Shell-Shocked Anew In Kashmir (India)
DEATH STALKS the innocent even on the farms and orchards of Kashmir. On April 13, 15-yearold Ashiq Hussain Bhat was digging a pit when a live ammunition shell buried on his family's land exploded, severely injuring his left hand, eye and thigh: later, doctors at the prestigious Sher-e- Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in Srinagar amputated the boy's leg and hand.
Gloom pervades Hussain's simple village home. His mother, Hasina Akhter and her daughter cannot stop wailing. Women from the neighbourhood try to console them. As Akhter relives how her son was crippled, however, there isn't a dry eye in the house. She blames herself for the tragedy - she'd persuaded the boy to dig a shallow passage to let rainwater collect in the kitchen garden. No sooner had he pushed the spade into the ground than it touched a live shell, which exploded.
Inured to such sounds, the villagers first thought it was another explosion from the ammunition depot nearby, but Bhat's uncle went to investigate and found him. "The bang made me restless and I thought the ammunition depot had again caught fire. I located my nephew lying on the ground and bleeding profusely," says Ghulam Muhammad Bhat.
It's been eight months since August 11 when the Field Ammunition Depot (21-FAD) arsenal at Khundroo village caught fire - and the villagers of Khundroo and neighbouring villages such as Pahaloo and Sumbrona came alive to the danger in their neighbourhood. Live ammunition from the blasts has since been scattered in the surrounding villages, rendering the land useless for tilling and creating tragedies such as the one that struck Bhat.
Though a red alert was sounded and fire tenders from the state's fire and emergency services rushed to the area, they had to halt outside the area because of the powerful blasts. "It was around 8:30 in the morning when the first blast took place. Fire engulfed the whole depot, emitting heavy shells and artillery into adjoining villages. We fled barefoot, leaving everything behind, amid shells raining down all around," relates Mohammed Ibrahim Khanday of Pahaloo village.
Men, women and children from Khundroo and other villages had to board trucks, tractors and mini-buses to reach safer places. "Columns of smoke were going up and the blaze was higher than the tree line," says Khanday, adding that even army personnel ran like - well, the blazes.
Villagers say that the fire and resultant explosions claimed the lives of 20 people, including civilians, firemen and army men. Forty more were injured and houses severely damaged. "A stray shell from the burning depot hit my head as we were fleeing. I fell unconscious and woke up in hospital," says 21-year-old Azad Hussain of Sumbrona.
The immediate effect of the fire and blasts notwithstanding, the larger problem has been the number of live shells that lie in the surrounding land, buried with the explosive power of the blast. These shells have exploded with regular frequency, usually when some unsuspecting child or villager sets one off.
In the bloody aftermath of the August fire, a blast caused the death of a minor in the house of Ghulam Muhamed Shah, injuring six others. Last September, one person was killed and eight injured when a bomb exploded in the house of Bashir Ahmed Mir in Sumbrona. Army officials and local police shrugged off responsibility, by claiming that the shells were brought in by locals from outside the village.
LAST MONTH, several villagers in adjacent Sumbrona village had a narrow escape after a shell exploded. Ashiq Hussain Bhat's injuries expose the claims of the bomb disposal squad and anti-sabotage team that the area has been sanitised. For the three villages surrounding 21-FAD, fear is palpable among the residents. Live shells are scattered in the paddy fields and orchards of Khundroo, Pahaloo and Sumbrona, and even fuses are still placed in a polythene bag in the premises where Bhat got injured. The army found the bag after the incident, using metal detectors.
Instead of taking it away from the locality, they kept it there. "They have kept these lethal arms here. Grown-ups know that it is deadly but how can we prevent our children from touching them? They are innocents and can fiddle with them anytime here, inside playing fields or kitchen gardens," says Ghulam Muhammad Bhat, pointing towards the bag, which still lies there, mute testimony to army apathy.
As for the land, the paddy fields and orchards inside the village seem to be barren. This year there is no mustard crop, no green grass or wheat in the fields. No fungicide has been sprayed in the orchards. "Who would risk one's life to plough the land? Shrapnel is lying beneath and explodes when touched. People are scared to venture inside kitchen gardens and orchards. The scrap is scattered everywhere," says Ghulam Nabi Sheikh, a farmer whose family owns five acres and used to grow paddy. Besides meeting their demands for food, the yield from the land was the only source of income for the family.
Although the government did compensate the inhabitants by providing cash relief against the damage to their houses and crops, residents allege that relief was not distributed fairly. "The worst hit villages were Khundroo, Pahaloo and Sumbrona. But in order to keep their vote bank intact, politicians distributed the relief to 13 villages. Our losses were underestimated," laments Sheikh. He worries over whether any relief will be forthcoming this year.
The residents allege that both the state and the Central governments are apathetic towards the people living around the ammunition depot. Fed up with the constant threat from the depot, particularly after the fire, the inhabitants of these villages are ready to relocate, provided the government makes adequate arrangements to help them.
The residents have communicated it to the defence ministry as well as the state government, but to no avail. "The defence ministry acquired our land forcibly. They should vacate it. However, if they are not ready to do that then we are ready to give up, shift us somewhere else. Save us and our children from getting crippled," requests Nazir Ahmad Bhat of Khundroo.
The forest area around the ammunition depot is already mined heavily with anti-personnel mines. Often, livestock have fallen prey to such weapons, and many people too have been injured if they have strayed inadvertently into the mined areas. Residents have learned to live with the mined areas. But unless these villages are completely cleared of the live ammunition scattered across them following last year's deadly fire, innocent people will continue to live in the shadow of death.
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 17, Dated May 3, 2008
Von: 28.4.2008, www.tehelka.com, by Peerzada Arshad Hamid