Asia

Civilians worst casualties of Kashmir border clashes

An Indian villager stands inside a damaged room of a house following alleged fire from the Pakistani side of the disputed Kashmir border, at Chalyari Village in Samba sector 65 KM from Jammu, Image copyright EPA
Image caption Hundreds of villagers have fled their homes damaged by mortar shells in Indian-administered Kashmir

At least 19 people have been killed and dozens injured as Indian and Pakistani troops continue to exchange fire in some of the worst violence in the disputed region of Kashmir in a decade.

Hundreds of villagers have fled their homes. Although a 2003 ceasefire remains in place, both sides have accused each other of starting the hostilities.

The BBC's Sanjoy Majumder and Shaimaa Khalil visited villages on both sides to find out how civilians are bearing the brunt of the latest round of border hostilities.

Sanjoy Majumder, Indian-administered Kashmir

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Media captionSanjoy Majumder meets a woman who lost four members of her family during shelling in Indian administered Kashmir

"They were sleeping outside here when the shell came down. They died instantly."

Subarna Devi gestures towards a wooden cot placed in the courtyard of her home.

This is where her brother and his wife were killed after a Pakistani shell landed on their home in the border village of Arnia in Indian administered Kashmir.

The wall of the house is pockmarked with shrapnel marks. Elsewhere there are other signs - slippers strewn all over, a child's bicycle turned upside down and worse.

"Look, you can still see the bloodstains," Subarna Devi says, pointing to a dark stain on the ground.

The village, like many others along this suddenly volatile border, has emptied.

The houses are locked and there's no-one about, only cattle and a couple of dogs.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption A number of homes in Arnia have been damaged

Across the lush green rice fields, a barbed-wire electrified fence stands out, coils of concertina wire encircling it. This is the border between India and Pakistan.

It's strangely quiet. There are a few watchtowers with a couple of soldiers in them. But there's nothing to suggest that this is a frontier which has seen some of the most intense exchange of firing between the two armies in years.

Not for long though. As we drive away, we hear a dull thud in the distance. And another, then another.

Three mortar shells fired in the space of 20 minutes.

This is what has driven thousands of villagers to flee. Many of them are crammed into temporary shelters.

At the Government Higher Secondary School in Salehar, some 10km (6.2 miles) from Arnia, villagers have taken up every available space, classrooms, the corridors outside and the playground.

"The firing started at one in the morning and continued through the night," says Satya Devi.

"We just left with the clothes we had on. Nothing else."

In one corner of the camp, a makeshift kitchen has been set up. Rice and lentils are being cooked in large pots, to be served for lunch.

"None of us want to go back," says Bharat Bhushan, who came from a neighbouring village.

"We don't want to die. But we also have our fields and our livelihood. What do we do?"

The sudden escalation of tensions has caught many here by surprise. And while everyone here blames Pakistan, there are others who are hoping it can be contained before it gets out of control.

Shaimaa Khalil, Sialkot district, Pakistan

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Media captionShaimaa Khalil reports from the Pakistani side of the border as violence there escalates to the worst level in years

The sleepy Pakistani village of Dhamala is not an area which normally sees intense shelling but in the last few days it has.

Only a few hundred metres from the Indian border, it took a heavy hit in the latest flare-up between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

The latest exchange of fire happened during the festival of Eid, one of the holiest times for Muslims.

Maj-Gen Khan Tahir Javed Khan said the number of mortar rounds and bullets fired from the Indian side had surged in recent weeks.

"It is the most intense in decades," he said. "My message to them (India) is: please de-escalate."

Maj Gen Khan added that the Indian side was getting more aggressive by the day.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Irum Shehzadi lost two sons in a mortar attack

At least 11 Pakistani civilians have been killed since hostilities erupted more than week ago - three of them in Dhamala village.

Walking into the courtyard of the Akhtar family house you can see the damage right away: one of the walls is peppered with holes from the shelling; and a child's slippers abandoned on the floor, next to a blood-stained pillow and shirt, gives away the grave loss of this family. Bits of mortar shells are strewn on the floor.

All three deaths in the village were from the Akhtar family. They lost two of their three boys in the shelling as well the grandmother, neighbours tell me. The house itself has been deserted.

At a nearby hospital I find the mother.

Irum Shehzadi is sitting on a bed next to her only surviving six-year-old son, Akeel Akhtar. He had bandages on his face and hands and was sleeping next to his mother.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The sleepy Pakistani village of Dhamala is one of the worst-affected

She burst into tears the minute I asked her about what had happened to her and her family.

"My kids wore their new clothes and we're getting ready to celebrate Eid," she said, crying uncontrollably. "And now they're dead.

"My whole world has been destroyed - I can never go to that village again," Irum said.

Akeel moves in his hospital bed as he wakes up next to his mother. He doesn't yet know he has lost both his brothers.

Each side accuses the other of targeting civilian and violating the ceasefire. There's no sign yet of when the latest escalation will stop - nor of where it will lead.

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