National and International Issues

Neelum: On the Frontline of a Larger Agenda

It cannot be stated often enough: Targeting civilians not a party to any conflict is both a war crime and crime against humanity under international law. The Indian Army and Border Security Force, and the Government of India, continue to act with impunity from prosecution at home and free from condemnation by the international community for these crimes. How can this keep happening for so many years and yet, despite many raising their voices, there is no attempt by the United Nations Security Council nor any of the Member States, to take a principled stand on protecting these innocent civilians? 



As the heavy snow descends on the beautiful mountains and valleys along the 740 kilometres of the Line of Control (LoC) in Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK), communities are settling in for another harsh winter. It has been a hard year with fewer tourists visiting in the summer due to COVID-19, and an alarmingly high number of unprovoked artillery and sniper attacks on innocent civilians in ceasefire violations committed by Indian troops. The 2020 tally of such violations is likely to eclipse 2019’s record total of 3,351.
In November there was a major escalation by India. Neelum Valley (Nekrun, Kel, Sharda, Dudhnial, Shahkot, Jura, Nauseri sectors), Leepa Valley (Danna, Mandal and Kayani sectors), Jhelum Valley (Chham and Pandu sectors), Bagh (Pir Kanthi, Sankh, Haji Pir, Bedori and Kailer sectors) and Kotli were all shelled.
The frequency and ferocity of attacks is indicative of an increasingly hostile India and their dangerous disregard for the lives of civilians, and international law. The Pakistan Army responds with appropriate force against the Indian posts to protect the communities but will not fire where there are civilians on the other side of the LoC.
Friday, November 13, 2020 was a particularly black day in Neelum Valley when, under heavy shelling, six people including a small child and a Pakistani soldier were killed. According to government officials, the names of the civilians were Dr. Fayyaz Ahmed, 38, in Dudhnial; Shoaib, 22, in Falakan; Pervez, 40, in Lala; and Sajida, 16, in Karimabad. Two-year-old Adeeb Sudhir from Lala also died from her injuries. Many other civilians, including women and children, were injured, some of them critically. Let us not forget them nor all the others who have fallen victim over the years. Houses, shops and a guesthouse were destroyed. Cattle and other livestock also perished. Villagers whose homes were destroyed find themselves homeless in a harsh winter and meagre, if any, funds to rebuild. Additionally, the loss of livestock and crops seriously affects the income and wellbeing of families. 


The frequency and ferocity of attacks is indicative of an increasingly hostile India and their dangerous disregard for the lives of civilians, and international law. The Pakistan Army responds with appropriate force against the Indian posts to protect the communities but will not fire where there are civilians on the other side of the LoC.


Citizen journalism using mobile phone cameras have brought as-it-happens news to our fingertips. These clips help change our understanding of what it’s like to be on the ground; the deafening sounds of shelling, gunfire, and the overwhelming fear of the civilians caught in a terrifying situation. 
Numerous videos from local citizens showed houses in flames, people with appalling injuries being carried into hospitals, and chaos. A very distressing image showed a young girl who had lost her leg in the shelling, another, a little girl with head injuries. Another particularly disturbing video came from Sharda. With indiscriminate shelling falling all around, terrified girls and teachers at a girls’ school, were running for their lives and hiding in their classrooms and a bunker which adjoins the school. In the bunker, one of many recently built by the Army and government to protect communities on the LoC, thirty or more women and children were huddled together in terror. Outside, others were running and hiding in their classrooms.


Citizen journalism using mobile phone cameras have brought as-it-happens news to our fingertips. These clips help change our understanding of what it’s like to be on the ground; the deafening sounds of shelling, gunfire, and the overwhelming fear of the civilians caught in a terrifying situation. 


On a recent visit to enjoy the autumn colours of Neelum Valley before the onset of winter, I had visited many of these villages as I headed further up the Valley. Having worked on community assistance projects in AJK including these areas since after the 2005 earthquake to address the impacts of disasters, I continue to visit local communities when possible to understand what is happening in their lives. 
I visited the girls’ school in Sharda while stopping for lunch in this picturesque village by the Neelum River. The school is a modern facility recently reconstructed for the community by the Pakistan Army and Government. The school had previously been shelled by Indian artillery located just a few kilometres away over the looming mountains. Too close for comfort but education is important and no location is safe. Several hundred girls from the village and surrounding region, and their very engaging Principal, were excited to be back at school after the extended COVID-19 and summer break. Seeing them again, this time in videos on social media, fearing for their lives as shells exploded around the village and so close to their school, was heartbreaking. Children should never have to live in such fear. Sadly, the threat is real and constant for them and all children and their families in every village along the LoC.
It cannot be stated often enough: Targeting civilians not a party to any conflict is both a war crime and crime against humanity under international law. The Indian Army and Border Security Force, and the Government of India, continue to act with impunity from prosecution at home and free from condemnation by the international community for these crimes. How can this keep happening for so many years and yet, despite many raising their voices, there is no attempt by the United Nations Security Council nor any of the Member States, to take a principled stand on protecting these innocent civilians? It hardly rates a mention.
The long-term impacts on affected communities are significant and desperately sad. Many victims who survive their wounds will carry life-long injuries making it harder for them to live a normal life or care for their families.  In almost every village there are the same tragic stories of loss of loved ones and suffering. On my recent visit, I met community members who had been injured in earlier attacks. In Sharda, a man told me tearfully about his son who was killed while working in the field. An elderly gentleman told of his 2-year-old granddaughter who was killed when struck by shell fragments while out playing with her brother. Another elderly man and a woman shared the pain of their injuries and worries about how they will cope in the future.


In Jura, I met tiny sad-eyed children recovering from wounds and trauma; a young woman who had horrific injuries to her arm which will require further surgeries and physiotherapy for a long time to come. Another young woman, who was struck in the head and shoulder is no longer able to speak. All these people are a few of many not only in Neelum but other sectors of the LoC.


In Jura, I met tiny sad-eyed children recovering from wounds and trauma; a young woman who had horrific injuries to her arm which will require further surgeries and physiotherapy for a long time to come. Another young woman, who was struck in the head and shoulder is no longer able to speak. All these people are a few of many not only in Neelum but other sectors of the LoC.
All villages of the Valley are perilously close to the LoC and within range of the Indian artillery, automatics and some of sniper fire. Almost thirty percent of AJK’s entire population lives in close proximity to the LoC. In some places, only the Neelum River divides the two sides.  In other parts, a few kilometers divide the villages from the Indian posts but in many places the posts are visible on the mountains placing the villagers within sniping distance. In places where there are mountains between, it makes little difference – artillery fire can reach long distances. While many community bunkers have been constructed, the reality is that many people are killed or injured just going about their normal lives by snipers or shells falling on their homes in the night.


India has amended the Domicile Act to allow non-Kashmiris from all across India to gain permanent residence, rights to jobs, property and other services in Kashmir, once the sole right of Kashmiris. This is clearly aimed at rapidly changing the demographics of Kashmir from a Muslim majority to Hindu domination. 


Villagers are mostly a long way from medical assistance and, if injured, have to travel long distances by foot down the hillsides from their homes, then take a vehicle to the nearest hospital. Although in kilometres, the distances are not great, the mountainous terrain and condition of the roads, particularly in bad weather, make it an agonizing trip. In Kel, the small well-equipped Tehsil Headquarters Hospital (THQ), is staffed by a committed and lively team of medical professionals from both civilian and military backgrounds. In the thick of winter, this excellent community hospital is often covered with almost 2 metres of snow making access a challenge. The only other hospital in the Valley is the District Headquarters Hospital (DHQ) in Athmuqam. These small hospitals are a precious lifeline to communities in times of need. When injuries are too serious, the military airlifts victims to hospitals in the cities.
One of the questions always raised is, why does the United Nations not step in? This is a good question but one to which there doesn’t seem to be an answer. Although all attacks are documented by the United Nations Military Observer Group in India & Pakistan (UNMOGIP) and reported to the UN Secretary-General in New York, no action is ever taken at international level to prevent this violence. UNMOGIP has been on the LoC since 1949, the second-longest UN observer mission anywhere. They move freely to investigate incidents on the Pakistan side of the LoC but are restricted from movement on the Indian side. The mandate is not to intervene but to observe and report, investigate complaints of ceasefire violations and submit its finding to each party and to the Secretary-General.  But what is the point if no action is initiated by the United Nations and the Member States to pressure India to cease and desist? 


While Pakistan has done much to improve its financial controls and is fast moving towards full compliance of international standards, India continues to push to blacklist the country. Yet at the same time, India appears to be escaping the eagle-eye of FATF scrutiny. This is puzzling given the alarming reports about money laundering, corruption, terrorism and other crimes of an international nature that emanate from India. 


No matter the level of the threat nor the number of attacks from India, nothing will drive the courageous families of the Neelum Valley and the LoC from their homes. This is their land, their home for generations: Why should they leave? They all hope and pray for peace and that one day they will be able to be united with families who still live in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (IIOJ&K).
However, for their Kashmir relatives across the LoC, the future looks grim.  In some areas, the villagers just across the line in IIOJ&K are used as human shields. Artillery is placed in villages by the Indian troops as they are aware that Pakistani troops will not fire back on an area where there are civilians. 
After years of suffering extensive human rights atrocities by the Indian Army who have impunity from prosecution, any hopes of freedom and self-determination for Kashmiris have been dashed by India’s illegal annexation of Indian Occupied Jammu & Kashmir and the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A on August 5, 2019, merging it into India as a unified territory. Since then, India has powered ahead in changing many other laws in IIOJ&K to make it even harder to undo the annexation.
India has amended the Domicile Act to allow non-Kashmiris from all across India to gain permanent residence, rights to jobs, property and other services in Kashmir, once the sole right of Kashmiris. This is clearly aimed at rapidly changing the demographics of Kashmir from a Muslim majority to Hindu domination. Property and real estate laws have also been rapidly amended or new ones written to attract big investors from India and allow outsiders to buy land. Incentives are being offered to bring new Hindu settler colonialists. This is detrimental to the status of Muslim Kashmiris and may ultimately force them to leave to find safety and work elsewhere.  Meantime, some 800,000 Indian troops keep Kashmiris in a state of fear and lockdown, and the LoC remains a dangerous place for civilians on both sides.
What happens along the LoC due to Indian aggression should also be seen as part of the bigger picture, of how it fits into a larger agenda to destabilise and isolate Pakistan. In the 14th  November briefing by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, and the Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Major General Babar Iftikhar, the key points of a meticulously evidenced dossier on India’s long proxy war against Pakistan were laid bare. This included funding – often channeled through banks in third countries – to provide weapons, equipment, infiltration and training to support terrorist attacks in Pakistan. Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, Azad Jammu & Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan were all identified as targets of India’s proxy war. 
The dossier drew attention to India’s covert activities within AJK including the Research and Intelligence Wing’s (RAW) involvement in planting of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in AJK to kill civilians and military personnel. Other intelligence revealed plans to stage terrorist attacks on large public events in AJK or Gilgit-Baltistan, and to assassinate a high-profile figure. As is the case on targeting of civilians, the aim is always to destabilise and generate public anger against the government and military. Recent threats from India’s military and political leadership to ‘take back AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan’ are a further indication of the increasing aggression and threat to regional stability. Any such attempt would not end well for India.
Isolating Pakistan financially and economically has long been one of the hallmarks of India's hostility. Evidence unearthed indicates how India lobbied heavily in the international community to have Pakistan placed on the global Financial Action Task Force (FATF) ‘blacklist’. Although this has not been successful, it has had implications for Pakistan which has found itself on the ‘grey list’. While Pakistan has done much to improve its financial controls and is fast moving towards full compliance of international standards, India continues to push to blacklist the country. Yet at the same time, India appears to be escaping the eagle-eye of FATF scrutiny. This is puzzling given the alarming reports about money laundering, corruption, terrorism and other crimes of an international nature that emanate from India. 
A recently leaked report from the United States Department of Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) revealed that 44 State-owned and private banks in India had conducted suspicious transactions totalling more than USD 1 billion between 2011 to 2017. FinCEN’s stated mission is “to safeguard the financial system from illicit use and combat money laundering and promote national security through the collection, analysis, and dissemination of financial intelligence and strategic use of financial authorities.” FinCEN is a powerful agency with extensive global reach. That they have been investigating India’s money laundering activities raises the question again, ‘Why is India allowed to act with impunity for a long list of financial crimes committed by State-owned enterprises and their clients?’ Surely this should raise alarm bells, so how does India convince the international community to ignore this?
The answer again appears to lie in a number of areas. India has conducted extensive high-level lobbying with key member countries of FATF to cover their own tracks and push for Pakistan to be black-listed for allegedly funding terrorism in the region. India has invested heavily over the years in its anti-Pakistan narrative and ‘backroom’ deals to keep India from the kind of international scrutiny it deserves. A number of seemingly innocuous think tanks and organisations funded by India’s intelligence agencies, operate in Europe to push a pro-India, viperous anti-Pakistan narrative with European and other governments, UN and international organisations. These fit into the overall agenda of attempts to demonize and isolate Pakistan in the international arena.
Since the dossier on India’s support of terrorist activities in Pakistan was released, India has responded with another ‘false flag’ operation, this time in Nagrote, IIOJ&K, to draw attention away from the outcry. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi immediately took to Twitter to make wild unsubstantiated allegations about Pakistan to tarnish Pakistan not only with FATF but also the incoming U.S. President, Joe Biden. False-flags operations killing Kashmiris in fake encounters have long been India’s default modus operandi to divert attention every time a spotlight is shone on their covert activities elsewhere and policy failures at home. This one was no different.
India’s potential for trade and defense deals also plays a role in why countries are overlooking India’s rogue behaviour and horrendous violence against Muslims not only in IIOJ&K but across India. Countries aiming to counter China’s growing influence in Asia by supporting India is also having an impact. India has also been lobbying in countries which provide aid to Pakistan to deter them from humanitarian and much-needed development assistance in Azad Jammu & Kashmir with the implied threat of ‘reviewing bilateral relations’. These are considerable challenges for Pakistan to overcome. It will take a strong and sustained effort to counter India’s narratives and defeat the subversive elements operating against the interests of Pakistan and build on achievements to date.
In the meantime, life goes on for communities on the LoC. Despite the hardships and the constant threat to their lives the people are resilient, hospitable and welcoming. The scenery is spectacular at any time of the year and waking up in the morning to be surrounded by soaring mountains and glorious views is an unforgettable experience. Increased tourism can bring substantial change. Improving facilities, access roads, and other infrastructure will provide a more prosperous life for communities. This is something India is desperately anxious to prevent.
Communities in Neelum Valley and along the entire LoC are on the frontline, innocent bystanders at high risk from a belligerent neighbour. Their plight should never be forgotten in the bigger picture of addressing India’s dangerous proxy war, the Kashmir Dispute and their regional ambitions. Ceasefire Violations deliberately targeting civilians continue with increasing frequency and ferocity. It has to stop! The UN Security Council and the UN High Commission for Human Rights have a duty to protect all civilians who are not parties to a conflict wherever they are in the world. This duty must be honored.


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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