Srinagar, Oct. 3: Shala Batu is no stranger to whizzing bullets but none of its folks has been caught in the crossfire this time.
No, it’s not a miracle. It’s just that they don’t live there any more.
All its residents had fled the village on the Line of Control, long before it returned under the spotlight as the theatre of fresh hostilities that have seen the army locked in a 10-day firefight to flush out “30 to 40 well-trained” men believed to have Pakistani special troops in their ranks.
Defence spokesperson Naresh Vij said there had been no progress in operations today. “There is status quo. It is like yesterday. The operation is on and intermittent firing is going on.”
It is such firings — intermittent or regular — that played a big role in the exodus from Shala Batu whose former inhabitants, along with thousands of others in Kupwara’s Keran sector, fled to the other side of the LoC, tired also of alleged excesses by security forces.
They now live in migrant camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, far from the standoff stage.
The migration turned Shala Batu, along with several other hamlets along the LoC, into virtual ghost villages. It is the houses of the former inhabitants that the infiltrators are believed to have taken over and from where they are keeping the security forces engaged.
“The militants have reportedly been firing from these houses or are hiding in the thick vegetation,” said Kafil ur Rahman, MLA of Karnah constituency of which Keran is a part. “There is no local population there and the army alone has access to the area.”
Nasir Khan, a former legislator from Keran, said some 6,000 residents — or more than half of Keran’s population — migrated to PoK around October 1990, when militancy in Kashmir was at its peak, and Keran, about 150km from Srinagar, had emerged as a prime infiltration route.
“All the people living in Shala Batu have migrated and nobody lives there. Most of them fled to PoK. The number of people from Keran who migrated to PoK has now swelled to 15,000,” Khan said.
Only a handful returned, he added. “Not more than 10, including a woman whose husband worked in the BSF…. I have no idea what kind of life they are living in the migrant camps there.”
Living along, or close to, the LoC was an unending nightmare for the residents as encounters between security forces and infiltrating rebels were common in the early years of the militancy.
Some residents of Keran, however, said the latest sneak-in was the biggest that the area — once notorious for infiltrations — has seen in years.
Army sources said additional reinforcements had been sent to the area but for the inhabitants, either in the migration camps or those living in their homes in Keran, their ordeal continues.
A resident of Keran said his village, along with several others, had been left on the other side of a fence the army had erected several years ago to check infiltration.
At places, the fence came up hundreds of metres to several kilometres from the zero line because Pakistani troops were opposed to it and would resort to indiscriminate firing at the men working on the project. “We have great difficulty in moving freely in the area,” said a resident.