January 2004 News

Kashmiris rush for passports to visit relations in Pakistan

30 January 2004
The Daily Times

JAMMU: With Kashmir's border areas no longer rocked by artillery fire, large numbers of Kashmiris are seeking passports so they can visit relatives caught in the no-go zones for over 50 years.Scores of people turn up at the local passport office every day in Jammu, Held Kashmir's winter capital, in search of the documents that will allow long-overdue family reunions, officials say. 'Most applicants want to travel to Pakistan,' passport officer Madan Lal said.One of those in the queue, Gulzar Ahmed, had travelled to Jammu from the Rajouri border area to apply for passports for his entire family. 'We want to travel to Mirpur in Pakistan where my uncle and other relations have been living since 1947,' Ahmed said.The trip has become feasible since India and Pakistan eased travel restrictions and announced on November 26 a ceasefire along their disputed borders. Where a year ago the trip would have been impossible, not only because of the shelling but because all direct transport links between the nuclear rivals had been severed amid rising military tensions, Ahmed and his brood are now spoiled for choice as to modes of travel across the border.Since last July a bus has been plying between Delhi and Lahore across the main Wagha border post while air and train links were re-established in early January.But Ahmed is waiting for a direct bus service to be established between Muzaffarabad and Srinagar, the capitals of two Kashmirs. The move was mooted by India.Once the bus service is up and running, Ahmed and his family will be first in the queue - passports in hand. 'We will have an easy mode of travel available and for this a passport is a must,' Ahmed said.There are many like him - from fewer than 500 applications a month, the numbers have soared since the ceasefire to 1,100 in December. Already 1,400 people had applied for passports in the first three weeks of January alone, Lal said. Many applications had been received from people living in the border areas of Poonch and Rajouri, he added. 'Applications have been received from state and Indian government officials and those working in police and paramilitary forces keen to visit their relations in western countries but the main rush has been from Muslims wanting to travel to Pakistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir.' The picturesque state is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed in full by both. The countries have fought two of their three wars over the region. -AFP


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