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Kashmir: The high road to peace - Independent, UK

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  • Zafar Khan
    Kashmir: The high road to peace A bus service is allowing Kashmiri families to visit relatives divided by partition for the first time in 58 years. Justin
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 10, 2005
      Kashmir: The high road to peace
      A bus service is allowing Kashmiri families to visit
      relatives divided by partition for the first time in
      58 years. Justin Huggler reports

      08 April 2005


      When the moment finally came, it was deceptively
      simple. Kashmiris just walked across the border that
      has divided them for 58 years, crossing a metal bridge
      that had been given a fresh coat of white paint for
      the occasion. For the first time since the war that
      followed the partition of India in 1947, the Line of
      Control, the de facto border between Indian and
      Pakistani Kashmir, was opened, and Kashmiris who have
      not seen their relatives in more than 50 years were
      able to cross.

      This, at last, was a moment of hope for Kashmir, the
      cause for which India and Pakistan nearly started the
      world's first nuclear war three years ago. The post
      where the passengers crossed used to be a symbol of
      the rivalry between India and Pakistan. A huge
      billboard faces into Pakistan from the Indian side,
      reading, "No religion teaches animosity towards each
      other". Yesterday it became a symbol of peace and

      But what led to that moment was anything but simple.
      For three hours yesterday, two battered minibuses
      festooned with marigolds carried the hopes of millions
      with them on a nerve-racking journey through the Pir
      Panjal mountains. The 19 people on board did not look
      the stuff heroes are made of: they were mostly elderly
      villagers, the men with wispy beards and the women
      covered in brightly coloured headscarves. But they
      defied militants who had said they would turn the
      buses into "coffins" for anyone who dared to travel in
      them. Only on Wednesday, these 19 passengers had to
      flee for their lives when two militants staged a
      daylight attack on the heavily guarded police safe
      house where they were being kept for their protection.
      A full-scale gun battle on the streets of central
      Srinagar followed, and the building next door was
      burnt to the ground. Its ruins were still smoking as
      the buses drove past it yesterday.

      Three of the original 24 passengers pulled out. Two
      more demanded to be let off before they had got far
      out of Srinagar. Before the buses had made much
      progress, militants fired two grenades at them.
      Mercifully, they missed.

      It was a tense drive for those of us who followed in a
      press bus, through spectacular scenery that looked
      perfect for an ambush. The road wound through gorges,
      and past ravines. Around every corner danger could be
      lurking. The 19 passengers stayed on, determined to
      get to the other side of Kashmir. They included
      Mohammed Salim Khan, from the remote village of Uri.
      He was born in Muzzafarabad, on the Pakistani side,
      but moved to Uri in 1947. Half of his family still
      lives in Pakistani Kashmir. Yesterday was the first
      time he would see them in 58 years.

      "I'm going home to Muzzafarabad," he said happily. He
      did not see anything heroic in what he was doing. But
      millions of Kashmiris did. In every town and village
      as the buses came through, people lined the streets
      and cheered. They were only straggling crowds in the
      morning, when the bus carrying Mr Khan headed for the
      Line of Control, and most people were still afraid
      that the buses would be hit by the militants. But in
      the evening, as the minibuses returned with 31
      passengers who had crossed into Indian Kashmir from
      the Pakistani side, and the word got round that the
      first trip had got through safely, they came out in
      their thousands, cheering and dancing in the streets
      for joy. It was all the buses could do to weave their
      way through the crowds.

      When they left Srinagar in a thunderstorm in the
      morning, there had been only a few onlookers, most not
      ready to believe the bus would make it. But when they
      returned in the evening, thousands came out to cheer
      in the darkness, long after the start of the de facto
      curfew that operates in the city. Because yesterday
      was not only about men like Mr Khan being reunited
      with their families. For India and Pakistan, the bus
      service is a "confidence-building measure", the first
      concrete result of peace talks between India and
      Pakistan that is supposed to lead to a further warming
      of ties.

      But for Kashmiris, it was much more. Yesterday was a
      day of hope that their land, brought to its knees by
      the rivalry between India and Pakistan that has been
      played out here, and by the militants, may see peace.

      It is also a hope that the two halves of their divided
      land can be reunited. That is what the reunion of
      families such as the Khans and that of Syed Shraif
      Hussain, who crossed in the other direction, from
      Pakistani Kashmir to the Indian side, symbolised to
      them. Syed Hussain had gone to the Pakistani side in
      1950 and was never able to return to his parents,
      brothers and sisters. Yesterday he held in his arms a
      niece he has never met before. The girl, Naseema, wept
      for joy. "I just can't believe it. God has answered my
      prayers and sent my uncle back," she said. Mr Hussein
      said: "After more than 50 years, I'm coming home. It
      is the happiest day of my life."

      These families are the tragedy of Kashmir, divided by
      the hostility between India and Pakistan. To
      Kashmiris, the family reunions were the reunion of
      Kashmir. To Kashmiris, yesterday was not crossing from
      India to Pakistan. Most Kashmiris do not view their
      land as part of India or Pakistan, they see it as a
      separate place.

      Independence is still the most popular solution to the
      Kashmir problem here, but you will never hear a word
      of it in Delhi or Islamabad. In Kashmiri eyes, the
      significance of yesterday was that they were allowed
      to travel freely inside their own land again.

      That is why Mr Khan and the other passengers will be
      seen as heroes here for their courage in defying the
      militants. Mohammed Taj, 75, from the Indian side,
      said he was going because he wanted to see his sister.
      "For that, I am ready to die," he said. "Death is in
      the hands of God. Inshallah, we will meet."

      Sharif Hussain Bukhari, who came from the Pakistani
      side, said: "There is a risk but I am taking the risk
      so this bus is the first step towards a resolution of
      Kashmir. The Line of Control could fall like the
      Berlin Wall."

      The militants tried to stop all this. With their
      daring raid on the complex where the passengers were
      being guarded in Srinagar, it looked as if they might
      have succeeded. The militants sent their message. But
      the thousands of Kashmiris who lined the road and
      cheered as the bus went by gave them a deafening

      It is still not entirely clear why the militants have
      risked alienating ordinary Kashmiris, among whom they
      have enjoyed considerable support until now, by
      targeting the bus and passengers. Many believe it is a
      sign of desperation.

      One of the most striking things about yesterday was
      how the Kashmiris took over the event with their own
      raw passion. The Indian government had planned all
      sorts of celebrations, but most fell like damp squibs.
      Only a small crowd bothered to turn up to hear a
      speech in Srinagar by the Prime Minister, Manmohan
      Singh, and many started jeering because police would
      not let them out before the end.

      "The caravan of peace has started," Mr Singh said.
      "Nothing can stop it." In that, at least, he was
      proved right. At Salamabad, near the Line of Control,
      where the passengers were given a reception, the
      authorities had laid on what looked more than anything
      like a school jamboree, complete with a bossy
      organiser giving children in traditional costumes
      Dad's Army-style commands to, "Raise flags. Shake,
      shake, shake. Lower flags".

      But just as the passengers from the Pakistani side
      were about to arrive, a fierce storm blew in, knocking
      down the marquees and sending the children scattering
      for cover. The marigold garlands that adorned the
      entrance were torn. In a moment that was worthy of the
      Raj, only the Indian army bagpipers played on unmoved,
      as the storm tossed everything else aside around them.

      Then, to add insult to injury, the bus drivers did not
      even stop, and whisked the passengers from the
      Pakistani side straight past the waiting dignitaries.
      But it did not matter, because the Kashmiris who lined
      the streets to cheer, braving the storm, provided a
      far more powerful message than the jamboree could ever
      have done.

      Yesterday was by no means a solution to the Kashmir
      problem. That appears to be as intractable as ever:
      both India and Pakistan lay claim to all of Kashmir
      and neither is likely to give up what they have got. A
      recent proposal by Pakistan's President Pervez
      Musharraf for some form of autonomy for Kashmir was
      dead-batted by India. For Kashmiris, life remains
      bleak. There is still a shocking level of day-to-day
      killing in Indian-administered Kashmir.

      In the first six weeks of this year, 118 people were
      killed, and that is just the official figures.
      Thousands of Kashmiri civilians have disappeared after
      arrest by Indian security forces. A few bodies have
      turned up, but most have not been seen again. These
      problems will not go away because of a bus service.
      The militants, with their attack in central Srinagar
      on Wednesday, made it clear they are not going away

      But what yesterday did was to give Kashmiris, for so
      long in despair, a little hope. To them, as they
      happily lined the streets in their traditional grey
      ponchos, yesterday was not about the politics of India
      or Pakistan. It was about Kashmir.

      See Also:
      Bus pioneers breach Kashmir's 'Berlin wall'


      Tearful passengers hail peace breakthrough after
      defying militants to open new link across disputed

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