Walking past the pine trees on a muddy track snaking through the hills, 13-year-old Yasir Irafat gestured at the playground in Pukharni village where four years ago he saw his dreams shattered forever. Irafat was playing cricket with his friends in Pukharni, on the Indian side of the Line of Control — the de facto border separating India and Pakistan, which cuts through the Muslim-dominated Jammu and Kashmir state in northernmost India. Near the pitch, he found a strange object and started fiddling with it. When he hit it with a stone, the mine exploded, leaving the boy unconscious. He came to in a hospital in Jammu, his left arm already amputated. Irafat’s story is far from exceptional. It is estimated that more than 100 children have been maimed and mutilated by unexploded ordnance, mines and militancy-related violence that continues in the area. India and Pakistan maintain a disputed border and regularly fire across the Line of Control without warning. The hostility began soon after they split into two countries in 1947, when British rule ended in the sub-continent.
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In order to stop the infiltration of militants and secure the borders, armies from both sides have laid land mines. The mines frequently affect the innocent, maiming hundreds, including children. Military firefights, meanwhile, have killed at least 23 civilians this month alone, 16 in Pakistan and the rest in India, according to media reports. Mehran Khan, project coordinator at Handicap International, said land mines, improvised explosive devices and unexploded ordnance have caused at least 1,076 deaths in Jammu and Kashmir in the past 10 years. At least half the victims are children. Child victims, inadequate compensation
Errant shelling severely injured 15-year-old Mazhar Alam right arm. “There were continuous thuds being heard from all sides,” Alam recalled in an interview with ucanews.com. “All of a sudden, something struck my right arm and I fell on the ground.” Ashiq Hussain was 11 years old when he unwittingly detonated a land mine near a playground two years ago. The blast blew off both his hands and left him blind in one eye. “Every day is a difficult day for me now. I wanted to become an army officer but the blast blew up all my dreams,” Hussain said, sobbing. Though the government is meant to provide compensation and medical care, Ashiq’s family told ucanews.com that they have received no assistance. “Two years have passed since the blast took place but there was not even a single penny given by the government. We even borrowed some money from neighbors to buy medicines for Ashiq when he was injured," said Ashiq's uncle Gulam Nabi. Deepika Singh Rajawat, who heads a rights group for land-mine victims in Kashmir, said the government needs to do more for victims. “It is high time to have a special package for them with speedy disbursal of their compensation cases,” Rajawat said. At present, compensation is given by the Ministry of Defense, depending on the nature of a survivor’s disability. The government also gives a monthly scholarship of 750 rupees (US$12) to children orphaned or disabled by the conflict. But the money is far from sufficient, and often withheld — as in Ashiq’s case. According to Rajawat, the State Human Rights Commission has recommended compensation of up to US$4,200 for each victim. “Unfortunately, none of the victims have so far received adequate compensation. Concerned authorities are sleeping over such a sensitive issue,” she said. To address the shortfall, international and local NGOs have stepped in with their own projects. Save the Children, the U.K.-based child rights group, works on education programs for affected children and helps their families set up small businesses. But rights activists like Aijaz Ahmad say what is needed is more government involvement, including a long-term rehabilitation policy to help disabled children face the world. “There is no concrete state policy on how to rehabilitate these children. A perpetual effort is needed in this regard. Otherwise the meager amount being given as a scholarship is not going to help at all,” Aijaz said. Amid criticism, the state government insisted it is committed to assisting land-mine victims living in the conflict areas. Yasir Irafat, left, and Mazhar Alam, right, were injured because they live amid an ongoing conflict. (Photos by Umar Shah) The problem persists
Syed Altaf Bukhari, a senior minister in the state government, said they are constructing permanent bunkers in villages susceptible to repeated cross-border firings, and providing more ambulances in border districts. “As far as financial assistance to the victims is concerned, the government will provide all medical help for them free of cost besides ensuring that those affected by land-mine blasts could receive financial assistance on a monthly basis,” Bukhari told ucanews.com. But without a concerted effort to demine the border, such tragedies show little sign of abating. “What really needs to be done is demine agricultural land closer to border. We understand that the entire international border all of a sudden cannot be cleared,” said Imitiyaz Ahmad Sheikh, who researches the conflict at Kashmir University An unspecified number of land mines are buried periodically along the border and the military continues turning vast tracks of agricultural and grazing land into danger zones. This disrupts farming and restricts local people from accessing the area’s natural resources. Handicap International in a recent report released after surveying four districts, Baramulla, Kupwara, Rajouri and Poonch, said nearly half the population — 44 percent — have to go to contaminated areas to graze animals. The Ottawa Treaty, which bans land mines, was signed in 1997. There are 162 countries who have signed on, but India and Pakistan have refused. Col. Brijesh Pandey, army public relations officer, confirmed live land mines are in the area. “Mines have been laid since 1947. The Pakistan army has planted more mines than India on the other side of the border. The army can’t occupy the entire area along the border so they have to plant land mines to stop infiltration," he said. But Pandey defended the practice, insisting that: “these mines have been planted in areas where there is very minimal population”.