May 2004 News

Kashmiris taste normal life as guns fall silent

30 May 2004
The Daily Times

CHAKOTHI: Villagers are tilling their fields, relatives gather en masse to mourn the dead, and people travel freely. Until six months ago, such normal activities were impossible for residents on South Asia's most heavily militarised border.A truce struck and implemented last November has held, and residents alongside the Line of Control (LoC) dividing Kashmir between rivals Pakistan and India are experiencing what it's like to live a normal life.'The ceasefire has returned the colour to our cheeks,' said Bashir Awan, a resident of Tofarabad village in Chakothi sector, some 60 kilometres south of Muzaffarabad.Until the truce came into effect on November 26, Indian and Pakistani troops fought almost daily artillery duels along the LoC, the de-facto border dividing Kashmir between the nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours.'Unabated shelling had turned this area into a living hell,' Mr Awan said. 'But now the situation is altogether different - thanks to the ceasefire.'The area suffered huge physical and material losses in relentless shelling over the 14 years preceding the ceasefire. Mr Awan lost his younger brother, Ashraf, and sister-in-law Sakina in the space of less than a week in January 2000.Villagers are now tilling and sowing their fields. 'We have recently harvested wheat and now people are cultivating maize,' he said. 'These lands were literally barren last year because then the crop growing was next to impossible.'Mr Awan's nephew, Arshad, aged 20, is building a new house along the road linking Muzaffarabad with Srinagar. 'Whether shelling or truce, we have to live here,' Arshad said. 'But honestly speaking, I could not have been able to raise a single wall before the ceasefire.'One necessity these Kashmiris are not yet ready to let go of is the bunker. Peace has given them a chance to repair them. 'This house has a basement to serve as bunker,' he said pointing to a portion of the house. 'I am optimistic about the (durability of the) ceasefire, but you are never sure what will happen next.'Mr Awan said many people who had fled the shelling to live as refugees elsewhere had started returning. In the nearby Pahal village, Ghulab Khan, 60, raises his hands five times a day to pray the ceasefire will hold. 'Each time I pray, I beg Allah that the situation remains the same,' Mr Khan said.Pahal lies within one kilometre of the LoC and its residents can see the Indian posts on the other side of the divide with the naked eye. Rafique Shah, a US national of the Kashmiri origin, said the greatest relief was free movement. As he spoke, dozens of friends and relatives flocked to his home to offer their condolences on the death of his mother. 'We could not even imagine such gatherings before the ceasefire. There is no substitute for the freedom of movement,' he said.Residents in Neelum valley, northeast of Muzaffarabad, are overjoyed that the virtual siege they lived under until November has lifted. 'There has been unprecedented peace for the past six months,' said Muhammad Akbar, a shopkeeper in Neelum's Mirpura village in the cedar-forested valley that hugs the LoC. 'My business has been booming since the guns fell silent.'


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