February issue 2004
Bridge Over Troubled Waters
Weeping and wailing, Fatima waved frantically to her brother standing just 20 meters away on the opposite bank of the Neelum river that divides this part of Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Desperate to communicate after 14 years, they shouted across news about their families, but their voices were drowned by the raging waters.
They were among thousands of Kashmiris, separated for decades by the conflict between India and Pakistan, who had lined up along the river for hours in heavy rain and cold weather, looking for their family members. It was the first time in more than 20 years that they had been allowed to come that close. They could not cross over to embrace each other, but were close enough to exchange greetings and throw letters weighted with stones across the river to their relatives and friends.
Chiliana village on the Pakistani side, and Tithwal on the Indian-controlled side are cut in two by the river, about 25 miles east of Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. Just two months ago, before India and Pakistan agreed to a ceasefire as the result of the peace process, this part of Kashmir had been the centre of fierce exchanges of mortar and heavy machine-gun fire between the two armies. Villages in the Neelum valley are littered with buildings destroyed by artillery shells and pocked by gunfire.
The biggest benefit of the ceasefire has been that an Indian machine-gun post no longer fires at vehicles and people travelling on the Pakistani side. The once heavily fortified frontline has now become a venue for family reunions after troops on both sides moved back to the barracks.
In recent days, residents on either side arranged to rendezvous, using cell phones to get word across to family members to come to the riverbank.
No official permission was granted, but authorities made no move to stop the gathering. Entire families travelled to the area on foot and bus, although many of them returned home in utter frustration.
Younus Shah, a 60-year-old schoolteacher stood on a rock with his wife and daughter staring at the other side of the river in the hope of spotting his eldest daughter who was separated 20 years ago when the family crossed over to the Pakistani side. “She stayed back with her husband,” Mr. Shah said in a choked voice. “She may be there but I can’t spot her.” His wife wept quietly as the family walked back home after standing in the rain for hours.
Holding her small baby, Zarina Bibi slipped into the river in excitement when she saw her parents waving at her. She kept crying as the people pulled her out from the freezing water. “Oh, my God they are alive,” she shouted hysterically. “I can’t believe they are standing right there.” On both banks, relatives held back family members on the verge of losing control over their emotions.
The highly emotional scene reflected the turmoil occasioned by the 56-year old division of the former princely state when India and Pakistan achieved independence from Britain. Hundreds and thousands of families were divided and thousands of others perished as the two nations fought three wars over their claim to Kashmir.
The historic breakthrough in relations between the two countries earlier this month has raised hope of reuniting families divided at Partition. Both countries have started negotiations on opening a bus service between Srinagar, the capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir and Muzaffarabad. “I am looking forward to the day when divided families can freely meet each other,” says Khawaja Fareed, a local trader whose brothers and an uncle are settled on the other side.
The end of the military standoff and normalisation of relations between the two estranged neighbours has transformed the environment in Pakistani-controlled Azad Kashmir. People have generally welcomed President Musharraf’s pledge to end Pakistan’s support for Islamic militants fighting Indian forces, after suffering the huge economic and human cost of the long-standing conflict. The offices of militant groups have shut down in Muzaffarabad after the withdrawal of support from Pakistan, and this could be a harbinger of better days to come for the war-torn region.
The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.