Kashmir truce gives shell-shocked residents uneasy peace

Poonch, Pakistan: The guns have been silenced, schools have reopened, and the bunkers have been decommissioned along Pakistan's tense ceasefire line with India, but people in Kashmir fear that fighting will reoccur again.

For months, conflict-weary Kashmiris along the so-called Line of Control (LoC) – the border that separates the disputed area between Pakistan and India – have welcomed a precarious peace.

The surprise ceasefire declared in late February brought an end to years of bloodshed along the border, which saw thousands of skirmishes between the two sides, which used cannons, mortars, and small arms.

"Life before the ceasefire was very miserable," Kashif Hussain, the deputy commissioner of Poonch district in Pakistani Kashmir, told reporters on a military-escorted visit to the area.

However, schooling has resumed, health services have reopened, and people can travel around again, he claims, resulting in "a very positive impact on the psychological life of the people."

The agreement effectively restored a previous truce signed by the two parties in 2003, which had been trampled by thousands of violations in recent years.

According to Pakistan's military, the original agreement mostly held until 2016, when tensions in Indian-administered Kashmir erupted, resulting in an increase in violence between the two sides.

As fighting raged along the LoC, relations between the rivals deteriorated, with India accusing Pakistan of sending infiltrators across the border and Islamabad accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government of inciting Hindu nationalist sentiment against Muslims.

After an attack by a Pakistan-based militant group within Indian Kashmir in 2019, the two sides came dangerously close to another all-out battle.

'Can't put my faith in the enemy' 

Even after pulling back from the brink, fighting along the LoC intensified, reaching a climax last year with thousands of clashes recorded.

However, the damage caused by the coronavirus, as well as slowing economies in both countries, as well as a geopolitical tug of war, seem to have persuaded India and Pakistan to pause for the time being.

"Both countries have an interest in cooling tensions right now," said Myra MacDonald, the author of multiple books on the conflict.

"Because of Covid, but also because India faces problems on its contested border with China, and Pakistan must deal with both its own economic problems and the fallout from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan."

The ceasefire appears to be holding, with Pakistan's military telling AFP that there have been "no major" ceasefire violations since the agreement was signed.

After years of conflict, the end of fighting has restored a sense of normalcy for civilians living along the ceasefire line.

"Schools were closed. Kids who used to go to mosques also got confined to their houses," said Tooba Imitiaz, who fled her home two years ago but recently resettled in Poonch.

"There were a lot of psychological problems. Our children would start shouting 'mortar, mortar' when they even hear a small thud."

According to the Pakistani military, approximately 1.5 million people live along the ceasefire line under their jurisdiction, where they have long relied on a network of collective bunkers and homemade shelters to weather the years of unrest.

The ridges and valleys bisected by the LoC continue to be home to tens of thousands of troops armed with heavy guns, with some outposts between rivals just a few hundred meters (yards) away.

Despite the fact that fighting has ceased, residents said they are still wary of the agreement, and that fighting could erupt at any time.

"We think it is temporary," said Sameer Begum, 60, who has lived most of her life in the shadow of the LoC.

"We can't trust the enemy. We can't trust them, they can start it any time."

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