Ur­gent rush to build bunkers in Pak­istani Kash­mir as fears grow

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Res­i­dents in Pak­istani Kash­mir are rac­ing to build un­der­ground bunkers for the first time since the 1990s, fright­ened by what they say is the worst cross-border vi­o­lence since a cease­fire was agreed in 2003. Months of ten­sion be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan have erupted into shellings and gun­fire across the dis­puted Kash­mir fron­tier, claim­ing the lives of dozens of peo­ple, in­clud­ing civil­ians.

Peo­ple in Azad Kash­mir’s Neelum Val­ley say the at­tacks come once or twice a week, and they never know when they might have to dive for cover. Chand Bibi has con­crete and steel rods wait­ing to be trans­formed into an un­der­ground bunker where her ter­ri­fied fam­ily can take shel­ter as the mon­strous boom of shelling reawak­ens old night­mares. “You are talk­ing about fear,” the 62-year-old says. “We are near to dy­ing at the mo­ment we hear the boom. “The voice of the guns is hor­ri­ble.”

When it comes, Bibi and her rel­a­tives pile blan­kets, quilts and clothes on top of their chil­dren to muf­fle the noise and their panic. Soon the ex­tended fam­ily of about 20 peo­ple will be able to flee un­der­ground to the bunker they have paid 300,000 Pak­istani ru­pees ($3,000) to build-just un­der the cost of con­struct­ing a mud house in the val­ley, where the av­er­age worker makes around 800 ru­pees per day.

Sul­tan Ahmed is spend­ing even more: up to 500,000 ru­pees for a three me­ter by four me­ter (10 foot by 14 foot) space re­in­forced by more than 20 cen­time­ters (eight inches) of con­crete, for­ti­fied with steel rods, and buried un­der nearly a me­ter of soil. Some 25 peo­ple will be able to take shel­ter in­side the bunker once it is com­pleted, the 47-year-old teacher says.

Business boom­ing for ma­sons

Lo­cal ma­son Ghu­lam Hussain tells AFP his business has in­creased be­cause of the re­newed vi­o­lence, as he packs his tools after fin­ish­ing a bunker at one house to rush to an­other and start again. Around half a mil­lion peo­ple live within range of In­dian fire along the Pak­istani side of the Line of Con­trol, the de facto border that has di­vided the Hi­malayan re­gion since 2003, ac­cord­ing to Fa­rooq Haider Khan, leader of Azad Kash­mir. He says the gov­ern­ment plans to build “com­mu­nity bunkers”.

Kash­mir is one of the world’s most danger­ous flash­points, bit­terly di­vided be­tween nu­clear ri­vals In­dia and Pak­istan since the end of Bri­tish colo­nial rule in 1947 but claimed in full by both. They have al­ready fought two wars over the moun­tain­ous re­gion, but years of rel­a­tive peace after the 2003 cease­fire were shat­tered in Septem­ber, after In­dia blamed Pak­istani mil­i­tants for a raid on an army base that killed 19 soldiers.

In­dia said it had re­sponded by car­ry­ing out “sur­gi­cal strikes” across the heav­ily mil­i­ta­rized border, spark­ing a furious re­ac­tion from Islamabad, which de­nied the strikes took place. On Tues­day armed mil­i­tants stormed a ma­jor In­dian army base near the fron­tier with Pak­istan, killing seven soldiers in the most au­da­cious such at­tack since the Septem­ber raid. The fear spi­ral­ing on the Pak­istani side is not only con­sum­ing res­i­dents tourism to the scenic Neelum Val­ley has plum­meted this year, lo­cal of­fi­cial Sar­dar Ab­dul Wa­heed tells AFP. “I am ner­vous that if this sit­u­a­tion con­tin­ues my whole in­vest­ment will be sunk,” says Zul­fiqar Ali, who built a guest­house in the val­ley last year.

Val­ley cut off

Since AFP’s visit the Neelum Val­ley has been cut off. Cross-border fir­ing hit a civil­ian bus there on Novem­ber 23, killing at least nine peo­ple, one of the high­est one-day tolls since the lat­est un­rest be­gan. In re­sponse au­thor­i­ties shut down the main road con­nect­ing the Azad Kash­mir cap­i­tal of Muzaf­farabad with the val­ley, ef­fec­tively seal­ing it off from the rest of Pak­istan with no word when it will be re­opened. Be­fore the val­ley was closed, many res­i­dents told AFP they could not af­ford to leave and had nowhere to go.

Oth­ers, how­ever, said they re­fused to be driven away. Those who can­not pay the high cost of trans­port­ing bunker ma­te­ri­als from Kash­mir’s main cities to the re­mote val­ley are for­ti­fy­ing their homes in what­ever way they can. “We are just plac­ing sand­bags to re­in­force the front walls,” says 65-year-old widow Za­rina Bibi, head of a fam­ily of 15. “We are in a state of fear all the time. We don’t know when the In­dian troops will start shelling again.” —AFP

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