Kashmiris Reunite In Grief Across Military Border
17 November 2005
Chakothi: Kashmiris reunited in grief across the ceasefire line dividing their quake-stricken homeland on Thursday, after arch rivals Pakistan and India relaxed border restrictions as a humanitarian gesture. Beneath Himalayan mountains, a temporary wooden footbridge has been built over a stream that divides this part of the disputed region, enabling Kashmiris to check on surviving relatives on the other side after the devastating October 8 tremor.'I desperately wanted to come home and see with my eyes if everybody survived. I still don't know what is the situation here in my home,' Haji Mohammad Rafiq told Reuters after he returned home to Indian Kashmir from the Pakistani side. Dozens of other Indian Kashmiris had been stranded on either side of the border when the quake struck. They had traveled to see relatives on the other side on a fortnightly bus service which had been the only link for travelers since April. The permanent bridge that had spanned the stream and carried the bus over the stream collapsed in the earthquake. 'I came. I was very happy. I saw all the family but after the earthquake they are living in a very bad situation. It is a very sad moment for me,' said 72-year-old Attaullah Khawaja, his wrinkled face framed by a white beard and flat woolen cap. Khawaja spoke while waiting to return to the Indian side where, he had been told, a grandson was among the dead. Until Thursday, only relief supplies were allowed over the temporary footbridge linking Chakothi and Uri on the India side, leaving Kashmiris aching for news of loved ones. The quake killed more than 73,000 people, mostly in Pakistani Kashmir. About 1,300 people died in Indian Kashmir in the quake. ONE-WAY TRAFFIC Thursday's crossing was one-way traffic, with 24 Indian Kashmiris returning home from the Pakistani side. The returning Kashmiris were all elderly, and some had to be helped down steps cut into the gorge down to the footbridge, while porters carried baggage on their heads. Pakistani officials said they had not been told why no travelers were entering from the Indian side. 'They told us that it was not decided to send passengers today,' said Shafiq Kiani, chief civilian official overseeing the crossing from the Pakistani side. The South Asian neighbors agreed last month to open five crossings on the militarized Line of Control and have made symbolic exchanges of relief goods, but there have been delays in letting people across. Pakistan's military says people will be allowed to cross the other four border points later this month. The United Nations wants to see the ceasefire line opened to its own aid trucks, saying it could save thousands of lives in remote mountain communities on the Pakistani side, but the two sides have yet to agree to this. The fortnightly bus service, between Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir, and Muzaffarabad, the quake-stricken capital of Pakistani Kashmir, had been opened thanks to a peace process begun by India and Pakistan almost two years ago, but was suspended after the quake. Roads along the route, on both sides of the border, are still being cleared of landslides in many places.