Shaheena Akhter, 29, vividly remembers the field rigged with thousands of landmines laid on 8 March 2002 in Karmara, the last mountainous village in Jammu’s Poonch district on the Line of Control (LoC). Divided by Concertina wires, some of the best pastures, maize fields and forest slopes were on one side and the village on the other. Elders and children collecting wood and cutting grass had to tread cautiously along the safe path. However, they often accidentally activated the mines, losing a leg or worse.
“I didn’t sense anything under my feet. When I lifted my right foot for the next step, there was a huge explosion,” recalls Akhter who collapsed after seeing her foot hanging by a tissue from her blood-spattered leg.
Later in the day, her leg was amputated below the knee at the district hospital, making her the first victim of landmines in Karmara. Soon, the army erected a signboard near Akhter’s maize field, warning villagers against venturing into the mined zone.
About 10 km from Poonch, Karmara is a predominantly Muslim village with cliffs, trees, rough terrain and green meadows. The only way to get around is walk.
Lal Hussain, 50, who lives 100 m away from the border fence, lost his legs in 2002 while weeding the area near an army post. According to Hussain, an unwritten quid pro quo with the army allowed the villagers to collect firewood and vegetables in the area provided they repair and clean troopers’ bunkers every morning.
“I stepped on a mine at 10 am. They (troops) sent us to de-weed the area knowing the mines were there,” he says. The blast tore his foot from the ankle. Like Akhter, Hussain too was taken to a civil hospital where doctors amputated his leg. Years later, the duo received the artificial Jaipur foot from the army.
So far, eight people in Karmara have lost their limbs to concealed lethal mines laid across the state’s border districts during Operation Parakaram in 2002 and earlier wars. The army was trying to keep Pakistani soldiers and militants at bay after the Parliament attack. Pakistan followed suit on its side.
However, over nine years after that war hysteria ended, the mines are still maiming or killing civilians. The socio-economic cost of the mined forests is heavy and ongoing while the victims have been abandoned and meagrely compensated
Abdul Majeed Wali, 38, of Dallan village in Poonch, who lives in a small mud-brick hut 4 km from the Pakistani posts and close to the LoC, had no idea what a landmine was until he stepped on one planted in his corn fields by the army.
“Since then I have not been able to work. My children are no longer in a private school because I can’t afford it. They are in a government school,” says Wali, who lost his left leg to a landmine on 11 August 2009 while he was grazing cattle on his land.
Wali, who struggles to walk with his 5-kg artificial Jaipur limb, says that his fields are still mined. He points to a bluecoloured mine that has tumbled down the slopes due to rain. Wali says it is a common occurrence in the area, making anyone a potential victim.
Soliders argue that demining is impossible because “no one knows the actual location of landmines” planted by the army units. “These mines have been planted by our previous units and I don’t think we have a complete record of the mined area,” a soldier of 21 Madras Regiment says on condition of anonymity.
Wali sought compensation from the government. A letter written by the local SSP to the deputy commissioner supported his claim saying, “Inquiries reveal the victim stepped on a landmine planted by army during 1991.” However, Wali receives just Rs 400 per month as disability allowance. “Is this what they call compensation? Can they feel how it is like to have your leg cut off?” asks Wali. “My family is ruined. I want the army or government to compensate me and demine my land.”
According to locals, the condition of those living in Degwaar Tervan, almost 4 km from Dallan, is even worse. The village is dotted with landmines. Permission to visit the village is rarely given and to ward off outsiders, a huge gate separates the area and only those who have special cards issued by the army can get in.
A charitable trust called Preetam Spiritual Foundation is the only place where victims are finding some assistance. The foundation in Poonch town has donated prosthetic feet to the victims. So far, more than 3,400 people have been given artificial limbs, of these 600 are landmine victims.
“The number of landmine victims is much bigger than what has been reported,” says foundation president Jagbir Singh Sudan. Poonch accounts for 62 percent of landmine victims in the state. The foundation has been relying mostly on help from Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti, a Jaipur-based organisation, which is interestingly funded by Dow Chemicals, in offering artificial limbs to the amputees.
Unexploded ordnances continue to inflict pain and suffering on not only thousands of civilians but also cattle and wild animals. In March 2009, the rising mercury triggered almost 250 mine blasts near the LoC that raged for days in an area under the control of 5 Assam Regiment.
Official statistics for mined areas or casualties don’t exist, while the army doesn’t disclose them citing “security reasons”. Around 16,000 acres in Jammu and 1.73 lakh acres in Kashmir were reportedly mined to prepare for a war that never took place. Although some areas were demined, a large portion remains rigged.
As of now, banning anti-personnel landmines is almost impossible. India and Pakistan aren’t signatories to the Mine Ban Treaty that prohibits use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines. Instead, they are among the 13 countries that manufacture mines.
The Geneva-based International Campaign to Ban Landmines got the United Jihad Council — an amalgam of 14 militant organisations fighting troops — to abandon using mines in October 2007. However, the then army spokesman Col AK Mathur dismissed the move as an “image-building attempt”, saying, “Militants don’t use antipersonnel mines but IEDs.”
Defence Ministry PRO SN Acharya agrees that civilians run the risk of stepping on landmines that get displaced due to natural phenomenon. “Due to earthquakes, rains and flash floods, mines do get shifted to civilian areas,” he says.
Most of the victims in Poonch district have accepted their fate and are quietly receiving Rs 300 as disability allowance from the Social Welfare department while their case files rot in the deputy commissioner’s offices. But things are different in Kupwara where a double amputee, Gulzar Ahmad Mir, 45, is attempting to make a difference to the lives of landmine victims in the state.
On 9 June 2002, Mir stepped on a mine in Warsun village while he was grazing cattle. When he regained his senses, he realised that both legs had been amputated in Srinagar’s Bone and Joint Hospital.
“Those days I wept a lot. I thought of my nine children, wife, old father and younger brother. I was the lone breadwinner in the family,” says Mir, who got Rs 75,000 as relief from the government but soon embarked on an epic legal battle against the defence ministry.
A month later, Muneer Ahmad Lone, 16, of the same village stepped on a mine at the same spot. However, the boy was not as lucky as Mir as he lost his life. Villagers say his uncle Yaseen Ahmad Lone refused blood money and wanted the army to punish its soldiers. According to villagers, Yaseen was picked up by some men in uniform. After 20 days, his body was found in a rivulet bearing torture marks on the torso and limbs.
The mines planted to deter militants in an area 100 km away from the LoC were not defused. Instead a warning sign in English and Hindi, languages alien to villagers, was erected by the army. No militant has so far fallen victim to the remaining landmine traps, but Hajra Begum, 48, of Marhama village lost her left leg in 2003.
Interestingly, the FIR lodged in Trehgam Police Station says militants were responsible for planting an IED, a claim families of Begum and Mir both rubbish.
“Begum was injured at the same spot where my brother Mir was injured. If the army and the court agree that the former had planted mines in the area, how come police conclude that militants were involved in Begum’s case,” asks Nazir Ahmad who actually saw her stepping on the mine.
Mir’s struggle bore results on 14 May 2010 when a Kupwara court directed the defence ministry to pay Rs 11.94 lakh with interest as compensation to the double amputee for “mining a forest stretch without proper warning to the villagers”.
“I’ll spend part of the money on my daughters’ marriage and the rest on carrying out a survey on landmine survivors living unnoticed in the Valley,” says Mir.
Mir recently formed the Jammu & Kashmir Landmine Survivors (JKLS) to seek relief for the families of Abdul Majeed Khan and Irshad Ahmad Khan of Bandipora who stepped on landmines in September 2005. “They had gone to collect firewood and died on the spot. Irshad’s family got compensation of Rs 1 lakh while Majeed’s family is yet to get any,” he says.
To help JKLS succeed, the Human Rights Lawyers Network (HRLN) is planning to file a writ petition seeking amendments in the existing government rule that provides relief of Rs 75,000 for permanent disability and Rs 25,000 for temporary one. “This compensation limit is unfair,” says Syed Faisal Qadri of HRLN’s Kashmir Chapter. “The amputees need Rs 10-15 lakh to buy proper and lasting artificial limbs. The government should at least offer them Rs 4-5 lakh but instead it is offering peanuts.”
The handicapped, regardless of the cause of disability, get Rs 400 every month from the Social Welfare Department, which All Jammu and Kashmir Handicapped Association (AJKHA) president Sajad Masoodi says “is too little to live on”.
A survey by the AJKHA in 2008 concluded that the state had 3.62 lakh handicapped persons of whom “nearly 50,000 were rendered limbless in the two decades of conflict”. “Until the government implements the J&K Persons with Disability Act, 1998, things won’t improve,” says Masoodi.
Social Welfare Department Director Hilal Ahmad Parray refused to comment on the compensation offered to landmine victims. “It’s the discretion of a concerned authority to fix the relief money. We don’t have anything to do with it,” he argues
Meanwhile, Mir, who is locally known as the “warrior on artificial limbs”, is excited about his work. Unlike most of the problems affecting conflict zones, the problem of landmines, he says, can be resolutely fixed. “Kashmir can be demined and victims properly compensated,” says Mir. “It’s a puzzle we can solve.”
(First published in Tehelka)