March 2004 News

Undeterred By Shrapnel Holes In Their Houses, Thousands Return Homes

5 March 2004
The Indian Express

New Delhi: In a downtown residential area of Srinagar, Nazir Banday has started packing his belongings to return home to Nambla, a remote hamlet near the front line between India and Pakistan. Banday has lived in a rented house for 14 years and is one of thousands of migrants heading home, near a military control line in Kashmir, after the two countries agreed to a ceasefire that ends more than a decade of lethal artillery duels. Undeterred by shrapnel holes in their tin- roofed houses and the craters in fields that are grim reminders of the ferocity of the barrages, people are returning. 'In 1989, when shelling intensified, we migrated to Srinagar,' Banday said. 'Since then, our area witnessed only destruction. But after the ceasefire, things are back to normal in Nambla.' Weeks after the guns fell silent in India's only Muslim-majority state, life is slowly returning to normal in hundreds of villages and towns trapped for years in the daily exchange of artillery and small arms fire by the two sides. The two armies began the ceasefire late in November. After preparatory talks last week, India and Pakistan agreed to a 'basic roadmap' for peace. They plan a series of meetings over the next six months to tackle a wide range of disputes, with Kashmir high on the agenda. The situation has improved substantially in the border areas close to the Line of Control and people have voluntarily returned home after the ceasefire, said Hakim Yasin, the state's relief and rehabilitation minister. 'Of the 39,527 migrant families, 31,621 families have so far returned to their homes in the border areas,' the minister said. FEELING SAFE The border areas are not the only place where people are feeling safer in Kashmir, the Himalayan region over which India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since winning independence from Britain in 1947. In the Kashmir Valley at the heart of a revolt against Indian rule that has killed tens of thousands, a new relaxed atmosphere accompanies the thaw between India and Pakistan and New Delhi's first formal talks with moderate separatist leaders. No longer does the main city in Indian Kashmir shut down in fear as night falls. Instead, residents visit friends for leisurely dinners, shops and restaurants stay open and army patrols - fewer than before - no longer check all passersby. 'Earlier, my parents used to get worried if I came home a little bit late. But now...they don't curse me,' said Umar Nazir, a 24-year-old medical student. 'The situation has changed a lot. I can meet my friends after my classes and sit in restaurants and chat until late.' RETURN TO NORMAL After too many false starts, many Kashmiris are warily hopeful that Islamabad and New Delhi are serious this time about ending the bloodshed in a region famously described in an old Urdu couplet as paradise on earth. Yet, despite the relaxed atmosphere, thousands of Hindu families driven from their homes at the start of the rebellion still live in camps in Jammu. At least 300,000 Hindus fled the Valley after the Kashmiri revolt erupted in 1989, leaving about 10,000 in the mainly Muslim valley. It was the largest migration since the 1947 division of the subcontinent into mainly Hindu India and Islamic Pakistan. 'But 7,906 families are still in migrant camps. Most of them have lost their houses in the shelling. The government is trying its best to rehabilitate them,' Yasin said. Most Kashmiris have just one dream. 'The ceasefire should continue, violence should stop and the two countries should peacefully settle all their disputes,' said Abdul Aziz, a resident of a border village.


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