SILENT KILLER

  • BY SHABIR IBN YUSUF
  • Publish Date: Sep 10 2018 3:41AM
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  • Updated Date: Sep 10 2018 3:41AM
SILENT KILLERGK Photo

Numerous incidents have taken place in Kashmir in the recent past wherein littered explosives have taken lives, particularly of children, after encounters between the government forces and militants. There have also been umpteen number of  incidents in which civilians living near Indo-Pak border and the line of control get killed due to landmines.

The littered explosives are taking a heavy toll on people many of whom have lost their limbs if they are ‘fortunate’ enough to survive.

Official records disclose that since the year 2003, 137 persons have died in such incidents, over 87 percent victims are children. A considerable number of deaths have taken place in Tosamaidan in Budgam district of central Kashmir. Tosamaidan - also called as Meadow of Death - witnessed more than 76 civilian deaths in the explosion of littered shells, the victims being mostly those living in the villages around the meadow who would take their cattle for grazing to the meadow. In many villages around the meadow, scores of people, mostly children, have been left handicapped in these explosions.

Despite the fact that the Army had undertaken an operation to clear the meadow of the littered explosives, quite recently there has been another death of a youth due to a littered shell while he was grazing cattle in the meadow.

Although such deaths have taken place in every nook and corner of the valley, but currently southern Kashmir is witnessing such incidents on a large scale.

On July 11 this year, at around 1:30 pm, four children - all belonging to the same extended family in Meemender area of Shopian town -  were toying with some explosives device in their compound when it went off killing Saliq on the spot while causing grave injuries to three others, Arsalan, Tahir  and Razia.

Saliq’s mother Rukhsana, who was a few meters away from the blast site, also received multiple splinter injuries on her left arm and shoulder.

Recounting the horror, Rukhsana said that as she heard the deafening sound, she made a dash for the children and saw all of them lying in a pool of blood. “Saliq was lying motionless while three others were crying in excruciating pain. We rushed them to nearby hospital where doctors pronounced Saliq as brought dead,” said Rukhsana, adding that the other three children were referred to the SMHS Srinagar. A day earlier, a gunfight between militants and government forces had taken place in neighbouringKundalan village where two residential houses in which the militants had taken refuge were blown up by the government forces.

After the gun-battle was over, the children had visited the encounter site and brought home some device that was probably lying in the debris. The device exploded while they fiddling with it in their courtyard.

In 2011 the then government had asked the police, army and paramilitary forces to come up with a Standard Operating Procedure for “avoiding the loss of human life as IEDs remain undetected owing to non-clearance of debris at encounter sites”. The government had instructed the deputy commissioners and the police to sensitize the people to the risk of “visiting encounter sites before the debris is cleared”.

During the encounters, government forces - mostly army - uses variety of ammunition for killing the holed up militants. They include grenades, rocket launchers and mines. They also use mortar shells that subsequently raze down the residential structure to the ground. Some of these explosives remain unexploded. At times, the grenades being carried by militants remain unexploded.

“With reduced presence of militants and to dilute the criticism that comes in terms of collateral damage to houses and other property, there has been a propensity to avoid the use of the rocket launcher to destroy houses in which the militants are holed up,” a senior army officer told the Kashmir Ink. “This procedure of tackling the hideout, without destroying the house has to be followed when there is little or no pressure to complete an operation expeditiously,” he said.

The senior officer said that army has the reputation of not using disproportionate force for any of its operations. “It has not used mortars in the jungles, nor helicopter gunships,” he said. “However, as resistance and contacts increase resulting in such higher figures of casualties there will be demands on the leadership to employ more lethal means.”

The police, however, blame the non-cooperation of the villagers for these deaths. The police say the villagers compel the army and the police to wind up the clearance operation in a hurry as the youths start throwing stones at the forces after the encounter.

According to the procedure, the forces should clear the encounter area from the explosives within 24 hours of the operation. However, the procedure is not followed leading to the killing of children and civilians due to unexploded shells. 

Officials of zonal police headquarters said that the gunfight sites are regularly cleared by forces. “But when people march towards gunfight sites and attack our men, the forces in order to avoid civilian casualties leave quickly, therefore the sites are not completely cleared,” they said, adding, “Police have repeatedly issued advisory for locals especially parents that they should avoid sending their children to gunfight sites.”

Besides littered explosives, there are fatalities due to the landmines. A huge population in the frontier villages of Jammu and Kashmir continues to be caught in a death trap of landmines since 2002, bearing the brunt of a war that was never fought.

A major troops build-up by India and Pakistan in early 2002, after the December 2001 attack on the Parliament, led to one of the biggest mine-laying operations in the world. Around 200,000 landmines are believed to have been planted in the Jammu region along the international border and the Line of Control (LoC) – the de facto boundary dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

However, according to unofficial estimates, around 16,000 acres of land in Jammu region and 173,000 acres in Kashmir are covered by these remnants of a battle that never was.

Years since the two countries agreed to a ceasefire, the burden of their hostile past continues to haunt the villagers living close to the LoC even though the army claims to have de-mined 80 percent of the area near the LoC and international border.

The villagers continue to live away from their homes and if they dare to visit their fields, they face the wrath of explosives.

The blasts, triggered by forest fires due to soaring temperatures, are just the tip of the iceberg and are indicators of the looming risks.

In 2007, two schoolboys – Bashir Malik, 15, and Jamir Malik, 13, of Gurez sector near the LoC – while on their way to school unknowingly stepped on a mine and were critically injured. Bashir lost his left hand while Jamir also suffered serious injuries. But that is not all. The psychological trauma – caused by the deafening noise that went unheard by the authorities – is far from over even though Bashir was given an artificial limb, and the army committed to bearing his educational expenses to make him self-reliable.

Such incidents occur off and on in the mine-laden fields, taking by surprise the innocent shepherds, farmers and nomadic tribes who stray into the “forbidden terrain”. There are instances of villagers inadvertently chasing their cattle into mine fields and having their limbs blown off.

Besides the human losses, of which no exact data is available, the explosives also take a toll on crops and cattle, leading to heavy economic deprivation for poor farmers and shepherds.

“Only the areas highly vulnerable to infiltration are mined and are well marked,” a senior army official said. “Villagers are properly educated about the dangers and forbidden from lurking in the danger zones.”

However, he admitted that mines drift away with rain or snowfall and pose a threat to human life.

As of now, de-mining is a distant dream. India and Pakistan aren’t signatories to the treaty that prohibits use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines. Instead, they are among 13 countries that manufacture such mines.

Kashmir, where incessant armed conflict has claimed thousands of lives since 1989, has literally become a minefield.

According an Asia-Pacific region conference of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, China has the world’s largest reserve of mines in the region, Pakistan the fourth and India the fifth.

At the same time these families have been left at mercy of God. In case of civilians who get killed in other violent incidents, the government provides his family with ex-gratia and job. In these cases only ex-gratia is given. Even those who get maimed are not able to get artificial limbs.

In most of the cases the victims are from poor families and belong to Gujjar and other such tribes.