When home is a battlefield, even living in a cramped hall with 400 other people can seem like paradise.
Around 73 families and over 400 people are living at a temporary camp at the AJK University campus in Hattian Bala, according to an official.
People have been given mattresses, blankets and other necessities. Women sleep in classrooms on the first floor of the university and men on the ground floor. But the campus is small. There are just two small rooms for men and four bathrooms in total.
The university had to cancel classes to make room for them but now it wants them gone because the situation is “under-control”.
Locals say Indian forces fired eight or nine shells on Chakhoti, a small village along the Pak-India border, on February 27 and 28. A soldier said they returned fire and “blew up their check posts”. He said the Indian forces then “fled”.
We have to send the families back to their homes because we have to resume classes, a district official explained. But the people at the camp don’t want to go home.
Faizan, a 16-year-old from Chakhoti, gazes longingly at the houses near the camp. Chakhoti may just be around 10 kilometres away from Hattian Bala but they are worlds apart. Hattian Bala is a small mountainous district along the banks of the Jhelum River but most importantly, it is out of India’s firing range.
“We had nowhere else to go so we had to come here,” Faizan told SAMAA Digital. His exams started on Thursday but he doesn’t want to go home. He’s scared he might become a casualty of Pakistan and India’s skirmishes along the border. The Indian Army has been actively firing and shelling at Chakhoti.
“The firing and shelling have stopped but my family doesn’t want to go back either because we can’t trust the enemy,” he said. “What if they start firing again when we reach home?”
Some people have started preparing to return home but their children don’t want to go back yet. In Hattian Bala, they can play whenever and wherever they want – a luxury they don’t have back home.
“I want to play in our village but my mother doesn’t let me because she’s scared the enemy may start firing any time,” explained four-year-old Nayab.
As people pack up their meagre belongings and load them onto coasters, they heave sighs of dread. Children slip the straps of their backpacks on their shoulders and parents heave sacks on their backs but everyone keeps glancing back at their temporary safe haven. Who knows what’s waiting for them back home?
Mohammad Hussain is one of the many people who returned home Tuesday evening. He didn’t want to go but had to because his children have exams. “It was difficult to leave the village,” he said. “We didn’t have a vehicle so we had to wait for six hours to leave.”
He said an Indian shell hit a house in the village. “The house collapsed and nobody knows if the people who lived there – three kids and their widow mother – are alive.”
Muhammad Usman Sarim, Hattian Bala’s assistant commissioner, assured the families that they will have a place to stay if Indian forces start firing again.
Another district official, requesting anonymity, said that the authorities are encouraging people to return home but they can’t force them to leave. “The remaining families will be shifted to two classrooms and we will start classes from Friday,” the official said.
People have asked the government to construct bunkers in Chakhoti. Azad Jammu and Kashmir Prime Minister Farooq Haider Khan had promised that they would be constructed before June but it’s March now and little progress has been made. “The government had made similar promises in the past but never fulfilled them,” said Aftab, a resident of Chakhoti. “The government should establish a permanent camp for people until bunkers are constructed.”
He said that some of his family members were injured in shelling in 2003. “We had returned to our village after things became normal in 2003 but peace didn’t last long,” he recalled. “The enemy fired at our village again and two of my relatives were killed.”