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Kashmiri dreams of a mine-free land

By Suvojit Bagchi
BBC News, Terwa Daeger, Indian-administered Kashmir

Rashida Bi showing mined areas opposite her house
Even a walk into the garden can be hazardous for Rashida Bi

Rashida Bi, mother of three, prays to keep her "legs in place" during Eid.

She is not the only one praying in Terwa Daeger, a hilly village on the Line of Control (LoC) that separates Indian and Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

The setting of this predominantly Muslim village, locked from all sides by steep mountains, unsoiled rivulets and lush green meadows, is idyllic.

But here, one's legs are considered to be prized possessions. Terwa Daeger is one of the many villages on the LoC peppered with anti-personnel landmines.

Rashida showed me an aluminium wire that leads to a landmine, planted three feet below the ground, right next to her mud and stone-walled house.

Worse, Rashida's two-room house is at the corner of a field overseeing a Pakistani outpost.

"We call the outpost Chuha (Mouse) 1," an Indian soldier told me, "and you are in its firing range."

Rashida considers herself fortunate. None of her family members have lost their legs to landmines.

"Rather I have nightmares something will happen to my kids," she said.

Villagers who lost legs in Terwa Daeger
Many suffer from mines that are moved by snowfall

Twenty-one-year old Mohammad Shabir is not as fortunate.

He lost his left leg in May to a mine while ploughing his land. He stepped in a pool of water which was "mine-free" just a day before.

"It was like a heavy vehicle hitting me below the knee. I went unconscious," he said.

Almost all of the 50-odd families of Terwa Daeger have one or more members who have lost a leg to landmines.

Sixty-seven-year-old Mohammad Ben, from a nearby village, was chasing his cow when he stepped on a mine.

"I tried to stop her as she was approaching a mine and stepped on one instead," Mr Ben said.

A year after his limb was replaced, his 27-year-old son, Mohammad Hanif, also stepped on a mine.

"I told him not to go to the forest at night to relieve himself, he did and suffered," Mr Ben said, looking apologetic.

'Snow bombs'

An officer in charge of mining operations in the army told the BBC it does not know how many mines are planted in any specific area of Kashmir.

"When a new brigade takes over, it is not possible to make a physical inventory of each and every mine," he said.

Mohammad Ben and his leg
India has not signed the international mine ban treaty

However, other sources in the Indian army insist that this increase is not because more mines are planted but because mines do not get "anchored properly" and are moved from one place to another.

The Indian army's spokesman in Indian-administered Kashmir, Col AK Mathur, agrees that civilian areas run the risk of having a "few mines".

"Civilian areas are not mined, but during snowfall, one or two mines may just slide down from the mountain, but not in alarming proportions," he said.

Mohammad Farid, a local poet, calls these moving mines "snow bombs" because of this tendency to shift positions after snowfall.

As Farid recited Urdu couplets on landmines from his unpublished anthology, From a Legless Land, the villagers applauded the grim humour within his poems.

"Fewer legs you have, more compensation you get. That gives you a more younger bride."

But Zarina Bi's case is different. She does not have enough money to replace her cracked wooden leg.

"Termites have started eating this one," she said.

Compensation

Experts say that there is inadequate information about landmines throughout the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, especially in faraway villages.

The Line of Control
No-one knows how many mines there are in the area around the LoC

"Even the civil administration is not allowed to go to these villages, so how can you... get information related to landmines?" one non-governmental organisation (NGO) official working with landmines asked the BBC.

When asked about this issue, Habibullah Butt, acting chief of the Jammu and Kashmir Human Rights Commission, a government body, said that he was "not fully aware" about the scale of the problem and that he would now "act" on it.

The BBC also spoke to Abdul Gani Vakil, the Social Welfare Minister in Jammu and Kashmir, who said that adequate compensation was given to the victims, but refused to divulge details of exactly how much was paid.

Currently, 156 countries are signatories to the Ottawa Convention (1997), an international mine ban treaty, which proposes a complete ban on landmines by March 2009.

India, Pakistan, China and the US have not signed the treaty.

Moratorium

India, with other non-signatories, did not give any time-bound pledge to ban landmines in the recently concluded International Convention to Ban Landmines held at Geneva from 24-28 November.

India's Permanent Mission in Geneva to the Conference on Disarmament, Prabhat Kumar, reiterated India's position not to produce "non-detectable mines".

Crutches for sale in Indian-administered Kashmir
Almost all the 50-odd families of Terwa Daeger have suffered

In his statement, Mr Kumar emphasised various other measures to reduce the damage, including dissemination of information about mines, clearing of mines by the army after operations and marking mined areas.

India observes a formal moratorium on the export of landmines.

Satnamjit Singh, the diplomatic adviser of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), the Geneva-based international body and a former Indian diplomat, feels that India should have been more "proactive" in banning landmines.

"Smaller countries with hostile neighbours can be signatories, why can't India do that?" he asked.

Mr Singh, told the BBC that he felt India would not be able to "implement a complete ban" on landmines in the near future.

However, he also said that India had played a "positive" role in reducing the number of mine fields along LoC, even though "there is scope for more".

"The fencing of some of the minefields has eroded away due to natural causes and the government should take care of those," he said.

However, a retired officer in the Indian army who served in Kashmir, JP Singh, told the BBC that borders cannot be "fully sanitised".

"More mines means fewer soldiers. Mines reduce the cost of installing brigades at the border," he said.

It seems that as long as the India-Pakistan relationship is in rough weather, mines will remain where they are.

This might be why village poet Mohammad Farid wrote: "Let me come back in a mine-free land in my next life."

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