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June 23, 1999
Mass exodus from border villages in PunjabOnkar Singh in Khem Karan
Over 90,000 people have moved to safer places from the border villages of Punjab amidst growing fears of the trouble is Kargil escalating into a full-fledged war. Two Pakistani fighter planes were sighted from the Khem Karan sector this afternoon, further fuelling rumours of an imminent Indo-Pak clash.
BSF officials, however, dismissed the sighting of planes as a routine affair. "The planes were flying on their side of the border and were at least five hundred yards within their side of the international border," said an officer who did not wish to be quoted.
Villagers said this was not the first time that Pakistani planes have been sighted flying low in the border area. Similar two-seater planes were sighted in Ferozepur sector as well a few days ago. The army head-quarters in Delhi was promptly informed and orders were issued to keep an eye for all planes flying flow in the area and report the matter daily.
But the fear of war has not deterred some villagers from staying back. "Where can we go?" said Harcharan Singh, ex-sarpanch of village Kalash, which is barely five hundred yards from the border. "We have lived here all our lives and we are not going anywhere now. We have full faith in the Indian Army and the Border Security Force which has looked after our interests. In this crisis we will stand by the jawans,'' he added.
Milkha Singh, another villager, has no plans to leave the village even if the war breaks out. "If we all go then who would look after our officers and jawans. I may share my name with a great athlete, but I'm not running away," he said.
Not everybody, though, is willing to brave enemy bullets. In Khem Karan village more then 10,000 people have left their homes and shifted their belongings to safer places. "We have shifted our women and children with some of the belongings for the time being. Not because we are afraid but because we have suffered in the previous wars," said village sarpanch Mangat Ram Gulati.
Jagdish Lal Khanna, a local businessman and a stringer for Punjabi daily Punjab Kesari is also not taking any chances. "I have sent most of my household stuff to Amritsar. I am a businessman and I don't want to take any risks. In 1965 and 1971 wars we lost heavily,'' he said.
Khanna admits that 34 villages in the Khem Karan sector have practically become empty. While some of the villagers left as early as May 25, those who were sticking on left when mutilated bodies of six Indian soldiers were returned.
"People took this as a warning. Someone spread a rumour on June 10 that war would break out in couple of hours. Within hours most of the villages emptied out. Not a soul barring the BSF men in uniform would be seen anywhere for almost five days,'' says Khanna
Gradually the people started returning. They would come to their villages in the morning and leave by the evening. "Even now things have not changed. The war can break out anytime," said an old villager from village Mast Garh.
The villagers blame the district administration for all the confusion. "Nobody from the district administration has not come to us. Even the deputy commissioner of Amritsar district, Narinderjit Singh, has not bothered to visit the border villages," said a villager.
The IG, border, S P Birdi, confirmed that there has been mass exodus from border villages, but added that efforts were on to convince people that there was no danger.
"I am meeting people and assuring them on the behalf to the district administration," he said, and added that it would take another couple of weeks before the villagers start believing the administration.
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