Covering Local Tragedies
Ochberg Fellowship Program
One of my earliest and recurring nightmares is about getting trapped in a gunbattle between troops and militants in Kashmir. The air is filled with gunshots and cries. People run in every direction, ducking below the smoke, screaming. The bullet sounds come closer. I try to turn and run. But I am frozen at the spot, staring. I can see people all around me in a pool of blood. Dead. The encounter intensifies and I hear a strange, thunderous sound from somewhere, a sound I have never heard before. But someone just takes me away seconds before the bullets hit me. Where did my childhood nightmare come from?
A psychologist might say it showed my fear of being overwhelmed by emotions. I was born in Srinagar, Kashmir, so my first memory is of fleeing with my brother every time there was a gun battle between militants and the troops. We used to run to save our lives from the fire and rampage. I was ten years old when armed insurgency started in Kashmir in 1989. Life in Kashmir valley has since revolved around killings and tragedies.
However, when I joined the journalism profession, it was always the other way around. Instead of running away from killings and tragedies, I saw myself often chasing the bloody gun battles and reaching the killing spots. There was always this curiosity about the story, the spot, the death. I remember when I first saw bullet-ridden bodies, I cried. Years later, however, I found myself unable to mourn death and tragedies. Another death had just become another story.
Tragedies and disasters are always most touching and chilling when you know the terrain and the people. When earth opened its jaws of death in Kashmir on 8 October 2005, it was emotionally stressful to cover the earthquake. It was tough to get stories from quake survivors in order to let the outside world understand how a killer quake had changed their lives forever. The earthquake had destroyed mosques, Hindu temples, Sikh Gurudwaras and churches with indiscriminate violence. It had swept away everything. It had killed people of almost every religion and none. It seemed nature was angry and was on a mission to destroy.
Four years after the powerful earthquake, it is not yet easy to comprehend or analyse the causes and consequences of the colossal tragedy. In Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, over 73,000 people were killed, 70,000 people were severely injured or disabled and three million people were left homeless. The Indian side of Kashmir also reported heavy casualties, with over 1,300 people losing their lives, 6,622 injured and over 200,000 people left homeless in the immediate aftermath of the quake.
I was at my apartment in South Delhi when the earthquake hit Kashmir. My editor called me and said I should cover the earthquake. When I reached Srinagar Airport, everything seemed almost normal: armoured cars, check points and flak-jacketed soldiers dotting the roads. There were tourists hunting taxi drivers under a sun glinting off mountain peaks. I asked my driver about the earthquake. "It was terrible," he said. “But thank God, we survived.”
Instead of staying in Srinagar city, we decided to go to Uri, the last border town before the Line of Control that divides Kashmir into Indian Kashmir and Pakistani Kashmir. We entered Uri town at around 10pm and stopped at a roadside shop. There was death and destruction everywhere. Homes had turned into rubble. Villagers were braving the numbing cold and hunger. The roads were blocked and the only way to reach the totally devastated, remote villages of Uri was to travel by narrow, landslide-prone and damaged roads and then walk on foot.
I walked past the destroyed houses, unable to comprehend the scale of the tragedy. The hills were dotted with destroyed houses and there were many villages that were completely wiped off the face of the earth. On the mountain in Mardyaan village, dozens of people lay dead with no one to pick them up and put them in graves. Vultures were gliding the thermals above the village, biding their time before they start plucking at the bodies.
Those were horrible days in Uri.
The people were at a loss to understand what happened to them. So many people died, but what does their death mean, except that our earth is fragile to the core and that no one can escape its power? Some of the dead lying out in the forests would have been militants familiar with cross-border infiltration, killings, and bombings. They would have perished too, like the Indian and Pakistani troops on the mountains guarding the frontline, the kids in the streets, the politicians in their offices, the devotees at prayers—all victims of nature’s mission of doom.
Disaster often becomes a moral bellwether for the people, the nation. How much do we actually care? That is why humanity often flourishes in the face of human tragedies. It was not a surprise then that I saw soldiers of India and Pakistan put aside their guns and join hands to rescue people and reconstruct roads. I met a young Army doctor at the Army Hospital in Uri. Dr Saurabh Dawra had just flown from his home in Chandigarh to help people he hardly knew. He, like other Army doctors, was working round the clock to save the lives of the injured. There were hundreds of people from Srinagar city arriving with loads of relief material, reaching out to help survivors in remote, inaccessible border villages.
However, the massive Kashmir earthquake did not attract sustained press coverage. The quake had almost fallen off the news agenda of the international and national media, and the UN reported a poor response to its emergency appeal. The indifference in media coverage made a real and tangible difference to people’s lives. The extensive press coverage of the tsunami had helped the UN to raise 80 per cent of its emergency appeal in just 10 days. But the international media failed to provide sustained coverage of the Kashmir earthquake. With little help coming from outside, Pakistan struggled in the initial days to cope with the situation.
In India, unfortunately, some TV channels covered the earthquake in such a way that gave the impression that the earthquake had only struck the other side of Kashmir, the Pakistani side. They preferred to highlight stories that described the destruction of militant camps in Muzaffarabad in an almost jubilant tone. The result was that there was a kind of indifference to the suffering of the people in Kashmir. During my first visit to Kashmir immediately after the quake, there was almost no help from outside the Kashmir Valley. Instead, it was the local valley people who rallied to help. The public response in the rest of country to the Kashmir earthquake was in total contrast to what we saw in the aftermath of the Gujarat earthquake in 2001, when people across the country came to help the quake survivors.
Perhaps editors, fresh from covering the tsunami, were also suffering from “compassion fatigue.” They had quite a crude idea that the public is not interested in seeing dying people. But I was fortunate that my editors funded my frequent travels to cover the earthquake. We at Sahara Time were among the few news organizations that followed the story for many months after the earthquake. I remember when I went to Kashmir in April 2006 to do follow-up stories on the quake, there was hardly any coverage in the national media.
Even in the immediate aftermath of the quake, what was lacking in coverage was a sense of the people, the suffering of the border people. The defence ministry allowed people including journalists and relief workers to walk freely in the border areas. It was the first time the border areas were thrown open for the rest of the world. The LoC is one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world, and it is where India and Pakistan have fought three wars. Their troops are still in eyeball-to-eyeball contact.
The villages situated along the 720 km long LoC are a land of jungles and mountains, of brutal fortresses and killing fields, of border enmity and bloodshed. Every border village gives you a sense of siege, as there are more troops in border areas than there are local people. And despite a durable ceasefire between India and Pakistan over the last few years, the sufferings of border people have not ended.
The battle for survival is an incredible story in border villages.
Imagine an old woman climbing about 6,000 ft up a hill from her village, descending 6,000 ft on the other side, just to buy some food for her family, and then climbing that mountain of 6,000 ft back to the top of the hill, descending the same distance to get back to her village. This is a real-life story that was missed by the media, unintentionally or deliberately, and one of perhaps thousands of distressing stories that unfold in the border areas of Kashmir everyday.
The border fencing brought more hardships to the people. The fence laced with concertina wire represents India’s effort to keep out what it says are terrorists trained and backed by Pakistan to wrest away control of Kashmir. The fencing of the LoC, however, has left thousands of people in an awkward situation.
A few months after the earthquake, I stood on a mountain watching kids playing in Churunda, the last village on the Indian side of the LoC in Uri sector. I remember having Kashmiri salty tea with Roshan Bee early one morning, and hearing her tragic story. Roshan Bee, a widow, had lost her 22-year old son, one-month-old grandson and almost everything she owned in the quake. The tragedy of Roshan Bee was that while she was facing a hard time here, she had no news about her two brothers, who had migrated to the other side of the fence into the Pakistani side of Kashmir in the early 1990s along with 27 other families of the village. Her hope to see her brothers was sparked when India and Pakistan agreed to open the part of LoC just below her village. But to her disappointment, the LoC was opened only for the exchange of relief.
Chandura, like hundreds of other border villages in Kashmir, is trapped on the wrong side of the fence. After the Indian Army fenced the LoC, some villages like Chandura have inadvertently fallen on the Pakistani side of the barbed wire fence. The fence should actually have come right on the LoC, but Pakistani shelling had forced the Indian Army to move the fence a little inside Indian territory, forcing some villages onto the wrong side of the fence. Pakistan had objected to the construction of the fencing on the grounds that the LoC is undemarcated. Now villagers who are caught on the wrong side of the fence wonder which place they actually belong to — India, Pakistan or No Man’s Land.
There is no transport to the village. To approach it, the villagers have to walk past the Mike Post, the last Indian Army camp on this side of the LoC in the southern side of the Uri sector. Then they climb the snow-clad slope up to the final seven kilometres to Churunda. The nearest market to Chandura is 26 kilometers away. At night, villagers are literally cut off from the outside world because security forces lock the only entry point, a steel gate on the partition fence that remains open for only eight hours each day. The villagers need permission from the army to go to the grocery store, to visit family and to attend weddings or even funerals in the nearby village.
When you are in Chandura, it is hard to tell which area belongs to Pakistan and which to India. The only thing that divides this village from Pakistan is an Uri rivulet, what Pakistan calls Hajipeer Nallah, which remains dry most of the time. Before India and Pakistan fought a war following the violent division of the subcontinent in 1947, there was no this side of Kashmir and that side of Kashmir. People who lived on either side were kinfolk and friends. They spoke the same tongue. They ate the same bread. Sixty years later, they still speak the same tongue and break the same bread, though they are now citizens of two “enemy” nations. Only birds, like the black partridge native to this land, can fly freely over the border.
Legendary Urdu short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto captured the misery of the border people of Kashmir in his moving short story, "The Dog of Tetwal." The story revolves around Indian and Pakistani soldiers at the Tetwal post at the LoC who play a strange game with a stray dog as he runs from this side of border to that side, with each side claiming ownership. Eventually the dog is fired at by both sides and dies literally “a dog’s death."
The people living in border areas, like the dog of Tetwal, have been suffering the same fate for the last 50 years. They are facing the brunt of India-Pakistan border hostilities. They are maimed by Indian landmines and killed by Pakistani artillery shells, a fate their relatives on the other side of the mountain, in the Pakistani side of Kashmir, share. There is hardly a family in the border villages that has not suffered from India-Pakistan border rivalry. After the earthquake, there was hope that a humanitarian disaster would blur the rigid Line of Control that divides Kashmir in two and help the two countries to come closer. That was proved so wrong.
Four years later, as I sit here in my lit-up room in Delhi, barricaded with papers and books, I think about the earthquake survivors I left behind at Uri and Tangdar. It is amazing how quickly the human mind forgets: just four years later, I can barely remember how terrible the earthquake was.
But the reporter in me wants to go back sometimes and see how Roshan Bee is doing. I want to see if she has managed to rebuild her destroyed house. I want to see Nazeer Ahmed, the shopkeeper of Uri town, whose shop and house were destroyed in the quake. I want to see little Pervez, who lost 24 relatives to the earthquake. He wanted to play cricket, but his left arm was yet to recover from his injuries when I met him in Srinagar hospital. I want to see Ulfat and her brothers who had lost both their parents in the quake. I want to go to Chandura village again and see if that border door is still open.
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