From shells to sixes—Gurez’s playfield sheds its war-torn past

From war-turf to cricket-turf. [FPK Photo/Sajid Raina.]

A revival of gentleman’s game in Kashmir’s last village tucked on the battered and booted Silk Route.

BAGTORE, Gurez — During his first visit to this captivating village in July 2019, situated less than a kilometre from the Line of Control (LoC), Reyaz Ahmad, a young electrician from Bandipora, was warned by local villagers not to gesture towards the Pakistan Army post, as the area is prone to violent artillery shelling, which has tragically claimed numerous lives.

“I went to Bagtore in Gurez for electrical work, and the very next day, I visited the deserted playfield a few metres away from the human settlements. There, I met a few locals and inquired about cricket matches being played. They advised me sternly not to gesture or look directly towards the Pakistan army posts, situated to the left on a hillside,” Ahmad said.

Stay safe; it’s a border area. Take care of yourself. Avoid any provocative gestures, even towards them,” they advised him.

The budding players. [FPK Photo/Sajid Raina.]

Gurez, around 86 kilometres from Bandipora and 123 kilometres from Srinagar, is a special place with a rich history. It’s part of Dardistan, an ancient civilization. The main people here, the Dards, also live in northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. Gurez used to be a key point on the Silk Route that connected Kashmir to Kashgar, making the Dards a strong and influential tribe.

Back in 1895, the famous British author Sir Walter Lawrence praised Gurez Valley, calling it one of the most beautiful spots in Kashmir. He predicted in his book that Gurez would become a top tourist spot in the Himalayas, and remarkably, this prediction is now unfolding as a reality.

However, for Reyaz’s initial visit to Bagtore, the situation took a turn about a month later when the two nations’ armies engaged in intense artillery shelling, instilling fear among the residents.

Recalling the events of August 2019, he said, “It began with small arms firing, and initially, we thought it was the usual exchange of fire between the armies that would soon cease. However, within minutes, artillery shells started falling in the same playfield, leaving people shocked and desperately seeking shelter.”

Over 100 people sought refuge, cramming themselves into a single underground community bunker known locally as a “morcha,” built by the residents of this frontier town. Unfortunately, this shelter too was hit and destroyed later.

The next morning, Reyaz, also a cricket enthusiast, was confronted with an unsettling scene – thick smoke blanketed the surroundings, creating the illusion that the entire area had been reduced to ashes. Disturbingly, he learned of a woman’s tragic death and the injury of several others, all attributed to shelling.

Setting aside his electrical work, the purpose of his visit, Reyaz began offering solace to those whose homes were ravaged by shelling. Engaging with the locals, he actively participated in clearing debris. It was during this period that he gained insight into the challenging reality of life on the borders.

The field once haunted by shells. [FPK Photo/Sajid Raina.]

The events all happened around the playfield, which he had initially thought would be ideal for sports activities, including cricket tournaments. However, he now realises its true fate as shells landed in the same field.

Like Reyaz, other villagers and cricket enthusiasts were always eager to engage in sports activities in the same playfield. However, they were consistently mindful of the frequent mortar shelling incidents before making any plans to play there.

“Our elders always instructed us not to spend much time there. Even when contemplating sports activities, there was a prevailing belief that a shell might land in the playfield, posing a risk to our lives, so we often chose to ignore it,” said Arif Ahmad, a local villager.

“The playfield surrounded by small military bunkers in front of our homes resembled a beautiful picture, one that we could only admire but dared not move from due to the fear of shelling,” he said.

Ahmad’s friend Saleem Khan was consistently unhappy about the fate of the playfield, questioning why he had to reside in a war-torn hamlet. The sight of a deserted field, where he longed to play, only added to his discontent.

“But there was hope that the fate of this playfield would change someday. Even if it doesn’t, our next generation should play cricket matches on the field. However, the basic requirement was to silence the guns on the border first,” he added.

“We longed to hit sixes in cricket matches, rather than get hit by shells on the ground,” he said.

Players in action. [FPK Photo/Sajid Raina.]

Another youngster, Mujtaba, used to hear an advice from his family—”Do whatever you have to do at home, but don’t go to the field because shelling can happen at any time, which can be lethal”—yet he had always hoped that one day things would improve, and destiny would change.

“However, our hope was fading as each month passed, with the region witnessing recorded shelling incidents, sometimes high and sometimes low, until 2021,” Mujtaba recalled the despair of the day.

Then, finally, on February 25, 2021, India and Pakistan recommitted to the 2003 ceasefire agreement, emphasising strict observance of agreements along the Line of Control (LoC).

Initially implemented in 2003, this ceasefire brought peace until 2006. However, violations have increased since then, with over 14,000 LoC flare-ups recorded.

“February 21 brought news on the radios that there would be no shelling on the borders, as both countries had agreed to peace. It was an amazing feeling. Some were emotional, recalling loved ones lost in border tensions,” Mujtaba continued.

It was like a festival for the war-weary simpletons. By then, they believed their plans would be fulfilled. There was a serene silence, and even the air carried a message and feeling of peace.

“The other villagers started decorating their homes with the hope that they will now live their lives peacefully,” said Abdul Hameed, another elderly local.

The locals began carrying out daily activities without any fear in the agricultural fields and other works within the village. Besides, people started visiting each other’s homes and spending time here and there.

The galloping game. [FPK Photo/Sajid Raina.]

With heavy snow-covered mountains and peace in the air, young sports enthusiasts emerged from their homes to inspect the playfield amid freezing temperatures, preparing for the upcoming snow cricket tournament, a winter tradition now famous in Gurez.

“Imagine, we couldn’t even wait for summers during that time. We decided and organised a snow cricket tournament to fulfil our long-pending demand,” Mujtaba said.

“Through our hard work, we made it happen on the ground. Several teams from Gurez Tehsil actively participated in the tournament,” he said, adding that the playfield echoed with the sounds of cricket, replacing the once-familiar reverberations of shelling that had plagued its residents for decades, causing death and destruction.

The photos of the Cricket tournament were tweeted by international cricket players and gained a lot of popularity.

“During the summer of that year, Bagtore experienced a significant influx of tourists, drawn by the uniqueness of being the last village on the Indian side. The playfield became a focal point for various activities, such as sports events, educational camps by the Education Department, and medical camps by the Health Department. These initiatives were clear indicators of peace prevailing along the LoC, a new and welcome experience for us,” Arif Ahmad, a graduate said.

Bike rallies were organised in 2022 and 2023, drawing substantial participation from bikers across Kashmir. The events were directed towards Bagtore playfield and various parts of Gurez, aiming to promote the valley as a renowned tourist destination.

“In our inaugural bike rally in 2022, we had approximately 60 bikers hailing from diverse regions of Kashmir, including social media influencers. This event significantly contributed to the promotion of Bagtore village, attracting a substantial influx of tourists. The location, offering a close view of the LoC, coupled with the rich cultural heritage of the village, makes it a truly unique destination,” said Suhail Rather, a local journalist from Bandipora who actively participated in both bike rallies.

A sight to behold. [FPK Photo/Sajid Raina.]

In 2022 and 2023, two cricket tournaments took place in the area, drawing teams and spectators from other parts of Kashmir, including Sopore, Baramulla, Kupwara, and Ganderbal. “Participants even spent nights in tents, exceeding our expectations,” said Irshad Ahmad, a local from Dawar in Gurez. “In both summer and winter seasons, there was a significant crowd of spectators passionately cheering for their respective cricket teams, a sight never before witnessed in that area.”

Today, the playfield has evolved into a sports haven, organising 15 tournaments this year with over 30 participating teams—a remarkable sight. Transitioning from shelling to sixes, the playfield attracted a significant influx of visitors and spectators, all gathered to cheer for their respective teams in cricket matches.

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