By Jaideep Sarin
There has been no gunfire, no siren alerts and no fighter jets dropping bombs. It is not war time yet, but tens of thousands of villagers in Punjab's border belt with Pakistan are already experiencing a war-like scenario.
Over 400,000 people in Punjab's border belt comprising Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Ferozepur, Gurdaspur, Pathankot and Fazilka districts have been evacuated from their homes to ‘safer areas’.
Residents in nearly 1000 villages in these districts have been ordered by the authorities to vacate, following escalation of tension between nuclear neighbours India and Pakistan after the Indian Army carried out surgical strikes at the Line of Control (LoC) on Thursday night.
"We loaded a lot of our belongings and household articles onto our tractor-trolley. We have not yet decided where we will go. But we have to move out. The standing crop in our fields has to be harvested within the next ten days. We hope this situation eases out soon," farmer Sardul Singh of Amritsar district told IANS.
Punjab shares a 553-kilometre international border with Pakistan. The entire border is marked by an electrified barbed wire fence.
The Sikh holy city of Amritsar, which lies only 30 kilometres from the international border too seemed to be prepared for any eventuality, including war.
Hospitals in the border districts have been asked to keep some beds in emergency wards vacant for any contingency. The leave of police personnel, medical staff and others maintaining emergency services have been cancelled.
In some of the border villages which are located across the rivers in the border belt, Border Security Force (BSF) and Indian Army personnel could be seen ferrying people, including children and the elderly, and their belongings to safer areas on Thursday and Friday.
"There is nothing to panic about. The evacuation is being done as a preventive measure. Arrangements are being made to accommodate the evacuated people," Isha Kalia, deputy commissioner of Fazilka district in southwest Punjab, said. Kalia visited various evacuation centres in her district and talked to people accommodated there.
Villagers however admit to a certain amount of panic and anxiety among themselves.
"Old timers have been through the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan. Those days were bad. But Punjabis have always faced wars valiantly. For the younger generations who have not seen wars, the evacuation is a new thing. Many youngsters are worried about what will happen," Waryam Singh of Ferozepur district, who is 70-plus and lived through the 1965 and 1971 wars, told IANS.
The villagers who have been evacuated were headed either to the homes of relatives and friends in ‘safer zones’ or opted for camps organized by the district authorities.
With arrangements to accommodate hundreds of people at each of the 45 relief camps having to be made within a few hours, the evacuated people complained of mismanagement and chaos.
Local gurdwaras and social organizations chipped in, within the past 12 hours, to arrange food and water for the displaced people.
Along all roads and paths in the border belt, all modes of available transport =be it tractor-trolleys, trucks, buses, private cars, horse and cattle-driven carriages and other vehicles -- were being used by the people to move out with their belongings. The authorities also arranged buses at some places to ferry people.
Army convoys, with artillery, moved towards the border with Pakistan on Thursday and Friday.
(Jaideep Sarin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)