Targeting innocent, unarmed civilians, not party to a conflict, is not ‘okay’. Not ever. Not only is it an act of sheer cowardice, it is a violation of International Customary Law, an additional law to International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Such actions against civilians are specifically prohibited. In other words, it’s a war crime. The International Committee of the Red Cross defines Customary International Law as ‘consisting of rules that come from "a general practice accepted as law" and exist independent of treaty law. Customary IHL is of crucial importance in today's armed conflicts because it fills gaps left by treaty law and so strengthens the protection offered to victims.’
The act of targeting innocent civilians indicates a total disregard for international law. India appears to be deliberately ‘blind’ to these laws as they have for many years made a habit of targeting civilians on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control (LOC) and Working Boundary (WB). This they do consistently with no protest from the international community.
Over the past few years, I have visited communities along the Line of Control and Working Boundary, to talk with victims and their families. On a recent visit to Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK), I met the communities targeted in attacks along the LOC in the last year.
In a small village just a few hundred metres away from LOC, girls were sitting in a shade doing their school lessons. Their small school was a wreck, shelled by the Indian Army just across the LOC from Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK), in yet another unprovoked ceasefire violation. At least 700,000 Indian troops are stationed in IOK making it one of the most militarized zones in the world. Not only do they aim to crush the Kashmiri population into submission, their deadly aggression is aimed at communities across the LOC.
The poor shape of the Indian economy, defence procurement scandals involving PM Modi himself, a scathing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report on human rights abuse in Kashmir, the continuing rise of extremist nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a volatile situation in the north of India, horrific violence against women, and other government failures, are leading to desperation to retain office by any means. Anti-Pakistan propaganda, false flag operations, and attacks on civilians across the Line of Control and Working Boundary are likely to escalate as Modi intensifies efforts to divert attention from India’s growing list of woes.
Despite their precarious situation, the children are attentive and eager to learn. There is no doubt their school was deliberately targeted. I stood on the roof in clear line of sight of one of the Indian border posts. Perhaps not the most sensible thing to do but it reaffirmed that the school was deliberately targeted. There is no Pakistan Army post nearby. Fortunately, it was lunchtime when the mortars struck otherwise the loss of life would have been substantial.
Their school is not the first to be targeted by the Indian Army, nor will it be the last. The economic and human cost along the LOC is substantial. While estimates of overall economic cost are hard to quantify, the human cost is more apparent. In just one period between January and October 2018, 46 civilians were killed and 265 injured by cross border firing from the Indian side. The casualty figure continues to rise.
I visited a house further up the hillside, closer still to the Line. The view from the terrace, as in so many parts of AJK, was beautiful. But on the hills behind, lies the danger. The house still bore signs of a mortar attack with holes in the roof, and the walls peppered with holes from shrapnel. There are only houses and fields in this area. Again, there is no military post. Most homes have been shelled at some time and locals killed or wounded by sniper fire. That they have been deliberately targeted, is clear.
Over tea and samosas, the local families shared their stories. All carried deep scars of traumatic injuries. Some locals have not survived such attacks. I have chosen not to name them or their location out of respect for their dignity and security.
A tiny, sweet girl had spent a month in CMH recovering from back and chest wounds. Another little girl had lost her leg below the knee and spent a long period of rehabilitation at the Armed Forces Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in Rawalpindi. Her new prosthetic leg has given her the ability to walk again and to live as normal a life as possible. Her face shows the sign of deep trauma. Another young girl sustained a head wound. Her ambition to one day become a doctor gave her the courage to attend exams the following day, though swathed in bandages.
A small, lively boy, showed me where he was struck in his upper back and the exit wound in his chest. An older boy had lost an eye when a projectile entered near his temple and exited his jaw. The long process of facial reconstruction and healing has given him back his dignity and today he is a handsome young man who is determined to make a success of his life. He has recently opened a tea shop and is doing well.
An elderly man showed me the scars on his chest and talked about the ongoing lung problems from the wound. The father of one of the seriously wounded girls had the haunted look of a parent who is grieving for the suffering his child has endured.
This is just one village among many along the 767 kilometre length of the LOC, and the 202 kilometres of the Working Boundary. The story is similar in all. Mortars landing on homes and schools, sniper fire picking off helpless civilians just trying to live a decent life. The driver of a bus taking children home from school was targeted by a sniper and killed instantly. It is perhaps a miracle the girls survived when the bus crashed. In 2016 another bus carrying civilians was fired on with RPGs in Neelum Valley, killing 10 and injuring 9 people. Farmers in their fields have been sniped. Since my recent visit, more civilians have been wounded or killed. A woman was shot in the head by a sniper when she stepped onto her verandah at night. On another day, four people were struck in another attack.
Given the ever-present danger under the looming shadow of the LOC, the obvious question is: “Why not leave?” The answer is simple to the locals. “It is our land, our home”. For some, their villages are divided, intersected by the LOC. They hope one day there will be peace and free movement will bring families together again. Their courage and resilience is inspiring.
The Pakistan Army’s approach is not to initiate or escalate the scale of attacks but to meet calibre with calibre when fired upon. Many soldiers have been martyred or wounded, struck by snipers or mortar attacks on their posts, but still they will not retaliate indiscriminately. And they do not and will not target the Kashmiri civilians across the LOC.
Army provides immediate medical response and evacuation to victims. The Government of Pakistan provides compensation packages through the Prime Minister’s Revolving Fund, but nothing can ease the profound suffering. Building bunkers for communities, an expensive exercise which will divert much needed funding away from education, healthcare and sustainable development, is only a partial solution. It is obvious there is not always time to get to bunkers when the firing starts. The threat to life is clear and present at all times.
The Pakistan Army does much to support the government in meeting the needs of communities in these most sensitive areas. They regularly conduct health camps for families along the LOC to provide much-needed medical assistance in this often-insecure environment. They also support schools where a little extra help is needed. In Rawalakot sector, Pakistan Army has developed an inspiring school for special needs children, to provide a dignified and quality education for this often-forgotten group in society.
Mostly forgotten when Pakistan’s long-standing hospitality for millions of Afghan refugees is discussed internationally, is the hospitality to the other refugees – those from Jammu & Kashmir who have fled over the past 70 years into Azad Jammu & Kashmir and across the country. Some families are now second or third generation.
For women in refugee communities around the world, the needs are amplified, and should be addressed in a sensitive and culturally-appropriate way. In an impressive women’s vocational centre established for Kashmiri refugee women near Muzaffarabad, run by the Kashmir Skills Development System, refugee women are perfecting their skills embroidering beautiful Kashmiri shawls, wall hangings and clothing, and paper mâché crafts. These beautiful pieces are providing a dignified living for the women and their families, through capitalizing on the love of these exquisite treasures in upmarket stores in Islamabad and overseas. More than 600 women attend the centre where they also focus on their general wellbeing.
In the model village surrounding the centre, families have settled in small but well-designed homes. Established for Kashmiri refugee families in AJK who suffered a second displacement after the 2005 earthquake, the village has provided a secure and comfortable environment for them to live in peace. Some of the community elders gathered to talk about hopes for peace in Indian Occupied Kashmir and to one day be reunited with their families across the LOC. Some have not seen family members for many years and their heartbreak is apparent. The internet and Whatsapp have brought them closer together, at least electronically, but they fear they will never be reunited. Most cannot even cross over for funerals of loved ones.
Tourism and trade are important components for peace and prosperity. Concerns about ceasefire violations in areas of incredible beauty still inhibit many tourists from travelling there. Donor-support to government on development in AJK is inhibited by geopolitics, and trade is fragile. But there has been small progress through confidence building measures (CBMs) established between Pakistan and India.
Chakothi, a crossing point on the LOC, was a rubble when I first visited just after the 2005 earthquake. The Friendship Bridge had fallen, and the people were still in shock at the destruction and loss of life. Today, Chakothi has recovered and is a thriving crossing point for trade and family visits across the LOC. Since 2005 when bus travel was introduced, 13,247 people (all intensively security cleared) crossed from AJK to IOK, and 6,724 from IOK to AJK on short-term visas. Trade of 21 mutually agreed items for cross LOC trade commenced in 2008 with 27,656 trucks crossing from AJK to IOK and 42,338 from IOK to AJK to staging points on either side. It is hoped that in time, this CBM will be expanded. Interestingly, almost no ceasefire violations have occurred in a 200 metre proximity of the crossing point though, within sight of the bridge area, this is not the case.
A peaceful resolution on Kashmir would allow communities on the Pakistani side of the LOC to prosper and live without fear but no resolution is in sight. On taking office in 2018, Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, wrote to India’s Prime Minister Modi to encourage renewal of dialogue for a peaceful resolution of Kashmir as per the UN Resolutions. To date, his initiative has not met with a positive response.
With Indian elections due in April or May 2019, it is unlikely that Prime Minister Modi will make any effort for peace. His government is desperately trying to divert attention away from endless failures during his tenure. The poor shape of the Indian economy, defence procurement scandals involving PM Modi himself, a scathing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report on human rights abuse in Kashmir, the continuing rise of extremist nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a volatile situation in the north of India, horrific violence against women, and other government failures, are leading to desperation to retain office by any means. Anti-Pakistan propaganda, false flag operations, and attacks on civilians across the Line of Control and Working Boundary are likely to escalate as Modi intensifies efforts to divert attention from India’s growing list of woes.
In June 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights launched the UN first report on the human rights situation in Kashmir. The report is a scathing indictment of the human rights violations and impunity under which the Indian Army operates. The report mentions only briefly the ceasefire violations and does not address the LOC civilian targeting issue. While this is an ‘external’ abuse of human rights by the Indian Armed Forces, and therefore, not in the purview of the UN Report, it is unfortunate that it continues to be overlooked by the international community as a continuing breach of international law by India.
As ceasefire violations continue to rise beyond 2,000 in 2018, eclipsing the 2017 record, locals and others continue to question the effectiveness of the UN role in resolving the situation. UNMOGIP, the UN monitors, have unfettered access to the Pakistan’s side of the LOC and Working Boundary. They are free to move around to investigate ceasefire violations. On the Indian side, they do not enjoy the same access and are prevented from moving out of their base. It is puzzling as to why this really is. What is it that India does not wish them to know?
UNMOGIP verify damages, injuries and fatalities, but they do not report on the constant intimidatory fire around homes, mosques, and schools. Reports from UNMOGIP are not shared in detail with either side and are forwarded directly to the UN Secretary General through the Department of Peacekeeping Operations at the UN in New York. After that, it seems the reports are never seen again.
The interesting question is: What happens to these reports?. Research of publicly available documents reveals no clue as to whether they ever find their way to the UN Security Council or anywhere else. One can only wonder why. Is pressure being applied somewhere that creates a sense that this is not an impartial process? While the efforts of the many UNMOGIP observers who have served courageously is appreciated by locals, the ultimate destiny of the information and verifications they provide makes no difference. Even UNMOGIP observers have been fired upon by Indian troops when visiting an incident site in AJK, yet no action has ever been taken. Despite being the longest UN Observer Mission in history, it has not led to any mediation or action by the UN for a peaceful resolution.
Why India chooses to ignore international law on the LOC and Working Boundary seems puzzling. But, in reality, it is not. It is a coldly calculated strategy against Pakistan. By targeting civilians in and around their homes, their schools, their mosques, they aim to intimidate, create fear and uncertainty, and to destablise by trying to drive a wedge between the civilians and the Army. They should know that this will not happen. Most of all, they do it because they can do so with impunity, also the hallmark of all actions by the Indian Army against Kashmiris in Indian Occupied Kashmir. Unless and until the UN and international community calls India to account for these crimes against humanity, they will continue to act with impunity and flout international humanitarian law not only in Kashmir, but in targeting innocent civilians on the Pakistan side of the Line of Control and Working Boundary.
The writer is an Australian Disaster Management and Post-Conflict Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Advisor who lives in Islamabad. She consults for Government and UN agencies and has previously worked at both ERRA and NDMA.
E-mail: [email protected]
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