Jammu: Tens of thousands of border villagers in Jammu and Kashmir have been forced out of their homes to take shelter in makeshift accommodations after shelling from across the border with Pakistan killed at least 19 people, including 11 civilians, in the past few weeks.
Some 25,000 villagers are estimated to have left their houses in Jammu, Samba, Kathua, Rajouri and Poonch districts close to the International Border (IB) and the Line of Control (LoC) -- the de facto border that divides Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
"Residents of 120 villages along the IB and 47 villages along the LoC have left for safer places," a divisional administration officer told IANS. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media.
However, Divisional Commissioner, Jammu, Pawan Kotwal described the migration of villagers as temporary and said they leave their homes during the day and return by night.
Kotwal, however, admitted that the civilian authorities have closed, as a precaution, nearly 300 schools in villages and towns along the IB till further orders after Pakistan started targeting civilian areas.
The mass exodus comes even as the government has not ordered evacuation despite the tension between the two countries that escalated after 19 Indian soldiers were killed on September 18 in an attack by militants on an Army base in Uri.
India in a retaliatory action launched surgical strikes across the LoC, destroying seven terror launch pads and killing an unknown number of terrorists and their sympathizers in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Since then the two sides have been regularly shelling each other and violating a 2003 ceasefire agreement to maintain peace at the 230 km border and 740 km of the LoC between them.
The raining mortar shells have turned life into a nightmare for these villagers. Many of them told IANS that the army and paramilitary forces have asked them to leave their homes for safety.
Jasbir Singh, 40, a medical assistant in a Ramgarh health centre, said he shifted along with his father, an ex-serviceman, to nearby Vijaypur area.
"It is suicidal to continue living in our village where fire rains from the sky," said Jasbir Singh, whose village lies close to the border in Samba district.
Satpal Singh Heer, 54, from Nanga village, runs a private school. He said the BSF has erected a watch tower in his village which has made his village "more vulnerable" to Pakistan shelling.
He said he had tried to return to the village. But BSF troopers in underground bunkers saved him as he had nearly walked to a place where intense shelling from Pakistan was going on. "I had to return to safety," he said.
The residents want peace so that they could return home and tend their cattle and reap their harvest-ready crop.
Gangu Ram, 56, from Raipur village of Kathua district said he has neither tended his agricultural fields nor his cattle in the past three days since he left home.
"If I don`t reap my crop that awaits harvesting within the next four-five days, I would lose my entire year`s labour.
"I don`t even know whether my cattle are alive. Peace must return to our village soon or else our lives are finished," Ram said.
Authorities, religious, social and voluntary organisations have made arrangements for these border residents in community halls, temples, gurdwaras, schools, stadia and other government buildings.