Divided By War, Kashmir Pins Hopes On Summit
28 December 2003
London: Mohammed Khan yearns to visit his uncle, who left the hamlet of Udoosa in Indian Kashmir for Pakistan more than a decade ago. The trip should be easy: a half-hour descent through paddy fields and lemon and orange groves followed by a half-mile walk along the road above the Jhelum river would get him to a bridge which begins in India and ends in Pakistan. Mr Khan's problem is not geography, but history. The state of Kashmir is claimed by both India and Pakistan and they have fought three wars over it since it was split between them in 1947. 'It is in the hands of these two big countries. The road has been closed ever since I can remember. The last kilometre on our side is mined and the Pakistanis used to shell the bridges and not let people cross,' says Mr Khan. But a flurry of diplomatic initiatives between India and Pakistan, most notably a ceasefire last month on the de facto border known as the line of control, have raised hopes that the highway will be opened after more than half a century. The ceasefire was agreed in advance of a visit to Pakistan by India's prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, for a summit of south Asian countries from Sunday. The gathering is seen as a key opportunity for the rivals to consolidate a thaw in relations. Udoosa is situated on a hillside pitted with semi-abandoned villages and blasted homes which have borne the brunt of decades of cross-border animosity. Opposite are the snow-capped peaks and dizzying gorges of the Jhelum valley. There nestles the last Indian artillery position, just ahead of a two-metre (7ft) high barbed wire security fence being erected by the Indian army to prevent armed militants crossing into India. Beyond lies Pakistan. 'That village is with Pakistan,' said Mr Khan, pointing to a series of small houses dominated by a low-slung building topped with a green dome. 'All these years we could hear nothing but the shelling. Now we hear the azaan [the Muslim call to prayer] from their mosque. I will be very happy if the road opens next.' Built by the British at the end of the 19th century, the highway is the only all-weather road in the region and runs 78 miles from Srinagar, the capital of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Once the main route to Kashmir from central Asia and beyond, the road was blocked to hold back Indian forces at the start of the 1947 war between India and Pakistan. Now the traffic is thick with army trucks ferrying soldiers to their bases. Twelve miles from the line of control and Udoosa, along a dirt track, is Uri, the last big town before Pakistan. It seems everybody in Uri has a story of being unable to attend a family wedding or a funeral across the border. Obtaining a Pakistani visa is difficult and making the lengthy journey via New Delhi is expensive. 'I have never met my three uncles in Pakistan, only seen them in pictures,' says Ajaz Ahmed, who runs a cake shop in the town. 'In 1947 my father was left behind in the rush of partition by his family. He only went to see his brothers in 1985 but they have never been able to come here and I have never been able to go there. I could not even visit when one uncle died.' If Pakistan and India agree to open the road, many in Uri hope that not only will people from both sides be able to cross freely, but that trade will resume between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir. 'Fruit is a big industry in Kashmir and if the road opens we could sell our apples and oranges in Pakistan,' says Mushtaq Ahmed Lone, a businessman. 'Before 1947, this used to be the main commercial hub of the region, and it could be again if the road opens.' Such hopes rest on both countries continuing on the path to peace as well as taking the three months required to remove landmines and spread tarmac. The rapprochement between the two is remarkable, given that they came close to war little more than a year ago. Kashmir stands to gain the most from any reconciliation. Its people have endured 14 years of violent conflict between Indian security forces and armed Muslim separatists, who slip easily between Pakistani and Indian Kashmir. No Kashmiri family has escaped unscathed. Officially, since 1989 when the insurgency began 30,000 people have been killed, but human rights groups say the figure is at least double that. In the last year the election of a new chief minister for Indian Jammu and Kashmir has seen the violence decrease but, nevertheless, police records show nearly 2,900 people have been killed. For all the talk of progress, life at the other end of the highway in Srinagar is bleak. The city does not look like the capital of a state that is part of the world's largest democracy. Armed soldiers are everywhere: behind sandbags, at roadblocks and being carried on lorries. The rough methods employed during some of the army's operations have provoked anger, which in turn has fuelled the insurgency in Kashmir. 'The army and the paramilitary forces act with impunity. They cannot be prosecuted without sanction from the Indian government and this is only given in a very small number of high- profile cases,' says Pervez Imroz, a human rights lawyer in Srinagar. At the recent funeral of a local chemist, Sartaj Ahmad, who was buried in the graveyard of martyrs in Srinagar, dozens of young men shouted slogans against Indian rule. The chemist was one of two men, unconnected to any separatist movement, to be shot dead by Indian security forces in the poor district of Boatman colony on the northern outskirts of Srinagar after a gun battle between the army and an Islamist. Such incidents, described as 'regrettable' by the army, help create a culture of suspicion in Kashmir which leads many to harbour doubts that peace can ever be achieved through negotiations and confidence-building measures such as opening the road to Muzaffarabad. 'The question is about whether these things are sincerely meant and whether peace is achievable,' says Abdul Aziz Dar, who was a leading member of the militant group Hizbul Mojahedin, but who renounced violence after 10 years in Indian jails. 'If not they will be seen as just part of a political game.'