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‘A ghost that haunts’: Living with landmines in Kashmir

‘A Ghost That Haunts’: Living With Landmines In Kashmir

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A Kashmiri boy with a bicycle walks past a crater caused by a landmine blast, in a photo from December 2004 [File: Reuters]

One night in December 2000, Mohammad Yaqoob says he was selected by the Indian army for patrol duty along the Line of Control (LoC), the border dividing the Indian and Pakistani-administered regions of Kashmir.

Twenty years ago it was standard but informal practice in parts of Indian-administered Kashmir for the army to select young men from nearby villages for night patrol along the 734km LoC, to keep watch for “infiltrators” from the other side of the border. For this, Yaqoob says he and other men from his village did not receive any training, pay or compensation.

As he returned home just before dawn, the 30-year-old stepped on a hidden landmine and, in an instant, lost his leg.

Fellow villagers who were also part of the patrol that night took him to the nearest army hospital in Tangdar, Kupwara. While medicine was provided by the army free of cost, Yaqoob had to pay for the surgery he needed.

When Al Jazeera contacted the Divisional Commissioner of the Indian Government to clarify what the official policy is towards using villagers for patrols and the treatment of landmine victims in Kashmir, we were asked to submit our questions, which we did via email. These remain unanswered several weeks later.

A telephone call and email with questions to the Chief Secretary of Jammu and Kashmir, the Administrative Head of the State Secretariat, also went unanswered.

The spokesman for the Indian Ministry of Defence, Rajesh Kalia, referred us to the Indian army for comment. The spokesman for the Indian army, Aman Anand, also asked us to email questions, but these, too, were not answered despite numerous follow-up emails and text messages.

Former Director-General of India’s Defence Intelligence Agency Kamal Dawar did talk to us. He said: “These are localised practices and not official. The station army officer may take villagers to guide them through their area, for patrolling purposes. I am not sure if they pay them or not.” He further stated that India does not lay landmines during peace time but only when there is “a threat from an enemy state or possibility of an imminent war.”

‘My wife divorced me’

For Yaqoob, that night changed the course of his life. A member of the Pahari tribe, he lives in the village of Prada in the Kashmir district of Kupwara, just 4km from the LoC.

Sitting in his house, Yaqoob explains that he used to work as a labourer and, during summers would take his cattle to graze up in the mountains. After losing his leg, however, he cannot go to the mountains or take on any labour work. For the past two decades, this has left him with no income apart from a small pension.

After a landmine injury, victims must file a First Informer’s Report (FIR) in order to qualify for a 1,000-rupee ($13.60) monthly pension paid by the Indian Social Welfare Department to landmine survivors.

“While I was in the hospital after surgery, my brother went to file the FIR,” says Yaqoob. “He found out that the Army had already filed an FIR in our name, in which they had stated that I was in the forest collecting timber when I had stepped on a landmine. It was shocking for all of us.”

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Mohammad Yaqoob lost his leg to a landmine in 2000 and receives $13 a month in compensation [Nawal Ali/Al Jazeera]

He still received the pension but soon after his injury, he says, his wife divorced him and moved back to her parents’ house, leaving him to raise his two daughters, then aged four and six, alone. Yaqoob had to move in with his brother.

Today, his daughters are studying at the University of Kashmir in Srinagar. Relatives and neighbours help Yaqoob cover their tuition and living costs. He says he has faith in his daughters and hopes they will build successful lives through their education.

Division lines

The LoC is a de facto border which divides Kashmir into India-Administered Kashmir and Pakistan-Administered Kashmir. It is one of the most dangerous and militarised borders in the world and is heavily guarded on both sides by the Indian and Pakistani armies.

The Indian Army first planted landmines along the LoC during the 1965 India-Pakistan war, then again during the 1971 Indo Pak war, the 1999 Kargil war and, again, in 2001 under Operation Parakram, a military standoff between India and Pakistan in Kashmir. Like India, Pakistan has not signed up to the Mine Ban Treaty.

According to the Landmine Monitor Report 2004, the last confirmed large-scale use of anti-personnel landmines by Pakistan took place between December 2001 and mid-2002 along the LoC.

‘Preventing militants’

In April 2008, Brigadier SM Mahajan, Director of Military Affairs at the Ministry of External Affairs in India, stated that the main reason for laying landmines was to prevent the “infiltration of Kashmiri militants across the Line of Control”.

But on the Indian side of the LoC, there have been few reports of rebels being killed by landmines over the years. Most of the victims are civilians or members of the Indian army.

According to the research group, the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, the total number of casualties among civilians and the Indian army is not officially recorded. But the group gathers the figures it can from a patchwork of anecdotal reports and media accounts. Between 1999 and 2015, the Monitor identified 3,191 victims of activated mines or improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and explosive remnants of war (ERW) in India. Of these, 1,083 were killed and 2,107 were injured, with the fate of one victim unknown.

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 An Indian border security force soldier searches for landmines with a metal detector during a patrol at the India-Pakistan border in RS Pora, southwest of Jammu, in October 2016 [File: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP]

Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, a research coordinator with the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, says: “There is no known press report of an insurgent being killed by a landmine since we started the Landmine Monitor in 1999.

“Before 2011, the Indian Army maintained a website which regularly reported on deaths of insurgents in encounters, but none in minefields. In only one case, in a media report on July 29, 2020 in Nowshera, some militants were reportedly shot while trying to cross. Subsequently they “heard a blast”, and assumed it must have been a landmine triggered by a fleeing militant.”

A perfect storm

The Ottawa Convention – also known as the Mine Ban Treaty – of March 1, 1997, has been signed by 164 countries. This treaty prohibits signatory states from use, stockpiling, production or transfer of anti-personnel landmines (APLs). India has yet to sign it. The official stance of the government has been that the country has “volatile borders”, and if and when a non-lethal alternative to APLs is introduced, the country will ban the mines.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines is a global network of non-government organisations (NGOs) which is active in about 100 countries. It claims that the largest stockpiles of landmines are held by Russia, Pakistan, India, China and the United States.

Apart from killing and maiming people, landmines impede people’s freedom to go about their normal lives. They affect the local economy by rendering land useless for cultivation.

Khurram Parvez, a leading human rights activist and programme coordinator for Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies (JKCCS), says: “Once landmines are planted in fields, for people the need to stay alive becomes much greater than the need to cultivate crops or collect fodder for cattle. Not cultivating crops means a decrease in food production and landmines kill domesticated animals.”

Moser-Puangsuwan, adds: “Generally, the impact is measured in how much land becomes inaccessible due to the presence of mines. There is no publicly available information on this in India.”

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 A Gujjar woman with her livestock close to the Line of Control border between Indian- and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, an area which has been blighted by landmines [Nawal Ali/Al Jazeera]

The agricultural and pastoral communities living alongside the LoC are mostly from the Gujjar and Pahari tribes (Yaqoob is Pahari). These people have found themselves caught in a perfect storm. On the one hand, they are economically one of the most marginalised groups in Jammu and Kashmir because they are so remote from central government areas. On the other, living near the LoC comes with the perpetual fear of a landmine blast or a mortar shell hitting them. Most of these villages are less than 2km away from the LoC.

‘Landmines were planted in our fields’

Iftikhar Shah, 27, an independent researcher working in Srinagar, who also lives in the village of Prada, says: “In late 1990s, landmines were planted in our fields. Our region is mountainous and, because of this, we are able to cultivate only a few crops like maize. With landmines in our fields now, it has been rendered completely useless. We did not even get compensation for it.”

“The Indian army provides compensation for land where bunkers and camps are built, but not for the land where landmines are planted,” explains Parvez, who himself lost a leg to a landmine.

In 2013, it was reported that landmines had been laid across approximately 3,512 acres of land in several villages in 1999.

However, when we asked about this, the sub-district Magistrate of Tangdhar Block, Kupwara, Bilal Mohiuddin, said: “I have no knowledge about any landmines in the region, neither have we received any cases of injuries or casualties.”

Parvez, however, says he believes “the civil administration and local police are not informed about the landmine plantation. For the army, they don’t want to leak out the information as there is a possibility that non-state actors might pick this vital information up”.

‘A fast track to poverty’

Adding to the plight of the villagers in the area is the fact that up until 2005, minefields were neither marked with warnings nor fenced off.

“In 2002, a man from Warsun, Lolab (Kupwara) lost both his legs in a landmine blast in a non-LoC area,” says Parvez. “Later, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies advocated for the installation of danger signboards in Urdu and the fencing-off of areas with landmines. It was implemented to some extent. The army fenced the camps with mine plantations but they didn’t do so in areas along LoC.

“In my opinion, for the army, the objective of planting mines along the LoC is to stop incursions and if they start fencing the areas with mines off, then their objective is defeated.”

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 A sign warns of landmines near the Line of Control between Pakistan- and Indian-administered Kashmir [File: Kimimasa Mayama/Reuters]

Moser-Puangsuwan says: “For the family in which a landmine casualty occurs, it is devastating. It is a fast track to poverty. This also has an impact on their community. The productivity of landmine survivors diminishes greatly, usually completely in regards to their former occupation.”

He adds: “We have no idea how well-marked the areas affected by landmines are. These areas are not accessible to international human rights groups to determine that. We have no reports from people living in the areas adjacent to the LoC how comprehensive and clear the marking is. India is a state party to the Amended Protocol II of the Convention on Conventional Weapons. Article 4 of that convention requires ‘measures are taken to protect civilians from their effects, for example, the posting of warning signs, the posting of sentries, the issue of warnings or the provision of fences’.”

In this hilly terrain, however, landmines can slide down from their original position during rain or snowfall. So, even if there is a warning sign, it may be in the wrong place.

Signs used to be in Hindi, but this was changed to Urdu after advocacy efforts from the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies. “People in Kashmir cannot read and write Hindi,” Parvez explains.

A heavy price

In 2010, a court in Kupwara district directed the government of India to pay 1.2 million rupees ($26,200) to Gulzar Mir, a double amputee who lost his legs to an anti-personnel mine in 2002 while grazing livestock in the village of Warsun. Such action, however, is rare and victims often struggle to apply for compensation, according to Moser-Puangsuwan.

Victims often have to wait up to six months until they start receiving the 1,000 rupees (just under $13.50) per month pension from the state Social Welfare Department, and the sum is too small to cover their living costs.

Getting medical treatment for injuries can also be onerous as the road infrastructure connecting villages and towns is poor. For some people, it can take half a day to reach the nearest medical facility. According to the victims, medical expenses in the aftermath of a landmine blast can be as high as 200,000 rupees ($2,700), which for agricultural workers who earn as little as 225 rupees per day ($3) is a very heavy price.

It is not unusual for an injured person to be carried from house to house so that every villager can contribute to the cost of getting them to a hospital.

‘There is always a fear’

About 30km from the main town of Uri, in the Baramulla district of Kashmir, lies Churranda – one of the most remote villages on Indian territory before the LoC.

The well-worn roads leading to this village of 226 households are inaccessible in the winter months due to heavy snowfall. Set against a backdrop of mountains veiled by a white sheet of snow and snow-capped pine trees, the concertina wires enclosing the village disturb its natural beauty.

It is hard for the residents of the villages in this area to tell their stories to the wider world. People from other parts of Kashmir and the rest of India are not permitted to enter, nor are journalists without prior permission from both the local authority and the army. For this report, we were required to present our IDs to army personnel stationed in the area. We went on two occasions – on the first we were allowed in; on the second we weren’t.

A small army blockhouse is situated just outside the gate to Churranda. Here, the army frisks the men, check their bags and examines their permission documents if they are not locals. Women are led to a small concrete booth, inside which a local woman in army uniform frisks them and checks their belongings.

Visitors are not allowed to carry cameras or mobile phones inside the village.

The residents of Churranda recall the nights during the 1990s when they would be taken by army personnel down towards the deep mountain ravine along the LoC to help plant the landmines, cutting back crops and clearing land in the darkness to do so. But now it is impossible to pinpoint the exact location of the mines.

Pointing towards a patch of land down the hill, Mohammad narrates his story with sadness: “We – I and a few of my friends – were taken there to cut the crops for them to plant mines on. It was a very difficult time for us, but we were helpless. We don’t have any choice but to cooperate with them for our own survival.”

In August 2017, Hakam Bi, now 21, was collecting fodder for her family’s cattle along with other women from her village. Walking up the hill, she stepped on a landmine. When she came round, she found herself in a local taxi with blood all over her body. She was taken to a hospital more than 100km away in the summer capital, Srinagar city. Her right leg had to be amputated.

Bi explains that she was living with her mother and three sisters at the time and that the family lived off the income of the oldest sister’s husband. In 2015, her marriage to Mohd Sadiq, who lived in the same village, had been agreed. They married in 2018, but in many similar cases, marriages fall through as individuals with disabilities can be considered a burden to a family.

We enter Bi’s house to find her blowing into a wood-fire stove, preparing morning tea for her mother-in-law and husband, while her mother-in-law stitches a quilt. Seeing us enter, a group of young men and children gather around the house, wanting to know what is going on. Feeling uncomfortable speaking in front of the village boys, Bi takes us to the side of her house to tell us her story.

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 Mohammad Yaqoob, who lost his leg – and ability to work – to a landmine in 2000, was left to provide for his two small children [Nawal Ali/Al Jazeera]

With tears in her eyes, she explains: “I belong to a poor family, I don’t even remember my father’s face – I lost him when I was a child because of a medical condition. At my mother’s home, I didn’t have enough clothes to wear and I couldn’t demand them from my brother-in-law. Never had I thought that my life could get even worse. Now I am even scared to have children in future. How will I take care of them? How will I do my routine tasks?”

To compound all this worry, her husband must risk his life on a daily basis to provide for his family. He works as a porter for the army in the area were landmines are planted. “There is always a fear of losing a leg or even my life, but I have no other option,” says Sadiq, 21. “I cannot migrate to the town like many have done here as I don’t have enough resources to cover the cost of living in Srinagar city.”

As government employment schemes do not reach as far as these border villages, many are dependent on the army for work as porters, labourers, cooks and watchmen, and must accept the risks that come with that.

The army pays porters a monthly salary of 15,000 to 18,000 rupees ($205 to $246). These workers are also responsible for maintaining the LoC fence, along which most of the landmines are planted. Any landmine victim is regarded as a “casualty within service” and receives a one-off compensation payment of, usually, approximately 22,000 to 23,000 rupees (around $300). But local men, such as Yaqoob, who are just casually selected to accompany patrols, do not qualify for this payment.

Each unit of the army remains in the area for two years and is then replaced by a new one. Injured porters have a degree of job security with the units with which they were working, and these units will often write a recommendation letter to the next unit. But this is not guaranteed and, in 2016, according to locals, the new unit did not employ any of the injured porters.

‘The most important thing is that he cares about me’

In Kamalkote, another border village in Uri, Mohamed Ameen, 20, lost his leg in 2016 while working at the Khamoshi border post as an army porter. He was taken by army vehicle to Srinagar for treatment. The family stayed there for six months and incurred a total cost of 4 lakh ($5,400). The army provided 23,000 rupees ($310) towards his treatment. Ameen now survives by sharing his retired father’s pension and the 1,000 rupees a month he receives from the state.

Ameen sits with his father and younger brother in his home. His face reflects the trauma he has endured when he explains how no one wants him to marry their daughters due to his disability.

In this regard, Muneer Hussain, 55, who lost his leg when he was working as a porter in 1999, is one of the “lucky” ones. He got married a few years after his accident. His wife, who is 46 but did not give her name, says: “The most important thing is that he cares about me and our three children. I am more than happy to support him in these times of crisis. It is not a bad life, we have been surviving like this for years now and will definitely thrive in future.”

Hussain received 22,000 rupees from the army but had to pay the remainder of the treatment cost himself – about two lakh ($2,700).

In many families, it is the sole breadwinner that has been injured. Since income drops off after such an incident, parents are often unable to pay for their children’s education, and a vicious cycle of poverty ensues.

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 Soni Begum, 45, lost a leg when she stepped on a landmine in 1998. Three years later, her husband also lost a leg while working as an army porter [Nawal Ali/Al Jazeera]

In some cases, more than one member of the family has fallen victim to landmines. In 1998, Soni Begum, 45, who lives in the village of Jabra in Uri, lost her leg after she stepped on a landmine while taking her livestock to grazing land.

“Back then, Jabra was not connected by roads. I was carried by neighbours on their shoulders to reach the nearest health facility, 30km away,” she recalls.

From the balcony of her small house, overlooking the hills of Churranda, she points out one of the hills where her family’s fields are located.

“Three years later, my husband, who worked as an army porter, was building a bunker at the Nanak Post. He unknowingly stepped on a landmine and lost his leg,” says Begum. “Two kanals (a quarter of an acre) of our land are under the control of the army. This land is enclosed within the wires and we are not allowed to access it.” She says the family has not been compensated for this.

‘The last village’

Karnah, in Kupwara, is located in the northern area of the Kashmir valley and is 90km from Srinagar. To reach it, travellers must cross the Sadhana Pass, which is more than 11,000 feet above sea level and divides the Karnah block from other parts of Kupwara and the rest of the valley.

During winter, the pass is covered in 20 feet of snow, effectively cutting off the “capital” village of Tangdhar.

The Hindu Kush mountain range stands tall and, approaching the LoC, one can feel a rise in temperature. The maize fields here lie barren but the Kinnow fruit, a type of orange, is plentiful and adorns trees in the front gardens of local houses, ripened by the warmer climate.

Across the river Kishenganga (or Neelum in Pakistan) lie the villages of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. A suspension bridge on the river in Teetwal connects the two sides.

Seemari is the last village in Indian-administered Kashmir. The borders, as marked out by the bridge and the river, along with the presence of the Indian army highlights the controlled nature of people’s lives here.

Waving to a man across the river, standing on the Pakistan-administered side, our local guide tells us: “That could be my relative or my neighbour’s relative. It is such a strange thing that we have been separated from our family.”

Haider Mughal, 70, lives in Seemari. Sitting beside the front door, while his wife prepares dinner, he greets us. The sun has gone down and a lantern lights up the small kitchen. He tells us that he lost his right leg due to a landmine in 1997.

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 Haider Mughal lost his right leg in 1997 when he stepped on a landmine while grazing livestock on his family’s land. Landmines had been planted there without the family’s knowledge [Nawal Ali/Al Jazeera]

Just as on any other day, Mughal had gone up to his share of the common grazing land to feed his livestock, when he stepped on a landmine which was hidden under the ground. “This land belongs to my family. I have the papers as well – we used to pay our share of tax to the state revenue department. We have absolutely no idea when the army planted these landmines,” he says.

Mughal has two daughters and a son. Back in 1997, he had to sell all of his livestock, which was his family’s primary source of income, to raise the funds for his operation. He now has an artificial limb which needs to be replaced every year due to wear and tear caused by the rough terrain on which he must walk.

One artificial limb costs about 10,000 rupees ($135). With the support of the army, a Jaipur-based organisation provides the initial artificial limbs – known as “Jaipur feet” – to victims. However, future expenses, such as the cost of replacement limbs, must be met by the victims themselves.

‘Plastic legs don’t work’

Amroohi village is surrounded by a fence guarded by the army. At the gate, everyone must undergo frisking and ID checks before entering and may only enter or exit at certain times of the day.

Niyaz Mohammad, 75, endures the process every day as he returns from Tangdhar. A few metres from the gate, just out of sight of the soldiers posted there, Mohammad shares his story.

He was 25 when he went out to his fields to graze cattle and stepped on a landmine. He lost his right arm. “In 1971, when landmines were planted, there were no signboards,” he says. “I was walking when I suddenly stepped on a landmine. Family members and neighbours took me to Srinagar. We had to bear all expenses on our own.”

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 Shakeela Begum, 60, lost her left leg to a landmine that had been planted in her back yard, while she was gathering vegetables from her garden [Nawal Ali/Al Jazeera]

In 1994, Shakeela Begum, 60, a resident of Amroohi whose husband is a retired policeman, was walking towards the back yard of her house where her family had planted vegetables when she stepped on a mine and lost her left leg.

“One day before this incident, the army, during their regular night patrolling had installed mines in my back yard without informing us,” says Begum. “Due to this injury, I have been suffering multitudes of joint and backbone issues.”

At the time, she was a young mother to two daughters and a son. She has since had two more sons.

Sitting beside her, her older brother, Bashir Ahmed, adds: “We took her to the army hospital in Tangdhar. We were charged 24,000 rupees for the operation and had to pay all the costs on our own.” The family took their case to the District Magistrate in Kupwara but has never received any compensation.

Gulab Jan, 35, is sitting on the front veranda of her house in Amroohi. She says she stepped on a landmine and lost her right foot while working in her field in 1995. She says she received no compensation at all for the cost of her treatment and now survives on the 1,000-rupee monthly pension from the Social Welfare Department.

The army did take her to its artificial limb centre in Pune city and provided her with a prosthetic leg. “The plastic prosthetic legs don’t work in hilly areas,” she says. “We have to walk on the rough terrain and those legs break easily. A local cobbler has made this artificial leather shoe for me and I get it repaired when needed.”

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 Gulab Jan stepped on a landmine in 1995 while working in her field, and lost her foot. She says the plastic prosthetic leg she has been given is useless on the mountainous paths where she lives [Nawal Ali/Al Jazeera]

The haunting

In 2016, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines urged the Indian state to cease all mine-laying activities and to join the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.

However, India is reported to be planning to lay more mines. “It is extremely disappointing that the world’s largest democracy is reportedly contemplating the use of landmines again,” says Megan Burke, director of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

In October 2017, India reiterated that the Amended Protocol II of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) “enshrines the approach of taking into account legitimate defence requirements of states with long borders”.

The statement also mentions that India believes that new military alternative technologies that can perform the defensive role of anti-personnel landmines will enable it to stop using landmines altogether. In this statement, India also said that it had ceased the production of “non-detectable” landmines and had started increasing public awareness to minimise the humanitarian cost.

Landmine clearance is a time-consuming and dangerous task. In 2005, it was reported that 1,776 Indian soldiers had died while laying and removing mines since 2001.

And for the people living along the LoC, Parvez says, landmines are like a “ghost that haunts even after the war is over”.