Refugee Crisis Worsening in Western Kashmir

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The refugees claim that Indian soldiers forced them out of their homes. While escaping to Pakistan across the LoC, as the border is known, they were in harm's way from land mines.

At first the refugees migrated only five miles from their villages, hoping they might soon return to their homes in India. But constant shelling near the LoC forced them to start new lives elsewhere. For Kashmiri Muslims, Pakistan appeared safer than Indian-held Kashmir

Last year they chose the mountains of Muzaffarabad, 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the LoC. There the Azad Kashmir government has provided land and minimal assistance.

In the camp, an old woman rushes up to a journalist with a videocamera and holds up her deformed fingers—from torture, she said—to be sure they are captured on film.

Disaster Conditions

Another refugee, a mother of three whose surname is Nujan, said, "The soldiers came into my house looking for militants. Afterward they took me outside and beat me with their guns."

"She was also raped by the soldiers," Ahmad said. "Many of the other female refugees were also raped."

About half the refugees are crippled or ill. Some are amputees on cheaply-constructed prosthetic legs. The amputees are the lucky ones—they didn't bleed to death after stepping on land mines.

Despite Azad Kashmir's status as part of Pakistan, its own people broadly control the region's administration. For a poor and unstable area in Pakistan, notorious for breeding militants, the government does manage to allocate basic necessities.

Foundations are going up for stone houses that will replace the tents in the new camp. Already a rusty pipe is snaking its way down the mountain from a stream bringing water to the refugees.

"The Azad Kashmir government is helping us," said a man named Dahoundhan, crying, holding his young son and looking at his crippled wife lying next to him. "But we need the U.N. to solve the Kashmir issue. We need the U.N. to help us get our land and homes back—because we are living in a disaster condition."

With the Kashmir conflict in its sixth decade of deadlock, the outlook for resolution is bleak.

Outside Dahoundhan's tent, refugees dig with shovels and struggle to carry rocks to build a foundation for the new camp.

Dahoundhan's wife watches them, then turns her head away and cries softly. For her as for many of the refugees, their plight seems overwhelming and hopeless.

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