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The Rediff Special/ Amberish K Diwanji

Shells of anger rain at J&K refugee camps

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refugees Zebenmisi was all set to give her matriculation examinations in Kargil when the exploding shells bombed her plans and dreams. Her worried father came down to Kargil from their village of Pandrass to take his daughter home even as the worried authorities cancelled the examinations. But even their home in Pandrass, near Drass, was not safe and the family is among the 3000-odd refugees now housed in Gagangir village, about 80 kilometres north of Srinagar.

Kashmir is fast acquiring a dubious reputation for creating refugees within the state. First, it was the Kashmiri Pandits, driven out for practising their faith by armed militants. Since the Pandits were herded into clustered camps in the state, mostly Jammu, and other parts of the country, they were not internationally recognised as refugees, though there is no better word to describe their plight. Now there are the refugees from the Drass-Kargil-Batalik sectors, the newest battleground in the world.

Zebenmisi is one of them. Her small village was taken over by the Indian Army as the conflict against Pakistani-backed intruders and against the Pakistani army, which was lobbing mortar shells across the border, turned ugly. Later, as the situation worsened, the villagers were asked to leave for their own safety.

"Every time the Indian gunners fired one of the Bofors guns, the entire ground used to shake, so great was the impact. And when a Pakistani shell landed nearby, it was worse. Our houses, made of stones and mud, developed cracks, the windowpanes were shattered, and there was the eternal risk that our children would be killed. So we left everything behind to come down to this village," said G M Babar, who is the schoolmaster of the Pandrass high school.

Babar was not even in Pandrass when the conflict erupted. He was in Kargil to help moderate the matriculation examinations, whose timetable coincided with the beginning of the crisis. With the exams called off, he rushed back to Pandrass to help his fellow villagers.

Recounting the events, he said when the army reached his village, they requested Babar for some houses to store their sophisticated weapons and ammunition, so that the rain would not damage them. Babar gave them the village school and some houses, whose residents in turn moved in with their neighbours.

refugees camp "But this was not enough," he lamented, "the army needed more rooms as even more troops began to reach Pandrass. And the intensity of the shelling from both sides grew. All this forced us to leave our village even though many of us did not really want to."

"The tragedy for us is that we hill people lead seasonal lives. In summer, we sow and harvest our fields, gather firewood and fodder for our sheep and cattle, and most important, store food that will see us through the winter. All of that has been left incomplete, and if we cannot go back in a month or so, then frankly there is no possibility of us going back till the next summer (May 2000!)," he said. And the fear that the refugees will be stuck in Gagangir for an entire year, without food and supplies, is truly haunting them.

There are 35 choolas (extended families) in Pandrass, who are now camped at Gagangir. The camps no doubt leave much to be desired. There is no water, which means that the refugees have not had the chance to have a bath ever since they landed up at the refugee colony on June 5. Nor is there any electricity, which means one has to depend on candles and kerosene lamps. But kerosene was distributed at two litres per choola (which can mean anything from eight to 15 members per choola). Each choola has been given five kilograms of rice. The next ration is awaited. Worse, the panes on the windows are broken allowing the bone-numbing wind to blow right into the rooms.

The refugees were in a foul mood and complaining about the lack of facilities. "There are no toilets. Just imagine how embarrassing it is for our women every time they go to the toilet. When we left, we were unable to take sufficient clothes and blankets and now we find that it is very cold, especially since the wind here is very strong. Please tell the government to help us," said Haji Rahmatullah, a septuagenarian and who is the oldest person in the group.

The Jammu and Kashmir government is doing its best. Even as the refugees were complaining about lack of water and electricity, there were two men from Gagangir village who had been sent to set up the basic facilities. A water pipeline was scheduled to start functioning by the evening. Electricity in a day or two. The toilets would take some time, though.

A Jammu and Kashmir government official agreed that things would be difficult. "We must understand that this is an abnormal situation and one cannot expect the regular comforts. We are doing our best, but it will take time," he said.

refugees camp One crippling difficulty for the J&K government is that it is totally broke. "One of the primary reasons that Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah has gone to New Delhi is to ask for some money to help out the refugees," said the official, "Given that this is a war situation, we hope that the central government will take a sympathetic view."

He also insisted that should the 'war' continue for long, the government would take the necessary steps for their rehabilitation till the next summer.

In fact, from among the refugees, Khatija Bano, the mother of Zebenmisi, praised the government's efforts. "Allah bless this government for getting us out safe. It has done quite a bit for us, and I am certain that it will do more," she said.

Her greatest regret was that the education of her children was completely blocked, especially Zebenmisi's. Her son, incidentally, who had done a computer course in Jammu, was now looking for a job in Srinagar. "He had come to see us here, but only for a few days. I pray that he gets a job soon, it is so difficult these days," she said, adding that she could not stay with her son since he was staying in a hostel.

Babar too agreed that the state government was too broke to do much. "In Pandrass, most of the government employees have not received their salaries for the past three months. We realise that it is difficult for this government," he said.

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