Sombali is a mountainous, border village, some 30 km from Baramulla in Boniyar tehsil. The village lacks connectivity, save for a recently constructed road, and basic amenities. Rearing sheep is the primary occupation of the people while some work as potters for the Army. In 1994, according to the villagers, almost the entire village fled to the other side of the border in Pakistan and remained there until 1996 when they returned to Sombali. According to them, neither this side nor that side is meant for them. The side they fled to did not receive them with love, treated them as traitors and informers, asked them to work as potters without any remuneration, and even called them Mahajirs, they said.
When they had had enough there, they returned to their homes in Sombali, only to be allowed in after a compromise with the administration. They were promised that they would be provided the necessities they lacked. The promises remain unfulfilled to this day. Nearby is the village of Choutali. It has more than 50 families but also lacks basic amenities. The village has only a middle school which means children here, as well as in Sombali, have to travel 15 km to Trikanjan village to go to high school. For senior secondary education, they have to go to Boniyar further away.
The education sector is badly affected in these border villages as the teachers are brought from other villages. Haleema is the only teacher from the Choutali village, according to the locals, and the first matriculate from the village. She got injured in a landmine explosion when she was a child and after treatment at SKIMS Soura, she was taken home by one Dr Anjum who sent her to school. She became the first Rehbar-i-Taleem teacher of Choutali village when she returned home.
“Students here are facing many difficulties while in school, the teachers remain absent unwilling to work in these border villages for fear of shelling from the other side,” said Mohammad Rafeeq, a resident of Choutali village. “The students are talented here but because of the lack of educational facilities, they left their studies halfway and look for work somewhere or in the Army.”
The healthcare facilities are nearly absent in Choutali, Sombali and other nearby border villages. Doctors and paramedical staff are almost always absent and the medical infrastructure in these villages is non-existent. Many patients have lost their lives, especially pregnant women, because they could not reach the faraway hospitals on time. Fareeda, daughter of Jalaluddin and Naseema, daughter of Shareefuddin lost their lives midway from village Choutali in winter when they had to be taken on cot through snow-clad mountains. “The medical care facilities in this area are a blot on the healthcare system of Jammu Kashmir. I have never seen a doctor visiting our children, or us; some paramedical staff visits us for nothing. They only enquire about certain things and when we ask them for some medical facilities here, especially for our pregnant women, they tell us to visit the officers of the department,” said Jalaluddin, a resident of Choutali village. “The village being a border village is prone to mishaps and accidents. In case of an eventuality, the persons die midway for lack of emergency medical facilities.”
The rearing of sheep is the basic occupation of these border villages and men have to move up hill for the fodder for their sheep and have to store it for winters as well. The area is landmine prone and many accidents have happened in the past. Bali Sood, son of Satara Sood, lost his leg in a landmine blast when he was tending his sheep uphill and Muhammad Rafiq, son of Janda Chouhan also lost his arm in a landmine blast when he was cutting grass for his sheep. “We are caught between the devil and the deep sea being the residents of border villages of Jammu Kashmir. Time and again we have been directed by the Army not to move to sensitive areas of the border but the grazing lands are fast depleting downhill and we have to move more uphill for tending our sheep with a great risk involved,” said Muhammad Hussain. “We don’t have any other profession and we are totally dependent on our livestock for everything. Where shall we go from here? We are called Army sympathizers and even taunted with the worst words by other people. However, I know how it is impossible to live without the help of Army in these border villages.”
The connectivity to these border villages is shocking and many mishaps have taken place in the past. The children from Upper Maidanan village have to walk two kilometers to reach lower Maidanan for primary and middle education. A much-awaited bridge was started on the river in 2016 to connect these villages but the work was stopped midway due to lack of funds.
“Gulzar, son of Shakur-ud-Din, a 3rd primary class student lost his life while walking on the sideways to reach his school when he slipped and fell in the river and his body too was not fished out,” said Muhammad Rafiq of Maidanan village. “We are also losing our livestock, our only lifeline, for want of veterinary staff and infrastructure. They only visit us once or twice a year. Whenever some disease strikes our livestock, they die for want of veterinary care. We lose sheep to diseases like foot and mouth, blue tongue, and clostridial diseases.”
Muhammad Hafeez of Choutali village said in case of an emergency with the livestock, they have to ask the Army for help.
The border villages of Jammu Kashmir have not been taken care of by successive governments since 1947 and have been left at the mercy of the Army.
The government should take stock of the situation and address the problems faced by these people.