Terrified Pakistani Kashmir residents rush to build bunkers

Pakistani Kashmiri men building an underground bunker in Athmuqam village at the Line of Control, the de facto border between Pakistan and India, in Neelum Valley of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Around half a million people live within range of Ind
Pakistani Kashmiri men building an underground bunker in Athmuqam village at the Line of Control, the de facto border between Pakistan and India, in Neelum Valley of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Around half a million people live within range of Indian fire along the Pakistani side of the Line of Control.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Many shell out hard-earned money for fortified shelters as cross-border attacks rise

NEELUM VALLEY (Pakistan) • Residents in Pakistani Kashmir are racing to build underground bunkers for the first time since the 1990s, frightened by what they say is the worst cross-border violence since a ceasefire was agreed in 2003.

Months of tension between India and Pakistan have erupted into shellings and gunfire across the disputed Kashmir frontier, claiming the lives of dozens of people, including civilians.

People in Azad Kashmir's Neelum Valley say the attacks come once or twice a week, and they never know when they might have to dive for cover.

Ms Chand Bibi has concrete and steel rods waiting to be transformed into a bunker where her terrified family can take shelter as the monstrous boom of shelling reawakens old nightmares.

"You are talking about fear," the 62-year-old says. "The sound of the guns is horrible." When it comes, she and her relatives pile blankets, quilts and clothes on top of their children to muffle the noise and contain their panic.

Soon, the extended family of about 20 people will be able to flee underground to the bunker they have paid 300,000 Pakistani rupees ($4,100) to build - just under the cost of constructing a mud house in the valley, where the average worker makes around 800 rupees a day.

Mr Sultan Ahmed is spending even more: up to 500,000 rupees for a 3m by 4m space reinforced by more than 20cm of concrete, fortified with steel rods, and buried under nearly a metre of soil. Some 25 people will be able to take shelter inside, the 47-year-old teacher says.

Local mason Ghulam Hussain tells Agence France-Presse his business has increased, as he packs his tools after finishing a bunker at one house to rush to another to build again.

Around half a million people live within range of Indian fire along the Pakistani side of the Line of Control, the de facto border that has divided the Himalayan region since 2003, according to Mr Farooq Haider Khan, leader of Azad Kashmir.

Kashmir is one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints, bitterly divided between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan since the end of British colonial rule in 1947 but claimed in full by both.

Years of relative peace after the 2003 ceasefire were shattered in September, after India blamed Pakistani militants for a raid on an army base that killed 19 soldiers.

India said it had responded by carrying out "surgical strikes" across the heavily militarised border, sparking a furious reaction from Islamabad, which denied the strikes took place.

On Tuesday, armed militants stormed a major Indian army base near the frontier with Pakistan, killing seven soldiers in the most audacious attack since the September raid.

The fear spiralling on the Pakistani side is not only consuming residents; tourism to the scenic Neelum Valley has plummeted this year, local official Sardar Abdul Waheed tells AFP. Mr Zulfiqar Ali, who built a guesthouse in the valley last year, says: "I am nervous that if this situation continues, my whole investment will be sunk."

Since AFP's visit, the Neelum Valley has been cut off. Cross-border firing hit a civilian bus there on Nov 23, killing at least nine people, one of the highest one-day tolls since the latest unrest began.

In response, the authorities have shut down the main road connecting the Azad Kashmir capital of Muzaffarabad with the valley, effectively sealing it off from the rest of Pakistan.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 01, 2016, with the headline 'Terrified Pakistani Kashmir residents rush to build bunkers'. Print Edition | Subscribe