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Saturday, 1 June, 2002, 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK
Kashmir's 'phoney war'
Indian soldiers
Both sides have vast numbers of troops in Kashmir

The commander was buried deep inside a burrow, artfully disguised with grass and camouflage nets. He jumped up from his camp bed when we walked in, uniform crumpled, feet bare.

He crushed our hands in greeting, beaming, jolly - pressing us to drink beer as he rushed to pull on boots and belts. He was our passport to the forbidden border zone, out of bounds to journalists.

The diplomats may be talking peace - but no one here seems very keen to listen

He drove us there at breakneck speed, setting us bouncing and pitching in the back of his vehicle along pot-holed roads.

We were crossing a landscape in fancy dress - armed personnel carriers skulking in the hollows of the fields, draped with grass-covered nets.

Fields which just weeks ago were much needed farming land now sown with landmines. A sudden glint of sunlight giving away the pointing barrel of a gun sticking out of a pretend bush.

Officers had already shown us the underground chambers they are building, shell-proof, bomb-proof bunkers. We went into the dark, cool depths of one, down steps cut steeply into the mud.

Life underground

A main room about 12 feet square, walls packed tightly with sandbags, plastered over with earth. A single electric bulb dangled from the centre, casting eerie shadows. It was cool and dank, smelling overpoweringly of earth.

Conditions seem reminiscent of a bygone era of warfare

The officer showed me round with the enthusiasm of an estate agent - we'll put matting down here, he says, gesturing at the packed mud floor, and here, hang our battle charts and maps.

I peered into the pitch blackness of a small annex - emergency sleeping quarters. This burrow is the command centre for when war breaks out.

Enlarge image Enlarge map
The actual border, when we reach it, is also mud. A rampart maybe 18 feet high, criss-crossed with earth footholes leading to narrow pathways.

I scramble to just below the top, and pause, bent double, ready to peer over when the general gives the sign.

As I dare to stick my head up and look out, the commander's voice falls to a whisper in my ear. That's POK, he says - how Indians describe Pakistan Kashmir - and he points to metal watchtowers just a few fields away.

Shelling and firing

The strong sun bouncing off the towers makes it impossible to see who's hidden inside, staring back.

Kashmiri refugees
Thousands of people have fled their homes

There's shelling and firing every day, the general tells me. In the background a cement mixer is droning.

As the troops patrol their mud shelf, village women alongside them are walking back and forth through the dust, with baskets of fresh concrete on their heads.

They are working within range of Pakistani guns, building another line of defence - a high perimeter fence, mile upon mile of it designed to keep the enemy out.

It all strikes me as an echo of war a century ago - troops with hard hats and binoculars in leather cases pointing machine guns through slits in mud walls. Every time I raise the thought of a nuclear strike, people look bemused or downright baffled.

For us, war's already started. Our houses are coming under fire, people and animals are dying

Kashmiri villager

Take the Das family. We first saw them as a slowly advancing cloud of dust, rolling away from the border. They were riding a tractor-trailer - mother, father and adult daughter perched on top of everything they owned.

Two sons cycled behind, brown with dust. We followed them all the way to their brother's village - safely inside Indian territory. There we watched them unpack, pots and pans, an electric fan, five Indian beds, a handful of embroidered cushions.

A young man from their home village hobbled forward on a walking frame to greet them - shot in the leg earlier this year in Pakistani fire.

'War couldn't be worse'

Mr Das squatted in his brother's yard, now overwhelmed with uneven heaps of belongings, the complex debris of a second household.

Local people are already feeling the effects of the conflict

A grandma squatted nearby, youngsters crowded round. War? All of them seemed in no doubt. "There should be a war," said Mr Das. "War couldn't be worse than this - shifting here and there."

The grandma interrupted him to agree emphatically.

"For us, war's already started," he went on. "Our houses are coming under fire, people and animals are dying."

Some of the thousands of people now fleeing have nowhere to go. We visited school yards and empty commercial centres turned into makeshift relief camps.

Local people stirred vast cauldrons of tea and doled it out from plastic buckets. Women squatted over improvised fires to cook Indian bread.

'We need war'

The conditions are grim, the future uncertain - but even here everyone said they wanted war.

Pakistani soldiers
Pakistani troops maintain a close watch on their Indian counterparts

"We need war," said one woman. "We're all fed up. Let's get this thing sorted out once and for all."

We wondered if they really understood how serious war might be. What if they used nuclear weapons? we asked. They nodded sagely.

"Oh yes", said someone. "We had one of those a few weeks back, terrible."

The diplomats may be talking peace - but no-one here seems very keen to listen.

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