Home Baltistan Division Kargil: The forgotten victims of the world’s highest war

Kargil: The forgotten victims of the world’s highest war

18 min read

Almost 20 years on, thousands of displaced families from kargil are struggling in slums around Pakistan, waiting for government promises to materialise


The fighting left hundreds of casualties on both sides of the Line of Control that divides Kashmir.Photo: Getty Images


The war began soon after Zainab Bibi was married in the spring of 1999. “We were at home and it was night time, around 8pm. We saw shells exploding on the mountaintops, so we rushed to the cave bunkers.”

Zainab’s village, Ganokh, found itself in the firing line between India and Pakistan, high in the Himalayas. It’s on the Pakistani side of a ceasefire line dividing Kashmir, which both countries claim.

Twenty years ago, a tactical operation ordered secretly by Pakistan’s generals to occupy heights in Kargil on the Indian side flared into a war they hadn’t expected. It led to defeat and embarrassment, and triggered events that culminated in the country’s third military coup in 50 years.

Zainab Bibi (left) was forced to flee the fighting as a teenager. Getty Images

Thousands of civilians from Zainab’s village and others nearby lost their homes and livelihoods in the conflict. Similar numbers were displaced on the Indian side, but they were able to return after the war.

On the Pakistani side, however, official promises of help in the aftermath of the war never materialised, and many continue to struggle in refugee slums around the country.

Zainab says after the first night, the shelling intensified for several days. Soon people she knew were dying.

A shell landed where her grandfather was watering his barley crop above the village, killing him on the spot. Another shell hit a rooftop in the village below, killing two teenage boys sitting in the sun.

As fear spread, army personnel stationed in the area asked the villagers to leave.

Many locals ended up in Skardu, where they are still living in refugee settlements

“They didn’t say where, or how. We were on our own,” Zainab, who is now 33, tells the BBC in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, where she ended up living. “We picked up some quilts and utensils, and squeezed into a truck crammed with our neighbours. We left our yaks, cows and goats to the care of God.”

They headed for Skardu, some 150km (90 miles) north. They lived there for two months, in a shack offered by a local, until Pakistan announced a ceasefire and ordered its troops to withdraw from the peaks they had occupied on the Indian side.

Kashmir, Kargil conflict.

“When the war ended, many people were in two minds about what to do. One of our neighbours who visited our village said most houses were damaged, orchards destroyed and much of the livestock either killed or lost,” Zainab recalls.

“So my husband decided that we should head to Islamabad where a friend told him he could find work.”

Ghulam Mohammad, who’s from the same valley as Zainab, made a similar decision to flee. He was in his late teens when hostilities broke out and he had to leave his apricot trees and livestock behind in his village, Hargosel.

His parents had already died and he had no siblings so he and other relatives left the village and ended up in Skardu, which had become “crammed with people fleeing the war”, he recalls.

“Some people had put up tents in the desert outside the town. Others didn’t even have that. It was a sad sight.”

Young and lonely, he left the area and went to work in Karachi, a city at the other end of the country.

Zainab Bibi and Ghulam Mohammad come from Kharmang, a valley in the Gilgit-Baltistan region, which shares a border with Kargil on the Indian side.

Once connected to the Buddhist Ladakh region of what is now Indian-administered Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan fell on the Pakistani side during the partition of British India in 1947.

However, the area was treated as part of disputed Kashmir under a United Nations resolution passed in 1948.

Pakistan’s powerful military tried on at least two occasions – 1947 and 1965 – to send its forces into Kashmir to start a rebellion against Indian rule. On both occasions it publicly denied its direct involvement, saying indigenous Kashmiri rebels were fighting Indian forces.

Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes on the Indian side too.–Photo: Getty Images

Thousands of regulars of the paramilitary Northern Light Infantry, drawn exclusively from Gilgit-Baltistan and skilled in high-altitude warfare, were sent in over the winter to occupy military posts the Indians used to vacate in the months of snow.

They established positions on heights ranging from 16,000 to 18,000 feet above sea level. These commanded a view of the Srinagar-Leh highway, a major supply route to troops stationed at Siachen glacier, the world’s highest battlefield, which the Indians occupied in 1984.

When the Indians detected the incursion in early May 1999, Pakistan said they were Kashmiri militants fighting Indian rule.

Observers say the Pakistani aim was to cut Indian supplies to Siachen, inflict heavy losses on Indian troops and pressure them into negotiating a settlement of the Kashmir dispute on Pakistani terms.

They say that given Pakistan’s nuclear test less than a year earlier, its generals were hoping the Indian response would be muted due to the threat of a nuclear war.

But the Indians hit back hard, sending infantry backed by artillery and air support, thereby turning it into the first full-blooded military conflict between the two countries since the 1971 war that saw the birth of Bangladesh.

Ghulam Mohammad (left) and Fida Hussain (centre) fled the village of Hargosel. Photo: Getty Images

By mid-June, the Pakistani positions on the hills began to fall, and there were international calls for Pakistan to withdraw.

There is evidence to suggest the Pakistani military leadership had hidden details of the Kargil operation from the government of then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. On 4 July he was forced to announce a unilateral ceasefire. His government was toppled in a military coup two months later.

India had fully retaken retaken the Kargil heights by 26 July. It lost more than 500 men in the war, while estimates for Pakistani losses range from 400 to about 4,000.

As for those made homeless by the conflict, thousands remain displaced in Pakistan to this day, still waiting for help.

About 20,000 people from the Kharmang valley had to leave their villages. Twenty years on this displaced population has doubled – and 70% have not returned.

“This is mainly due to the absence of any government-led rehabilitation programme, or because their lands have been taken over by the army,” says Wazir Farman, a Skardu-based lawyer and member of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

Three villages closest to the frontline – Gangani, Brolmo and Badigam Bresel – were completely destroyed during the fighting.

Bu-Ali Rizwani, an elder from Brolmo who lives in a refugee colony in Skardu, says the villages remain a no-go area for locals because the military has set up barracks and bunkers in them.

Protests by the villagers in Skardu in 2003 and 2004 forced the district administration to set up a team including military officials to carry out a survey of their losses. In 2010, a compensation package of 110m rupees (about $680k; £550k) was worked out for the three villages, but the money has not been paid.

“We held meetings with the army force commander in Skardu, with the chief minister in Gilgit, we travelled to Islamabad to discuss the issue with officials of the ministries of defence and Kashmir affairs,” Mr Rizwani says.

“The army told us the government would pay. The Kashmir ministry said the Gilgit-Baltistan government would pay. It said the army would pay. We chased the matter until 2012, and then we gave up.”

Much of the Kargil area is snowbound for half of the year. Photo: Getty Images

In Gulatari region, the military has been delaying payment of a much smaller amount of about 1.9m rupees to residents whose land it acquired to build a jeep track to its forward posts in 1999. The delay has come despite a 2010 court ruling in favour of the landowners.

When contacted, a senior official in the Gilgit-Baltistan government said it was a matter for the military to answer.

The BBC contacted the Pakistani military, which said it would check the details of the cases. It did not provide a response in time for publication. It also provided no comment on the claim that the military’s covert operation in Kargil was hidden from the civilian government.

It’s no surprise to find that locals whose lives were changed forever by the Kargil war feel they have been abandoned.

About half a dozen families returned to Hargosel, but Ghulam Mohammad’s is not among them.

haven’t returned, there won’t be farmhands available to make it cultivable.”

Besides, the land above Hargosel is strewn with landmines and unexploded bombs, so animal grazing is a risky business. “Two boys were injured last year when they stepped on a bomb,” Ghulam Mohammad says.

He moved back to Skardu, where he got married in 2004. The BBC spoke to him in Rawalpindi, where he is receiving medical treatment.

Zainab Bibi has other reasons for not going back to her village, though her parents and some of her in-laws have returned.

Over the years she and her husband worked and saved enough money to buy a small hut of their own in an Islamabad slum. Their four children are at school in the capital.

“We have lived a hard life, but everything happened for the best, and I thank God for that,” she says.

And she doesn’t want to go back.

“As a child in my village, I grazed goats and tended our barley crops. I sometimes miss Ganokh, but my children belong in Islamabad, and this is where we’re staying.”

Tis feature was originally published on BBC World pages 

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