The habits of wartime have crept back into life here along the border between India and Pakistan.
In the mornings, villagers stitch up shrapnel wounds on the hides of their water buffalo and climb to the rooftops to examine gouges left by exploding shells. Desperate for a night's sleep, some have descended into concrete-reinforced bunkers that were nearly forgotten after 2003, when the two countries agreed to a ceasefire.
It is not clear what has caused the rise in nightly artillery firing across the border, which intensified in mid-August and, according to officials, has killed two Indian civilians and four Pakistani civilians, and injured dozens more. On Wednesday, there was hope that a de-escalation had begun. Two rare nights had passed without gunfire, and junior commanders from both countries met in a first step toward bringing down tensions.
Each side blames the other for shooting first: Indian officials say Pakistani rangers are launching the attacks to provide cover for militants hoping to cross into India. Pakistani officials say the Indians are firing without provocation, perhaps to retaliate for Pakistani successes against Afghan-based militants who, they claim, are supported by India.The crisis comes at a moment of shifting policy in each of the nuclear-armed neighbors. India's new prime minister, Narendra Modi, this month abruptly canceled talks with Pakistan to protest its contact with separatists in Jammu & Kashmir, and his national security adviser is a counter-terrorism specialist well known for his hawkish stance. The United States' pullout from Afghanistan looms in the months ahead, a shift that some Indian analysts fear will swing militants' focus toward India.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has squabbled with Pakistani military leaders over policy toward India. Sharif wants to build business ties between the two countries to stimulate Pakistan's ailing economy. But the generals, who have a long history of wrecking civilian-led peace initiatives, have resisted - a possible factor, analysts say, in the increased shelling.
Stephen P Cohen, who last year published a book on the India-Pakistan conflict, said that border exchanges like this one have repeatedly led the two countries to the brink of conflict and that it is all but impossible to trace their origins.
"On one or the other side, a local commander gets a little nervous and starts firing at what he thinks is someone crossing over," he said. "Or, secondly, a local commander could be ambitious. Or, thirdly, you could have a deliberate policy choice by the government on either side."This section of the 1,800-mile border between India and Pakistan runs through rich farmland, close enough for workers to look up at the enemy watchtowers from their rice paddies. Civilians here are becoming accustomed to small-arms fire, but in recent weeks villages have seen nighttime attacks with long-range 81 mm mortars, some of them striking in the heart of residential areas.
The chief of India's Border Security Force, D K Pathak, who made an impromptu visit to the Jammu region on Tuesday, said the exchanges began with Pakistani sniper fire in mid-July, making it the most intense and prolonged stretch since two countries went to war in 1971. This year, he said, "we have been told very clearly to respond appropriately."
"Our response," he said, "will not be less, it will be equal or more. But not less."
Asked what had set off the crisis, he said that he believed militants were gathering on the Pakistani side, waiting for the chance to cross into India.
In Pakistan, Brig Mateen Ahmad Khan, the commander of Chenab Rangers, dismissed that claim, saying the flat, bare terrain in the area made it an unfavorable crossing-point for guerrilla fighters and noting that India has erected a double fence equipped with sound detectors and illuminated after dark."There is no jungle, no forest," he said. "Everyone is looking at everyone. Why haven't the Indians killed or captured anyone who is trying to infiltrate? No crosser has been killed. It is simply because there is nothing like that." He also disputed Pathak's claim that the episode began with Pakistani sniper fire.
"These are lame excuses," he said. "They lie with flat faces."
On Wednesday, two nights without firing had allowed some people to relax a little. At a border post on the Pakistani side, an officer of the Chenab Rangers peered through binoculars toward the Indian position half a mile away and spotted a shadow near the pinkish post. He sent out a subordinate to tell a Pakistani farmer to come in from his rice fields.
"He could come under fire," he said. "Tell him to have patience for a few days, until things normalize."
Settlements on both sides remained largely deserted, and those who remained behind were eager to show visitors the punctured ceilings and deeply gouged walls. In Jora Farm, a cattle-herding village about 20 miles south of the city of Jammu, a patch of soft mud covers the spot where Mohammad Akram Hussain and his son, Aslam, who was said to be 6, were killed by a mortar.
Before dawn on Saturday, firing on the village had become so heavy that Hussain, 30, and his family worried that their thatched roof would catch fire, so they crept outside and sat against a wall, thinking it was safer there. The children climbed into the adults' laps.
That is how Hussain and his son were sitting when a mortar round fell about 5 feet away, shearing off part of Hussain's face and slicing through his son's leg and arm, relatives said.At a funeral gathering this week, elders discussed how to evacuate the whole settlement, 800 people and 5,000 heads of cattle, a measure they have not taken since 1999, when the two armies faced off in a month-long conflict. Salamuddin, an elder who uses one name, said the attacks this month were of the same scale.
"For us, it is a war," he said. "What else worse will we see in a war? Two members of our family have been killed." - Times of india