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On Edge In Kashmir, Where Neither War Nor Peace Reigns

Indian soldiers on patrol in Srinagar, Kashmir.
Indian soldiers on patrol in Srinagar, Kashmir.
Vanessa Dougnac

SRINAGAR - An eagle boldly splits the air, to and fro, between disputed territories. On the ground, an electrified fence hurtles down the jagged flank of the mountain, bumps into the river, then resumes its straight race up heights.

In the Uri district, in Silikot, the fence sharply cuts an odd borderline: dividing the Muslim province of Kashmir between India and Pakistan, the Line of Control (LoC) embodies the confrontation of two nuclear powers that waged two wars over this rugged Himalayan region.

Built by India in 2004, the fence doesn't always have a clear logic: encircling a cluster of chalets, splitting a forest or forsaking some village like Charunda on the wrong side. Then suddenly, in some places, in front of steep heights, it ceases to exist for a while.

Comprising 550 kilometers of a 740-km demarcation, it aims at blocking "infiltrations" of mujahedins trained on the Pakistani side from crossing over to challenge Indian sovereignty in Kashmir.

India has largely choked off the separatist uprising, which began in 1989: 47,000 soldiers dead, 8,000 civilians "disappeared". With more than half a million soldiers and legions of spies, Kashmir remains hostage to an unprecedented military presence.

"Normally it's calm," says Farooq, who hails from Silikot. Occasionally, soldiers defy one another in skirmishes breaching the 2003 ceasefire agreement.

(On Thursday, four Indian soldiers were killed in an ambush by Muslim militants in Hurdmeer village, the BBC reports)

Back in January, at the Sawan Patra post by the mountain's summit, a Pakistani was killed after India accused its neighbor of cutting one of its soldiers' throat and beheading another. These sporadic reprisals poison Indo-Pakistani relations, which had started afresh in 2011 after being frozen in 2008, when India blamed the Mumbai terror attacks on Lashkar-e-Toiba, a Pakistan-based Islamist group that seeks liberation of Kashmir from Indian control.

Some signs of peace

Well beyond lingering border tensions, the enthusiastic sounds of Indian tourists make a happy hubbub on Lake Dal, near Srinagar, the biggest town in the valley. Couples float along in gondolas, slaloming between lotuses and water lilies. Families indulge in water skiing or the visit of Mughal gardens. Soon, they can also enjoy the Gulmarg ski station, Sonmarg glaciers or Pahalgam's romantic landscapes. War swept away the hashish-smoking hippie flâneurs, but now the Indian middle class is taking over the Kashmiri heaven.

This is the other face India tries to show: normalcy, tourism. "Indeed, terrorism has not yet reached the level zero," concedes the Inspector General of Police Abdul Ghani Mir. "In the valley, 30,000 former mujahedins and 100 active terrorists, both locals and foreigners, are numbered. But the situation is far better than it used to be."

Sameer Yasir, a political analyst at the University of Awantipura, notes that while some checkpoints have been cleared, soldiers in bulletproof vests still roam the countryside. "Yet, there is no reduction of troops on the ground," he says.

The anti-Indian feeling remains strong within the population. Hopes of reconciliation were born when then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had showed a "friendly hand" to Pakistan in April 2003. But the progress was limited. From summer 2008 onwards, protests erupted in the valley, and a burgeoning movement was repressed by the police, with 112 protesters killed during summer 2010.

Ever since, Kashmir has looked like Lake Dal's troubled waters. During the past winter, the valley was paralyzed by a curfew, enacted to smother protests after the controversial hanging of a Kashmiri convicted for having ties with terrorists.

Attacks continue. "There has been a surge in mujahedin activities because New Delhi has resolved nothing," says Sameer Yasir. "Kashmir remains explosive."

By the rhythm of saffron teas, in the offices of politicians of all parties, disillusion is unanimous. "We are disappointed and pessimistic," says Naim Akthar, spokesman for the People Democratic Party (PDP), in the Opposition, "Our valley has been abandoned by the international community, when inhabitants are under the yoke of a brutal force. India gives a military answer to a political problem."

And the ranks of the mujahedin recruits never seems to dry up. In Sopore, Tawheed describes the circumstances that pushed his brother to take up arms. "In 2010, Aatir was 19, and a serious student. But he was arrested and tortured by the police. He disappeared in August 2012."

On December 18, Aatir was shot dead by security forces, along with four Pakistani mujahedins. "We received his corpse," says his brother, "No one cried: he was celebrated as a martyr."

On a commemorative card, his picture is printed with the caption "Lashkar-e-Toiba mujahedin." Just one year before, he was a student dreaming of a good job in the civil service.

Now, the Baramulla, Sopore or Kupwara youths cast stones and yell slogans at security forces after the Friday prayer. And early death keeps arriving. Gulam Rassul Sodi, a Baramulla resident, weeps for his son Tahir, a 27-year-old PhD student, who was killed on March 15 by the paramilitary that suddenly opened fire on unarmed demonstrators.

According to a report, at least 500 members of the local law enforcement have committed abuses. "There is no improving of the human rights question," confides Zaffar Qurashi, the president of an association of 750 lawyers. "Even children are detained: 300 minors have been arrested for throwing stones."

On a plastic chair, in his Baramulla farm, Nisar looks at his children, who speak to each other in Urdu. As many others, Nisar (not his real name) crossed the border in 1999 to take up arms when he was 21. But this "war of liberation" from Pakistan was not his war. He gave up the kalashnikov to become a fruit and vegetable seller, and started a family.

One day, he heard of an Indian rehabilitation program for former Kashmiri mujahedins to return home. Fourteen 14 years later, he is back in his homeland. "Everything's changed," says the former mujahedin, with a forlorn smile, "But at least, war is over." Peace, however, has yet to arrive.

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