The invisible enemy in the Kashmir conflict

India and Pakistan have planted thousands of landmines to protect against 'infiltrators.'

Since mid-December, Darbara Singh has been living his life in a vise. Just one kilometer away from his village is the Pakistani border, where Pakistani soldiers have been carrying out a near-constant firefight with Indian Army troops stationed nearby. And even closer to home are the fields where Mr. Singh's cattle used to graze.

The field is now planted with hundreds of landmines.

"We cannot stay in our houses, as the fear of guns is always looming over our heads," says the youth, complaining to visitors in his frontline village of Devigarh. "We cannot visit our fields, as landmines have been laid there. Where shall we go?"

For residents of border areas of India's Jammu and Kashmir state, tension between these two nascent nuclear powers is simply a way of life. Around the winter capital of Jammu, the thump of artillery and the crack of rifle fire are as common as the lowing of cattle.

But before Dec. 13, most rural Kashmiris and Jammuites didn't have to worry about what military experts call "the invisible enemy," or landmines.

It was on that date that Pakistan-based militants launched an attack on the Indian Parliament building in New Delhi, turning the decades-long tug of war over Kashmir into a near full-scale war. As India talked of pursuing militants into Pakistani territory and Pakistan said it was prepared to use its nuclear weapons to retaliate, both countries mobilized a total of 1 million troops to their border and laid landmines in farmers' fields. It's a situation that has put tens of thousands of rural residents, and the livestock that make up their source of wealth, at risk, forcing usually battle-hardened border residents to flee for their lives.

Just five years after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the use of landmines continues to be a divisive issue.

But India, which has signed a treaty to restrict but not ban the use of landmines, argues that the present situation gives it no choice but to use them.

Since the fall of the Taliban last autumn, hundreds of Taliban and Al Qaeda militants have been reported heading toward the portion of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan. The only way to keep these and other militants, which include Kashmir-oriented jihad groups, from infiltrating Indian Kashmir, is to set up minefields, officials argue.

"They've been forced to adopt this option," says Ashok Krishna, a retired Indian army major general and deputy director of the In- stitute for Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi. "If you look at the numbers of innocent people killed by terrorism in Kashmir state alone, in the past 15 years it's 50,000. So if India is forced to lay these mines to stop these chaps from coming in to kill innocent people, it is perfectly legitimate."

Since the bloody partition that gave birth to the modern states of India and Pakistan in 1947, the dispute over Kashmir has led to two wars and countless smaller conflicts. A few attempts at peace, most recently at a summit of Indian and Pakistani leaders last July, have come close to reaching an agreement, but at present both states only seem to agree on one thing: that Kashmir belongs to them alone.

A coalition of Kashmiri separatist parties, calling themselves the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, has argued for years that Kashmiris should be allowed the right of self-determination. Late last month, the Hurriyat called for setting up their own election commission to hold a poll to determine who are the "real representatives" of the state. India has recently appointed a new mediator to talk with the Hurriyat, but it continues to point to the ties that some of these separatist parties maintain with militant groups that infiltrate the Indian-Pakistani border.

For most of the past 13 years, when Kashmiri- and Pakistan-based Islamic militant groups have waged an insurgency against Indian control, the Indian and Pakistani Armies have abided by the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, says Malika Joseph, a defense analyst at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. This treaty forbids the use of indetectible plastic landmines and the planting of any landmines during peacetime, she says, but provides loopholes for times of war.

(There are hundreds of thousands of landmines here from previous conflicts. Some of these mines, planted on slopes, have drifted far from their original minefields, killing nearly 100 Indian civilians and maiming others.)

The Indian Army argues that landmines are an effective tool against infiltrators.

"This is to impose caution on the militants," says General Krishna.

Yet opponents of landmines say that they inevitably kill and maim ordinary citizens. "It pains me very much to see new landmines being laid," says Balakrishna Kurvey, the Indian coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, from the central Indian city of Nagpur. "This is an inhuman weapon that kills or maims innocent people long after war...."

In the border village of Chanduchack, a farmer named Babu Singh has already sent his family to stay with relatives in another village. "I do not know where these landmines have been planted in my own field," he says in a note of exasperation. "Due to these planted mines, we cannot go to our fields, and even our children cannot play."

• Freelance reporter Ajay Bachloo contributed to this report.

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