India and Pakistan aborted rare talks under a cloud of recriminations, while on the front line, villagers cowering from artillery fire in mud huts lose hope of ever seeing lasting peace.
Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz called off a trip to New Delhi for a planned “ice-breaking” meeting last Sunday with his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval at the last minute amid a row over the agenda for the talks.
Shelling across the de facto border, known as the Line of Control (LoC) in disputed Kashmir, has been on the rise this month, with several civilians killed.
The Himalayan region has been divided between India and Pakistan, but claimed in full by both.
Nahra, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, just 400 metres from Indian army positions, is the worst affected village, where locals say they were hit by shells every day last week.
Villager Muhammad Nazar, 53, said “I had put my children to bed, as they were afraid to sleep when firing started and the walls of my house crashed,” he said.
“I wrapped my arms around the children as we hid behind what was left of the walls. It ended early morning and I took my family to a neighbour’s house where we live now – I have nowhere else to go.”
Nahra lies in Nakyal sector, a collection of half a dozen small villages strung out across a lush green valley typical of Kashmir, a region famed for its beauty but blighted by decades of conflict.
Unfortunately for the locals in Nakyal, the Indian and Pakistani troops occupy the heights on either side of the valley, leaving the civilian population stuck in the middle – and badly exposed.
Locals said around 100 families had fled villages to take cover in wooded areas on nearby hillsides.
Crops were destroyed, schools forced to close for weeks and shops open only long enough for people to buy essentials.
Javed Budhanvi, a member of the Pakistani Kashmir parliament from Nakyal, said at least 15,000 people in around 10 villages were affected by recent Indian firing.
“Children are terrified, they can’t go to school, they can’t step out of their homes to play and even in their homes they are not able to sleep because of the fear of Indian firing,” he said.
India insists it is simply returning fire that Pakistan has started.
“Pakistani soldiers have been firing mortars and guns without any provocation,” a defence source in Indian-administered Kashmir said. “Our people in border villages have been suffering as well.”
Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said Pakistan was responsible for “91 ceasefire violations” since the two countries’ prime ministers met at a regional summit in Russia last month.
That meeting, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agreement to attend another regional summit in Pakistan next year, raised hopes of a breakthrough after months of high tensions.
Little of substance was expected but the very fact that Aziz and Doval were to meet at all was seen as progress.
But the plan faltered at familiar obstacles: Aziz’s intention to meet Kashmiri leaders in New Delhi – an issue that scuppered foreign secretary-level talks last year – and India’s insistence the agenda should focus on terrorism.
Pakistan’s failure to hand over or prosecute the alleged masterminds of the 2008 Mumbai attacks has infuriated India, particularly when the suspected ringleader, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, was freed on bail.
Islamabad, for its part, insists talks must be wide-ranging and include thorny issues like Kashmir.
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