some of the villages along the Working Boundary. These villages, located near Sialkot, look like any other peaceful rural area of Punjab. But their location in a precarious position right alongside the Working Boundary brings dangers for the local people. Unlike the villages in Jammu & Kashmir, which are mostly 1-5 kilometres from the LOC, the villages towards Pakistan side fall in settled areas and located in very close proximity to the border. Unfortunately, these villages are often in the line of fire and for years the locals have lived in fear of attacks from across the border.

Their fears were again realized in October when the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) launched a series of unprovoked firing attacks on them. In just one eight-day period in October, the BSF fired thousands of rounds of ammunition into these Pakistani villages killing a civilian and injuring twelve. An Individual from Chenab Rangers was also killed when he was struck by sniper fire, and two others injured. To escape the firing, the locals mostly fled to safety in other villages beyond the range of the Indian weapons, and to Sialkot. They returned to find houses, infrastructure and mosques had sustained damage, crops had been destroyed and animals killed.

When I visited the area with Pakistan Rangers, the villagers had repaired much of the damage to their homes but the signs of shelling were still apparent. I had free access to visit any of the villages, stop wherever I wanted, talk to anyone I wished, and also, to go to the Boundary itself, though not for long – snipers sit in the Indian watchtowers and, given their very close proximity, it was not a comfortable place to be. The villagers are hardworking, decent people, struggling to make a living. I found a rural community still in shock and fearful of further attacks. My first call was on a family in Charwa. On 21 October, an Indian shell struck Abida's house in the night. She showed me where it came through the roof and the make shift repairs they had made.

When the shelling started, Abida gathered her family, and after initially taking refuge in a nearby village, moved to Sialkot for a while. The schools closed for 12 days as most of the children had fled with their families and those who stayed were too frightened to go to attend. When Abida returned, she discovered damage to crops and the loss of one of her cows. The loss of one cow may not seem much to a city dweller. But one cow not only provides milk and nutrition for her family, it also contributes to the family's meagre income. Initially she was very afraid when she returned, and she still is! The fields are totally exposed to the watchful eyes of the BSF and villagers out in the open make easy targets for snipers. Abida is a resilient and articulate woman and was determined not to let these events defeat her. She and her husband have worked hard to give their children the best education possible and good opportunities in life. Abida's husband suffers a heart condition and was staying with relatives elsewhere until the family felt confident it would be peaceful enough for him to come home, leaving her to take care of the family and their crops in the meantime.

I asked Abida what could be done to help the villages deal with their situation. She said, “The Rangers are already protecting us and helping us a lot with all our problems. What more can they do? We always pray for their safety and that they are safely reunited with their families.” Other villagers echoed her sentiments, too. She shared details of their losses and worries about the drain on the family finances saying, “The people need compensation from the government for our losses. We need help.” The local MNA, Federal Minister for Science and Technology, Zahid Hamid, had visited a couple of weeks previously with a large group of local journalists to meet the villagers, and inspect the damage. While speaking with the communities and the journalists, he strongly condemned the attacks on the civilians by the BSF and their violation of international laws. He also promised compensation for the villagers' losses and directed the local administration to initiate the process. Abida, and the other villagers, I spoke with, were hopeful that this would soon eventuate. The view across the fields from the roof of her house seemed so peaceful and rather idyllic. It was hard to imagine that so close by, on the other side of these fields, lay the source of their terror. Abida's house is only a few hundred metres from the boundary and the land, on which she and the other villagers grow their crops, runs right to the line. I spotted another family repairing the roof of their house so I headed off to visit them, stopping along the way to talk to a group of young boys.

One of the pleasures of visiting villages in Pakistan is the interaction with local children. The boys were eager to find out what the strange foreigner was doing wandering around their village since it is generally off-limits to foreigners due to safety and security concerns. After their questions about where I came from and the usual Pakistan/Australia cricket ones, I asked what life was like for them when the shelling started. My all too obvious question “Were you scared?” seemed a little silly given the circumstances, but their reaction was not the boyish bravado I expected from this lively group. They freely admitted it was terrifying and that they were still afraid. Most had fled the area with their parents after the shelling started and missed a few weeks of school. They were now happy to be back in class and amongst their friends but were scared the shelling would start again.

I left them and found my way to the house I had seen from Abida's roof. I walked into a small courtyard of the house to find the owner, Asghar, and his family hard at work trying to fix a gaping hole in the roof and structural damage left by a mortar shell. On the day of the attack, Asghar had risen from his bed in the front room of his house and was walking to the mosque to attend Fajr prayers when he heard the explosion. He rushed back, to find his home had been hit by an Indian mortar shell. Six family members, including Asghar's two disabled children had been sleeping in the house but, although terrified, were unharmed. Had he not been a man of Faith, he would not have been around for me to interview – the shell had struck the exact spot where he had been sleeping. Still distressed by the experience, he told me, “Indians just kept firing. Why would they do this to us? I am a poor man and I have done nothing to hurt anyone.”

Asghar is a subsistence farmer with few resources who works hard to provide for his family. His only son is severely disabled and he relies on the help of his daughters and other family members to repair the house and work in the fields. The damage to his house and crops totalled almost PKR 90,000. This is a lot of money to Asghar and put pressure on his resources to support his family for the year ahead. He was extremely worried and was hoping that the government would provide some compensation soon to help ease the burden of his losses. I had hoped to call on the grieving family of the civilian killed in the firing but they were away in Sialkot when I reached at their house. So I went in search of others who wanted to share their stories. In Dhamala, I walked through slightly eerie, deserted laneways to meet another family, and Rukhsana, a local teacher who runs a small school for 47 children at her house. The family's house had been hit by shelling, there was still a gaping hole in the roof left by a mortar and the walls were peppered with shrapnel damage from the strike. Rukhsana talked of the trauma created by these events. She told me, “We all have nightmares as the shelling is mostly at night. The children have stopped eating because they are so distressed and scared.” She said, “Many of the children are not coming to school because they're too frightened and have missed their exams and some of the families have moved away and have not yet returned.” I asked Rukhsana if she would leave the village to live in a safer area and she replied, “This is my home, my parents are here and I will stay. This attack on us was not a surprise. It has been happening for many years and the BSF have killed our people in the fields before”.

She also told me that many people in these sectors were often still too afraid to go to their fields, leaving crops to rotten and vulnerable to damage by the wild boar that roam in this area. This has resulted in a drop in yield, and food prices in the local markets have risen as a result of the shortages this incident has created. The villagers can ill-afford these additional increases and their health suffers as a result. I felt saddened at their obvious distress. Understandably, they were afraid of further attacks from across the border and although resilient, were concerned for their future. The question all those I interviewed raised over and over again was, “Why are the BSF targeting us?” It's a question that deserves an answer. These were not the first instances on the Working Boundary or the LOC where the BSF or Indian Army has targeted civilians. It has happened many times over the years but this appeared to be a more prolonged and aggressive attack. Let me be clear here. There are no military checkposts in these villages. Yes, there are posts in areas outside of the villages but the BSF knows exactly where these are and they too were fired upon in yet another violation of the ceasefire. But deliberately firing on civilians is something else entirely. Any claim by the BSF that they were not aiming at the villages would seem rather laughable. It defies belief that there could possibly be such bad shots that they could 'accidentally' keep hitting civilian targets in so many villages, so often, and over so many days. Clearly, the civilians were the actual target. That not only breaches the ceasefire, it also breaches international humanitarian laws. This, then, seems to contradict General Bikram Singh's comment at his January 13 press conference where he stated, “Our forces respect the laws of Geneva Convention. We do act. Our forces retaliate in a professional way.” He also said that there was “zero tolerance towards human rights’ violations.” International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is a set of rules which seek, for humanitarian reasons, to limit the effects of armed conflict. It protects persons who are not, or are no longer, participating in the hostilities and restricts the means and methods of warfare. The following paragraphs are taken from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) study on Customary International Humanitarian Law. The full text can be read along with the various laws, treaties, protocols and rules on the ICRC website.

The general principles of IHL are enshrined in the Hague Convention of 1907 and the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols of 1977. But there are a series of other treaties covering specific issues, particularly in the field of weapons. In 2005 the ICRC published a major study on the extensive body of customary international humanitarian law, which is binding on all States. The central principle of distinction runs through all the law relating to the conduct of hostilities. Indiscriminate military action is prohibited. All sides in a conflict must distinguish between legitimate military targets on the one hand and civilians and civilian objects on the other. Customary International Humanitarian Law is made up of rules that come from “a general accepted practice of law” and that exist independent of treaty law. Customary International Humanitarian Law is of crucial importance in today's armed conflicts because it fills gaps left by treaty law in both international and non-international conflicts and so strengthens the protection offered to victims. While some States have not ratified important treaty law, they remain nonetheless bound by rules of customary law. There are three rules in Customary International Humanitarian Law that are relevant to the attacks on these villages. Rule 1. The Principle of Distinction between Civilians and Combatants The parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants. Attacks may only be directed against combatants. Attacks must not be directed against civilians. Rule 14. Proportionality in Attack

Launching an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated, is prohibited. Rule 15. Precautions in Attack In the conduct of military operations, constant care must be taken to spare the civilian population, civilians and civilian objects. All feasible precautions must be taken to avoid, and in any event to minimize, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects. In other words, targeting the civilians of these villages, their property, crops and animals appears to be a breach of these rules of Customary International Law. I approached the United Nations Military Observer Group in Indian and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) to seek an impartial view on these incidents but they were unavailable for comment.

UNMOGIP has seven field stations on the Pakistan side of the LOC and Working Boundary, and four along the Indian side. Under UN Security Council Resolution 307 (1971), UNMOGIP's role is to monitor any development in connection with the military situation and, in particular, to investigate alleged ceasefire violations. While Pakistan always provides free access to the UNMOGIP teams to visit all forward locations on the LOC and Working Boundary to conduct investigations, progress is inhibited by India's reluctance to allow any access to UNMOGIP. Without access on the Indian side, the critical impartial incident reports, a key part of UNMOGIP's role, are not possible. So why did this happen? I was unable to interview either the Pakistani or Indian military leadership on this so to seek answers I looked to other sources including the opinions of analysts who follow the Pakistan-India relationship closely, newspaper articles on both sides, and the many opinion pieces by South Asia experts published in international and regional publications. As some sources I spoke to suggested, the villagers make a soft target when firing exchanges take place that don't go well for the BSF. It is easier to target civilians and cause more damage and harassment. Others suggested that the firing on villagers was conducted to provoke the Pakistan military into retaliation, but that did not happen. According to various reliable sources, there are strict orders on the Pakistan side not to escalate a situation. Many opinion pieces point to the elections in India for the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the Indian Parliament) due in 2014, as a reason for the increased tensions and ramping up of the political rhetoric against Pakistan. It certainly appears that no opportunity is lost to denigrate and demonize Pakistan in the run-up to the election. Both the major political parties in India use Pakistan and the spectre of terrorism as an election ploy to show they will take the toughest stance. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hopes to regain power in the elections and has frequently accused the ruling Congress Party of being too soft on Pakistan. The former Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, a hardline Hindu nationalist, is the Prime Ministerial candidate for the BJP. International geo-political observers have pointed to the possibility of a BJP Government under Modi as having the potential to increase tensions with Pakistan, as he appears to have lost no opportunity to promote anti-Pakistan sentiment. The current government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, under considerable pressure in this election, has also generally taken a tough stance. However, PM Singh's willingness to proceed with the recent meetings between India and Pakistan at both government and military level seems to indicate some thaw in this approach.

But there will be many challenges and there are many who it appears do not want peaceful outcomes. A meeting between the Prime Ministers of Pakistan and India on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 2013, was almost derailed by a curious incident on 26 September 2013 at Hira Nagar and Samba in a Hindu dominated area of Jammu & Kashmir, which was blamed on militants infiltrating from Pakistan but had all the hallmarks of being staged to frame Pakistan just prior to the speeches of both Prime Ministers to the General Assembly. While the Prime Minister of Pakistan was conciliatory, speaking of the need for resolution of issues and peace and prosperity with India, and calling “for the UN to continue to remain attentive to the issue of Jammu and Kashmir and the full realization of the right to self-determination of its people,” the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, took a harsh tone towards Pakistan referring indirectly to recent events and naming Pakistan as the 'epicentre of terrorism'. He also said, “there must be a clear understanding of the fact Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India and that there can never, ever, be a compromise with the unity and territorial integrity of India.” These harsh words played well politically at home in India but were met with dismay in Pakistan. It is, however, to the credit of both Prime Ministers that, following their speeches they proceeded with the meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly to discuss the issues and the resolving of political tensions including the border issues.

When researching the claims of infiltration by Pakistani militants, the apparent trigger for some cross-border firing from India, the expression 'framing' came up a number of times. Several well-informed sources pointed to various unsubstantiated infiltration incidents, including the Hira Nagar/Samba incident and the Keran 'operation' which did not stand up to investigation. Following this lead I researched reports of a number of incidents which appeared to substantiate this view. On occasions, even the Indian media has questioned their Army on the veracity of some incident reports. It appears that some incidents in Jammu & Kashmir are easier to blame on Pakistan to avoid pressure on internal dissention. Verification that framing does happen came to light in December with reports that the Indian Army had initiated court martial proceedings against a group of Indian Army personnel including two officers, for a fake encounter in Kashmir's Kupwara district with alleged 'Pakistani militants' who had supposedly infiltrated the area. The men they killed were, in fact, local villagers. The fake incident resulted in rioting which killed 135 people and left hundreds injuried. However, hopes that this prosecution was a positive sign for the future have crumbled. The Times of India has reported on 27 January 2014 that another fake encounter case at Pathribal in March 2000, has been closed and any goodwill the Indian Army had earned in Jammu & Kashmir by launching the prosecution in the Kupwara case, destroyed. The Times report states: “closure of the Pathribal case has dashed these hopes, if only because the army has been inexplicably coy about the reasons that led it to conclude that the evidence it had gathered wasn't robust enough to charge the accused. The conclusion flies in the face of the Central Bureau of Investigation's findings that the Rashtriya Rifles men had engaged in 'cold-blooded murder' of local residents, who they had described as foreign militants responsible for the killing of 35 Sikhs in Chattisingpora just hours before US President Bill Clinton began his visit to India.” The Times piece also indicated that in the past the newspaper had urged the Indian Army to take similar steps regarding prosecution of other cases of fake encounters to win hearts and minds.

Sources also pointed out that not only is the border patrolled by many thousands of Indian troops and the BSF, there is another barrier which makes the claims of infiltration often quite spurious. There is now a heavily patrolled fence just inside the Indian side of the border stretching many hundred kilometres. It consists of a double-row of concertina wire eight to twelve feet in height, concrete walls in places, and watchtowers. The fence is electrified, connected to a network of motion sensors, thermal imaging devices, lighting systems and alarms. It is such a scar across the environment that it can be seen from space. In stunning photographs taken by the NASA International Space Station Expedition-28 crew on 21 August 2011 as it tracked over India and Pakistan at night, the fence can be clearly seen, glowing like a bright orange snake weaving its way between the two countries into the Himalayas. Slipping unnoticed across this formidable barrier would be extremely challenging. However, the unsubstantiated infiltration claims persist and are frequently used as an excuse to launch attacks on Pakistani villages.

There are no easy solutions for either side to these long-running and complex issues and even after the Indian election, these incidents are likely to continue regardless of who is in power. So, for now, the people on the LOC and Working Boundary live in a state of both hope and uncertainty. Nobody should make the mistake of thinking that because the civilian casualties in these cross-border incidents have been small in a country that has suffered so much tragedy and terrible loss through terrorism and conflict, it doesn't matter. It does. But little is known about their situation and few other than the military, who themselves are all too familiar with loss, seem to have taken note of their plight, so their voices are rarely heard. We must not forget that these villagers too are on the frontline and are among the most affected by what happens. There recent increased and positive level of engagement between the two governments and militaries has promised much towards a more stable, prosperous and peaceful future for both countries. Continuing the dialogue and the flag meetings regularly, and with a calm approach particularly when infractions have occurred, will be important to the peace process. For millions of people in both countries, and particularly the thousands of civilians living along the Line of Control and the Working Boundary, like Abida, Asghar and Rukhsana and their families, peace is an imperative.

The writer is Australian Disaster Management and Civil-Military Relations Consultant, based in Islamabad where she consults for Government and UN agencies. She has also worked with ERRA and NDMA. [email protected]

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