Kashmiris Use Ceasefire To Rebuild Ruined Lives
23 February 2004
The Indian Express
Athmugam: Dozens of boys clamber over the ruined remains of their school, hoping the ceasefire in Kashmir will hold long enough to allow them to rebuild it. The surrounding houses, a hospital and an administrative centre have been reduced to rubble, the result of intense bouts of shelling by Indian artillery positioned on snow-capped mountains across the valley. For over a decade the village of Athmuqam has been a target in the low-intensity conflict between India and Pakistan in disputed Kashmir that has flared into two wars and almost ignited a third in 2002. Local people, accustomed to diving into bunkers and shelters for cover, gave up trying to repair damaged property, so sure were they that it would be flattened again. That was until a ceasefire was declared in November, raising hopes that tentative peace moves between India and Pakistan might lead to a lasting end to hostilities. The village hospital is being raised from the rubble, houses have been restored and the religious school where 60 boys study the Koran, eat and sleep is starting to look like a school again. 'The school was destroyed several times, the last time being in 1998,' said Mufti Abdul Aziz Kasmi, the bearded 50-year-old principal supervising boys and builders putting it back together. 'It has not been possible to rebuild it until now because of the shelling.' Scenes of destruction are set in idyllic surroundings. Athmuqam is nestled on the Pakistani side of the Neelum River, which winds between lush green hills and mountain peaks and is lined by villages of traditional wood and stone houses. The river forms long stretches of the heavily militarised Line of Control separating Indian and Pakistani forces. At some points, like Chakhoti further south, soldiers stare at the enemy through their sights just 100 metres away. Hundreds of civilians have died along the Neelum Valley since 1990. Villagers have been cut off from the outside world for long periods, as the potholed road that runs along Pakistan's side of the river has only recently reopened. Muslim Kashmiris on either bank of the Neelum's fast-flowing waters often live within a stone's throw of each other, and yet have been unable to meet since partition between India and Pakistan in 1947 and a war for Kashmir that followed soon after. While hopes of peace are high, civilians and soldiers alike are cautious, having seen previous negotiations collapse. 'Our experience of the last 50 years or more gives rise to little hope, but we have to hope,' said Sheikh Gheelam Mohammad. He is one of thousands of Kashmiris who crossed from the Indian side of the Himalayan state to Pakistan-controlled territory in 1948, citing Indian repression and persecution of Muslims as the reason. He has been back to see relatives he left behind just once in the last 56 years. Speaking in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, the 72-year-old said his sister died two months ago in India's side of the state. Mohammad Rafiq, a student at the school in Athmuqam, 80 km northeast of Muzaffarabad, lost a 15-year-old brother two years ago when Indian forces shelled a nearby village. 'He was wounded and taken to a military hospital where I last saw him. But he was already unconscious. I never got a chance to talk to him that day,' said the eight-year-old, surrounded by grubby-faced classmates wearing white skullcaps. Two of them showed their scars from flying shrapnel; one boy lost part of his ear and the side of his face was badly scarred, and another had deep gashes in his lower leg. People in mainly Muslim Kashmir do not expect a settlement of the key issue of sovereignty over the region for years. But they want more 'confidence-building measures', including a bus service linking the two sides of the divide and the release of prisoners jailed for taking part in an insurgency in Indian Kashmir that has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 1989. Pakistan is accused of aiding the rebellion, although a crackdown on Islamic militants appears to have slowed the number of rebels crossing the Line of Control to join the uprising. Over half a century of separation, violence and emotive rhetoric from the two governments have left people on both sides of Kashmir weary, and in many cases bitter. In Athmuqam, Shakur wants revenge after his father was killed in an artillery attack just a month before the ceasefire as he walked from his home. 'If I had the chance I would take my revenge,' said the labourer, who is 22. 'Hopefully that chance will come.'