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June 8, 1999


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A battle away from Kargil

Amberish K Diwanji in Narsangad

E-Mail this report to a friend Newspapers reported the matter as they are wont to. "Four militants were killed in a gun-battle against the army and security forces at Narsangad village in Anantnag district on Sunday, June 6. The ensuing shooting lasted for about four hours. While fleeing, the militants set fire to several houses, destroying 17 huts, 13 cowsheds, seven shops and a granary storeroom."

There may be slight variations in what is nowadays common news in Jammu and Kashmir, but the news merited only two to three paragraphs in most of the local newspapers. Dailies in other cities could hardly have done better.

Yet, a visit to the scene of the tragedy brought home the utter mind-numbing destruction that such battles between the militants and the security forces wreak on the poor. There is an African saying that perhaps sums it up: Whenever elephants make love or war, it is the grass that gets crushed.

The villagers here are a poor lot, who possess only a few material comforts -- mattresses to sleep on, blankets to keep out the biting cold, utensils to cook in, and some food which they store in summer to see the harsh winter through. Now, all that remains of their small huts are bricks strewn all over, charred utensils, and ashes of the combustible materials (almost everything else).

Most of the huts are plastered with mud rather than cement, the latter being too expensive, while the former is also a better insulator against the cold. Roofs of asbestos have wooden planks underneath, again to keep out the cold. All of this caught fire easily.

The blazing fire did not even spare the trees that line the village. Black with soot, some burnt badly while some charred partially, they stood mute witness to the burnt huts, all of which form a huge square area on the outer edge of the village.

Ask the villagers what happened and they reply with broken voices that they don't know. "We were all asked to gather in the local mosque while the operation was on. And then we saw the fire break out and there was nothing we could do to stop it," wailed Raja, an elderly lady whose hut figures in the list. It is a village with little water, often collected from the rivulets some way off.

The affected villagers are now living off the charity of their equally impoverished neighbours. Men and women sleep in the open, huddling together to keep out the night cold, some have taken refuge in the local mosque, which itself is quite small.

"What will we do now...who will look after us. What will we eat and what will we do in the winter," asked elderly Raja, tears streaming down her cheeks.

A senior army official recounts what happened. "We received information on June 5 at 9.30 pm that some militants were holed up in this village, which falls in a high militancy zone. We rushed here and cordoned off the entire village, moving in slowly, by 4 am the next day. We made an announcement over the mosque's megaphone, asking all the villagers to gather in the mosque so that no civilians were caught in the crossfire. Two militants tried to flee into the thickly wooded hills and were killed," said the official, pointing to two spots on the surrounding hills not far from the first burnt hut.

"By now, we had reached the first hut where the third militant was holed up. When we got the owner to open the door, the militant opened fire, to which we retaliated. Unfortunately, since many of the villagers have cattle, they store dry hay in their huts. In the ensuing firing, the bullets must have hit the hay, starting off the fire that spread very fast. The fourth militant also tried to shoot his way out and was killed. And we suspect that there may be a fifth militant buried under the burnt rubble," he added.

The fire broke out at 9.30 am. The army informed the fire station. The fire engines sent to fight the fire first filled up water and then came over the extremely bad roads leading to the village. The fire engines reached the spot at around 12.00 noon, by which time the wind had swept the fire across from the first hut down to the last.

Angry villagers suspect foul play. In the operation, the army used the Ikhwan, who are surrendered militants now fighting alongside the army. The Ikhwan, local Kashmiris, are not very popular among the people, often considered too brash and arrogant. "I am sure the Ikhwan set the huts on fire to flush out the holed up militants," said a villager. The Ikhwan and the army, of course, deny the accusation.

In the midst of all this agony, came the flying visit by two Jammu and Kashmir ministers of state, Mushtaq Ahmed Lone and Syed Abdur Rashid, in the ministries of home and power respectively. Narsangad village falls in Lone's assembly constituency. "After he got elected, this is his first visit to the village or even this area," said Ahmed, a villager who lost his hut in the fire.

Lone and Rashid came, saw and disappeared. The duo spent all of 15 minutes in the village, hearing some of the complaints quickly and dismissively. When they arrived in the village, along with the paraphernalia that accompanies ministers -- police in jeeps, armed security guards, a red-light car -- dressed smartly in starched suits and tie, the villagers rushed out to meet them. Some of the women began to sob uncontrollably. But, alas their siren-wailing cars disappeared as fast as they had arrived.

The ministers ordered compensation -- 50 per cent of the losses to be reimbursed and food for the villagers for the next three days. How much will finally reach the affected villagers after all the red tape no one was willing to guess. Even the battle hardened army personnel were sad. "What can we do? We did our job and we will write in our report that the villagers were innocent people who suffered. But after this, we have no say in the matter and I really don't know what will happen to the money promised," said one.

The villagers remain fearful of the militants sneaking back at night. "We are the ones caught in the middle. These militants come with guns, force their way into our houses, eat our food and rape our women. Then the army comes, accuses us of harbouring terrorists. But how can we refuse when there is a barrel of a gun at our head," said one of them.

Meanwhile, among the Ikhwan and the army personnel, there was great excitement. Some militants had been spotted on the high hills surrounding the villages. "See there, between the trees," said one Ikhwan member. I saw one, or think I did. The army expects the militants to descend at night to forage for food, but with six to seven villages and many more hamlets in this particular valley, where and when no one can answer.

As I walked back to the car, the villagers whose huts were burnt stared after me. Like the minister, the media too pays a visit and then disappears in a cloud of smoke. After all, there is Kargil to follow up and politicians in Delhi to cover. The newspapers reported the Narsangad incident, the administrators noted another statistic, the ministers made their promises. But he villagers remain where they are, having nowhere to go, seeking the blessings of Allah and Ram since mortals cannot be depended upon.

This report could be filed from the war front, courtesy Iridium Telecom. Iridium owns and operates a constellation of 66 satellites, which enable subscribers to receive and make calls from anywhere in the world using a hand-held telephone.

The Kargil Crisis

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