While warmongers beat their drums, it is ordinary Kashmiris clustered around the Line of Control, wedged between two nuclear-armed regional rivals, that face the gravest of dangers.
On the cold, dismal February day, when 20-year-old Adil Ahmed Dar drove a car packed with explosives into an Indian army convoy in Pulwama district, Kashmiris knew what was coming.
“After this Pulwama attack, they were expecting something that is not going to be good for them,” Jalaluddin Mughal, a journalist hailing from Pakistan-administered Kashmir's Neelum Valley told TRT World.
And the response was certainly swift.
“Kashmir has been in a reign of terror,” filmmaker Adnan Sheikh from India-administered Kashmir told TRT World.
Disputed Kashmir is no stranger to tension. After all, the region has been the subject of a tug of war between India and Pakistan - one that has three times led to war. Branded the “most dangerous place in the world” by former US president Bill Clinton, it is bisected with a heavily militarised Line of Control (LOC) over which shelling and gunfire are regularly exchanged.
And while tensions may have simmered down in 2003 thanks to a ceasefire, it increased after the 2016 killing of militant Burhan Wani in India-administered Kashmir. Wani’s killing prodded along a burgeoning homegrown militancy in the region - one that unleashed a brutal crackdown by Indian forces on Kashmiris. With Narendra Modi’s government at the helm, the Indian state has no qualms about using torture and force against Kashmiris.
About 70,000 people have been killed since the start of the armed rebellion in 1989 by mostly Muslim residents in the Himalayan region. Rights groups say around 10,000 people have disappeared while in government custody in that period.
Indian authorities tend to conduct anti-rebel operations and crackdowns on civilian protests frequently, often responding to stone-pelting with live bullets.
The Indian army also has a history of using pellet guns to maim civilians. This is a pernicious weapon where a cartridge contains around 500 high-velocity metal balls spinning into human flesh, bones and eyes. If those at the other end of the gun are not killed, they are left blinded or traumatised.
But through it all, those who have been hit the hardest are the groups of villages along the LOC, a 734km-long border that divides the region between India and Pakistan.
“These are the poorest people economically because they cannot indulge in agricultural activities. People have to leave their lands fallow,” Mujahid Mughal, an Assistant Professor at GDC Poonch, told TRT World. Poonch is a village close to the Line of Control on the Indian side of Kashmir.
For these residents, the recent shift in the situation was felt as they burrowed down in bunkers to avoid the relentless shelling.
“The day when Pakistan Air Force shot down the Indian fighter jet, we saw the worst-ever shelling of the history,” said Sajd Ali, a resident of Khoiratta, a village near the Pakistani side of the LOC.
“They were using short-range guns to anti-tank missiles and targeting civilians indiscriminately. We remained stranded for more than a week and the shelling continued day and night.”
The continuous firing prevented injured civilians from reaching the hospital, Ali said.
In anticipation of the rapidly escalating security situation, safety measures were taken and communities had to grapple with a sudden lack of basic facilities.
“There was a blackout for a week at night. There was no internet, no telephone, and no road communication,” Jalaluddin Mughal, from Pakistan-held Kashmir, said.
“After the airstrikes by India, when the situation escalated, most sectors at the LOC, they shifted their children to safe places, and government even announced closing schools and asked people not to travel especially to areas closer to the line of control,” he added.
Sandwiched between the LOC and the fencing in India-administered Kashmir are several villages, it is an area that is prone to shelling whenever tension escalates between the two countries.
“That fence makes this place a human shield,” said Mujahid Mughal.
This anxiety over war has always been present.
“The LOC has been active since 1990s and people have been going through the same situation since last 30 years. This tension and escalation is part of their life. They have accepted this situation as their fate,” Jalaluddin Mughal said.
“This area has always been volatile. Even during the 'peacetime,' shelling continued here. Nonetheless, it was in the last few days that incidences of shelling increased,” Mujahid Mughal agreed.
The acute awareness of living in a tinder box extends away from the Line of Control but manifests itself in different ways. In Jammu and Kashmir’s capital Srinagar, the Indian army unleashed a brutal crackdown on residents.
“The escalation on both the sides, the extra deployment of forces, arresting of leaders & activists in the state has created a sense of fear among the people,” Sheikh told TRT World.
India also banned Jamaat e Islami, the largest political and religious group in Indian-administered Kashmir in its ongoing crackdown on activists.
Notices advising civilians to hoard food, medicine and water paired with accusations of warmongering by the Indian media hit home for Kashmiris who were watching the situation with bated breath.
“It created panic,” said Sheikh.
While relative peace may be returning to the region slowly, Kashmiris closer to the LOC buckle down. It is only a matter of time till the next provocation pushes events closer to the edge again, if not over.