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    Mountains of misery

    Mountains of Misery
    The war in Kargil is long over, but villagers are still struggling to rebuild their lives. No one is helping
    By MEENAKSHI GANGULY Matayan

    Marcus Oleniuk for TIME
    A Kargil resident languishes in a refugee camp. Villages destroyed during this summer's border skirmish between India and Pakistan remain largely uninhabitable.


    Visitors say the mountain desert looks like the surface of the moon, with towering barren slopes that are desolate, cold and hauntingly beautiful. It is hard to imagine that people can actually live in such terrain, but they do. Matayan, a Himalayan village in Kashmir's Kargil district, must be one of the coldest inhabited places in the world. It was snowing there last week, and the mountain passes will close soon, cutting off the 62 families of this village from the rest of India for four to six months. Usually, the villagers stock food and firewood to last them through the winter. This year, however, they have nothing.

    Matayan is one of the villages that was caught up in India's border skirmish with Pakistan earlier this year. Pakistani soldiers had occupied peaks on Indian territory, including one that overlooks the village. When the outsiders started shooting down at Matayan, the army asked the villagers to leave. "We were sure that all of us would be killed," says Wahab Butt, the village headman. The entire population of 450 trekked for two days to safety and remained in refugee camps for three months until the war in Kargil ended and Pakistan pulled back its troops.

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    When Matayan's inhabitants returned, they found their village destroyed. The shelling had left holes in roofs, walls had caved in, belongings had been looted. Worse still, with winter setting in, there was no food or fuel to keep them alive. Indian soldiers who had fought off the intrusion were being celebrated all over the country for their courage and valor. But it is the people who were left to clear up the debris of battle. "Everything that we had collected over a lifetime is gone," wailed Thatami Butt, a 65-year-old widow in Matayan. "But no one cares about us."

    Nearly 30,000 residents of the Kargil area are in a similarly unhappy condition. The government made a one-time distribution of basic rations and $50 to each family, but villagers say that it is inadequate. Aid agencies rushed in with relief supplies, but distribution was a problem. Blankets and woolen clothes were handed out to villages near the road; less accessible settlements got nothing. Says Ghulam Mohammad, a toothless shepherd from one such village: "Soon the passes will close and we will be shut in a net. If the government does not reach us before that, they can come and clear our bodies once the snow melts."

    A delegation of Kargil villagers went to New Delhi recently to see Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. They were promised more assistance, but it may come too late. Several villages are already snowbound. Even if emergency rations can be provided, life in these remote areas has changed forever. Instead of smooth fields, there are now trenches. The apricot orchards have been destroyed. Soil and water are contaminated with cordite.

    The army remains a frustrating presence. India does not intend to risk leaving these peaks unprotected again. So military camps have been built in the villages, and people are being forced to live under a new--and often unpleasant--regime. Mohammad Iqbal, a young man from Bimbat village, says that a camp has been set up between his 120-household settlement and the stream that is the only local source of drinking water. "The soldiers don't let us go through the camp, saying we need this permission or that," he says. "First they occupy our land, and then they refuse to let us walk on our own land."

    Officials admit that there is an increasing threat of conflict between the resentful mountain folk and a besieged army trying to cope in a hostile terrain. "The army has to understand that these people have been badly affected both physically and psychologically," says Feroze Kacho of the Kargil Development Program, a voluntary organization working on rehabilitation. "Now that we know the army is here to stay, we have to figure out a way to live together." Admits a senior government officer: "No one talks about the contribution of these people. They acted as porters and guides, and winning the war would have been impossible without them. The army has to change the way they deal with them."

    Mohammad Abdul of Batalik, a border village that suffered relentless shelling during the conflict, says he and his neighbors are angry. "The army takes an interest in us only when it comes to fighting the war for them," he complains. "Forget giving us compensation. No one has even come to see our condition." The children in the village, he reports, still jump if there is a loud noise. Says Mohammad Asar, an apricot farmer: "These children had to spend weeks stuck inside makeshift bunkers, often going without food and water for many hours. How can we make them forget that horror?"

    The men in Batalik had volunteered as porters and guides for the Indian army. With the enemy shelling them from above, the soldiers had to sneak up using ridges and cattle tracks known only to the locals. Some of the guides were killed in the cross-fire. Indian authorities have already seen in Kashmir how difficult it is to curb a foreign-backed rebellion without popular support on the ground. Unless something is done for the people of Kargil, there will soon be more anger brewing in the mountains.

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