In the town of Kargil, epicentre of the battle between Indian air power and the Pakistani-sponsored militants dug in on the steep mountainside, Thursday was a good day.

For three weeks, artillery from the Pakistani side of Kashmir's de facto border had rained shells on the town and on the highway that runs through it. All traffic was cut, supplies of food and other essentials dried up, and more than half the population fled. "We had nothing left to eat," said Mohammad Ibrahim, a vet. "We've practically eaten up all our winter food stocks in the past three weeks, and we were down to eating one meal per day."

Then on Thursday, a day after India began its air assault on the Pakistani positions, relief finally arrived. Thirty lorries rumbled into town from Srinagar, state capital of Jammu and Kashmir, with fresh fruit and vegetables as well as food grain, oil, sugar, powdered milk and other essentials. "It was like a festival," said Mr Ibrahim. "We had not seen fresh fruit and vegetables since last autumn - the mood in the town was wonderful." The shops hauled up their shutters, and townspeople crept out of their bunkers or hastened back from the nearby villages. The joy was short-lived: in the afternoon the shelling resumed, and the residents once again took to their heels.

Most Indians, along with the rest of the world, awoke to the gravity of the new conflict in Kashmir only last Wednesday, when India took the drastic step of launching air strikes, the first time that air power has been used in Kashmir since 1971. But for Kargil, only seven miles from the border, the fighting had been in full spate for three weeks. Two people have died and 10 have been injured in the daily artillery bombardments, a figure so low only because 60 per cent of the population of about 10,000 has fled. Those staying behind retreat over and over again to the 1,000- odd bunkers that the Indian army has dug around the town.

The most frightening day so far, according to the vet, was 9 May, when shells hit an ammunition dump. "There were explosions everywhere," he said.

Kargil's proximity to the de facto border, the "line of control", has been its misfortune ever since war came to Kashmir in 1947. It is a scruffy, nondescript town with a Wild West look, but in an incredible setting. It is halfway between Srinagar and Leh, the capital of Ladakh, once an independent Buddhist kingdom and now merely the highest city in the world. Unlike Buddhist Leh, Kargil's population is largely Shia Muslim. National Highway 1A climbs up from Kashmir's famously beautiful Valley with its lush scenery, and emerges above the treeline into the stark, pitiless grandeur of Ladakh, with its high, bare, rust-coloured mountains.

In contrast to Leh, which in winter is as dry as its surrounding mountains are arid, Kargil and Drass, the small town nearby which has also been targeted in the latest conflict, have enormous snowfalls, often to a depth of 30ft. The result is that, when the snow melts, the Kargil region has abundant water. Kargil's fertile farmland is intensively cultivated during the short summer, the groaning apricot trees and waving wheat fields making a striking contrast with the bare, snow-streaked mountain tops.

But the town is cursed by history. The Indo-Pakistan War of 1948, which after a 400-year gap brought an Islamic army within striking distance of the Buddhist stronghold of Leh, left Kargil so close to the ceasefire line that a Pakistani picket was perched above the town bazaar. Kargil found itself in the firing line in both the subsequent wars, of 1965 and of 1971, during which the local population honed their survival skills.

In 1971, however, the ceasefire line was pushed some seven miles back towards Pakistan, giving Kargil breathing space - though leaving it still well within artillery range.

A longish interlude of calm was abruptly shattered in September 1997 by a sudden Pakistani artillery bombardment which killed 18. Last year, too, Kargil suffered heavy shelling. "But last year it only lasted for a few days," said the vet. "This year it has already gone on for four weeks. The fighting has brought a lot of misery."