In the beginning was a meadow. An open grassy expanse surrounded by snow-tipped hills. Brooks and springs ran down the valley and pooled into lakes. Scattered through the region were little settlements and villages whose inhabitants are mostly farmers and shepherds. Fruits, rice and maize were the main crops and the meadows had enough pasture for the cattle to graze. Winters were cold, roads were terrible, the ToasMaidan firing range region in Budgam district, Kashmir was always a bit remote but there was a time when there was always food on the plate and a good night's sleep in the comfort of one's home.
Then came the Indian Defense Forces. In 1965, they coerced the weak state regime into leasing over 200 acres, almost the entirety of the region, over to the military and the air force. Since then, every summer, for the past almost fifty years now, the army takes over the meadow and turns it into a firing range. Every night and every day from the 6 months between May to October, the valley shakes and deafens with gunfire and explosions. It may be a mock war for forces but the fear and danger faced by the people of the region is very real.
More than 60 lives have been lost and thousands more have been injured, some more grievously than the others - actual collateral in a counterfeit war. In the most recent incident, this past July, an army shell landed on a civilian house critically injuring a woman inside. Just a few days before, a misfired army bullet had wounded local youth. IndiaUnheard Community Correspondent Sajad Rasool who grew up not far from the region can tell you many stories of such sudden, everyday death and injury- people who lost their limbs by stepping on an unexploded shell, children killed when they came across live grenades lying around in the playgrounds, innocents struck by random bullets and houses plundered by an ill-aimed shells.
"Not only does the army leave the unexploded shells lying around like ticking time bombs for the unfortunate, very rarely does it agree to pay adequate compensation for those who have suffered a loss," says Sajad. "The Army doesn't like to clean up the table after it eats. But it is always quick to wash its hands."
The loss experienced by the region cannot only be measured only in explosions and bullets. In a region with a bitter winters, summers offer the only chance for farmers to grow their crops. But with the armed forces on rampage in the vicinity, people have lost their livelihoods. The region has seen little developments since the acquisition of land. Even basic emnities like electricity, road, water etc have not yet been delivered. There are no new jobs for the coming generation while the older ones are getting difficult to pursue in the shadow of violence and fear. There is a high rise in timber smuggling in these parts and Sajad puts them blame squarely on the firing range which has stolen legitimate opportunities and laid the region to waste.
It is not just the people but the land itself seems to have lost the will to live under the constant oppression. The verdant meadows lie barren. The springs have disappeared. The lake is shrinking. The farms yield less and less each year and the cattle have nowhere to graze.
"The Army has imposed its will and effectively destroyed the lives of around 14,000 people," says Sajad. "It is one of greatest and ongoing tragedies in this democracy."
In recent months, the struggle against the army has begun to intensify. The recent injury of the women injured by the shell brought out thousands of people onto the streets in protest. Sajad says that the people have already imagined a future scenario for their troubled meadow.
"Once the army leaves and suspended lives resume and the land is back to its old glory, I'm sure that ToasMaidan and its surrounding will be a popular tourist spot. It will kick start the stagnant economy as well and create new wealth and opportunities. Inspite of all the ugliness, the valley is still a most beautiful place."
Come 2014, the fifty year old lease between the government and defense forces will come to an end. The army will try to renegotiate an extension. But the people have already decided. The struggle has begun. They demand their lives, the meadow and the valley back. The people want a return to the paradise that once was.
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