Ever since the abrogation of Article 370 by the Indian government, cross-border shelling between Pakistan and India has intensified along the Line of Control in Kashmir, sending more families rushing to community bunkers when the alarm sirens ring, particularly on the Pakistani side.
But some girls and young women are being left behind by their families — choosing to risk the falling shells rather than face the sexual assault in the cramped bunkers.
One of those staying home is Mehnaz, a 25-year-old, who says she will not be going back to a bunker unless things change.
When mortars started slamming into her village in the Neelum Valley on the Pakistani-held side in August, Mehnaz and her family fled to a musty bunker owned by her neighbor, she said. Dozens of people were crammed in for hours until the shelling subsided.
“One of the men began touching me,” said Mehnaz. “It was dark and all the parents were concerned about the shelling. No one was paying attention.”
She spent hours trying to swat away the man’s groping hands and failing all too often. When the firing stopped and her family returned home, Mehnaz told her mother what had happened.
“She said she could not do anything,” Mehnaz said. The man who molested her owned the bunker. Mehnaz’s mother worried that he would cut the family off from the safety of that bunker if they complained.
“I now stay inside our house with my sister and sister-in-law,” she said.
In the absence of government support, affluent families from villages and towns across Pakistani-controlled Kashmir build their own bunkers. Poor families like Mehnaz’s have to rely on their neighbors for shelter, making them easy prey for sexual predators who own shelters.
In Pakistan, sexual violence often goes unreported as victims risk being cast out by their parents, are forced to marry their rapists or are killed over the perceived injury to their families’ honor.
A Kashmiri researcher and scholar, Amina Mir said, “Sexual harassment in bunkers is a critical issue facing women in the border regions, but the local community is in denial and do not want to acknowledge this gender-based violence.”
“There is no institutional support available for women to seek help in these situations,” she added.
Divided between India and Pakistan, Kashmir has seen some of the worst cross-border shelling since August, when the Indian government stripped the autonomy from the portion of Kashmir it controls.
Since January this year, 45 attacks on the Pakistani side of Kashmir have resulted in nine deaths and 60 injuries, according to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies.
It is only recently that Pakistan has started acting to make more bunkers available to civilians on the Pakistan-held side of Kashmir, known as Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
According to local media reports, the Pakistani military provided the first funding for bunkers last summer and have built at least 70 so far. Local officials have said in interviews that 110,000 households are in the line of fire and need shelter.
The government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir has provided about $120,000 to build some bunkers in the worst hit area, the Neelum Valley, but other vulnerable areas have not seen a single dollar yet.
“Our real need based on our assessment is $34 million,” said Syed Asif Hussein, a chief secretary for the Azad Jammu and Kashmir government.
In another incident of sexual harassment, a 13-year-old girl was repeatedly molested and raped by a man twice her age leading to the girl’s demise.
Nasreen was raising her children alone in Athmuqam, a border town, when the mortar shells started flying around her home in 1998, while her husband, a truck driver, was on the road. She gathered her five children and ran into a nearby bunker, five other families crammed into 32 square feet, shoulders, backs, feet pressed together in a suffocating mess.
“We spent entire days and nights in the bunker with no light or ventilation,” said Nasreen, who still lives in the town and now chooses to stay at her home when the shells slam into her town.
In that cramped shelter, her eldest daughter Ayesha, 13 at the time, was molested by a man twice her age, Nasreen said. He pounced at night when everyone went to sleep or when Nasreen and the other adults left the shelter to hurriedly fetch food and water for their children.
Ayesha told her mother the man was touching her, but out of fear and shame did not tell her about the rape.
Nasreen had a painful choice to make as a mother alone with five children. Despite Ayesha’s pleas, she forced all her children to continue going down into the bunkers where her daughter would see her tormentor, whom Nasreen tried to keep at a distance.
“I had no other option to keep my children safe from shelling than to return to that bunker each time firing began,” Nasreen said. “There was no other bunker nearby for us to shelter in. All I could do was tell Ayesha to keep her distance from him.”
A few months later, she would find her daughter vomiting and running a fever. When Nasreen suggested a hospital visit, Ayesha looked terrified. At the doctor’s office they were told that Ayesha was three months pregnant.
“Ayesha kept sobbing,” Nasreen said tearfully. “When she finally spoke, she said the man who she had complained about in the bunker had pinned her down and raped her in the camp.”
Ayesha said the man had threatened her with a dagger and told her he would kill her if she did not cooperate or if she told anyone. She said he raped her several times after that day and for many days thereafter, as mortar shells shook the ground they sheltered in.
While the family wanted justice, their village decided otherwise. A ‘jirga’, or community gathering, judged that Ayesha should be married to her rapist to save what remained of her honor. Nasreen said they accepted the decision as the will of God.
A few months later, Ayesha died during labor, her body unable to handle the birth and doctors unable to stop her from hemorrhaging to death. Her son, born premature, died a few months later.
“If we had our own bunker back then, my daughter wouldn’t have been raped and she would not have died,” Nasreen said. “I will never take my children to any shared bunker where their lives or honor are threatened again.”