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Kashmir in a death trap of landmines

By Sarwar Kashani, IANS

New Delhi/Srinagar : 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 Indian parliament, led to one of the biggest mine-laying operations in the world in recent years. 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.

But defence spokesman Lt. Col. V.K. Mathur was reluctant to share the "classified" information related to the exact area covered with mines.

"That is not for public consumption. It's a defence secret and strategically not to be disclosed," Mathur told IANS.

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. About 150,000 families had to be displaced from their villages in Jammu before India and Pakistan committed to peace in 2004.

Three 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 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.

Last week more than 200 landmines exploded along the LoC in Poonch district of the Jammu division, burning stray cattle and causing havoc in the area.

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 Kashmir Valley last month, 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.

Their 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 has 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 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.

According to Mathur, only the areas highly vulnerable to infiltration are mined and are well marked. He 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.

Senior Congress leader Tara Chand, who is speaker of the state assembly and represents the Chhamb constituency – one of the most dangerous zones – near the LoC in Jammu, has been fighting almost single-handedly to get the fields cleared.

"Around 28,000 kanals (nearly 3,500 acres) of agricultural land in Chhamb area is dotted with mines, which has affected over 6,000 families of my constituency," Tara Chand told IANS.

But, he said, despite repeated calls to the defence ministry nothing much has been done.

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

Kashmir, where incessant militancy 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.

While the India-Pakistan bonhomie moves forward, innocent villagers continue to live amid the fear of losing their lives.

(Sarwar Kashan can be contacted at [email protected])