How The BBC Helped Bring Kashmiris Together
22 June 2004
Muzaffarabad: They cried in joy. They wept with sadness. They screamed in excitement. They could not believe it. In a small hotel room just by the river Neelum in Muzaffarabad, history was made as a group of Kashmiri families saw for the first time their relatives from across the Line of Control (LoC) dividing their homeland between India and Pakistan. And what a joy it was to watch the faces of these people beaming with excitement. The event was organised by the BBC's Urdu Online service in a makeshift studio through satellite video conferencing facilities set up in Muzaffarabad (capital of Pakistani administered Kashmir) and Srinagar (summer capital of Indian administered Kashmir). Painful preparation The divided Kashmiri families were in a state of high excitement as they talked and saw each other for the first time in more than 15 years. But it was no easy task to organise the event, from obtaining permission from the authorities to the actual technical difficulties of operating in an area where communication links are almost negligible. At times it seemed like a daily fight against different obstacles. Seeing [my relatives] and talking to them I felt like as if my life has been filled with colours Farah Deeba But the joy of seeing families reunited after the first day of the webcast made all the painful preparation - which lasted three months - definitely worth it. The problems caused by poor communication links in both areas, and the somewhat under developed infrastructure of Muzaffarabad meant that the webcast was only possible through satellite links. But it also meant that the whole event was a technician's nightmare, with endless things that could go wrong. Strong emotions Life was further complicated by the sensitive nature of the area, even though the authorities from the Pakistan side fully cooperated and gave permission for the event. So high were those sensitivities, in fact, that the entire BBC Urdu team was continually accompanied by an army officer while other intelligence agencies also kept a watch throughout. Webcams succeed where visas for many fail But what such an event meant for the people who are divided across the LoC can only be gauged from the reactions of some of the participants. Abida Masood, who saw her sister for the first time in 19 years through this webcast, could not control her emotions. 'I feel like somehow going through this screen and going to the other side and touching my sister. I am seeing her after 19 years. We have spent all our childhood together and now we are separated. God only knows when we will be able to go across and meet our loved ones,' she said. Abida's story is the story of so many Kashmiri families which have been divided by the LoC. Complicated predicament For most of them, getting a visa to visit each other is almost impossible as Kashmir remains the most volatile issue between India and Pakistan, who have fought three wars over the territory. Caught in the crossfire, the Kashmiri people, most of whom have strong family links across the LoC, keep living in a state of perpetual separation. Abida's daughter, Farah Deeba Masood, was two years old when she came to Pakistani administered Kashmir with her mother, faces an even more complicated predicament. She cannot remember ever meeting any of her immediate relatives from her mother's side. 'Seeing them and talking to them I felt like as if my life has been filled with colours,' she said, after she talking to her cousins and aunts after 19 years. The separation of Kashmiris divided between India and Pakistan is not only limited to the personal realm. I feel like somehow going through this screen and going to the other side and touching my sister. I am seeing her after 19 years Abida Masood It also affects the cultural milieu of Kashmir at a larger level. A striking example could be observed when most of the older Kashmiri family members spoke to their loved ones in the Kashmiri language. But the second generation of Kashmiris, those either born in Pakistani administered Kashmir or who came to Pakistan at a very young age, chose to speak to their cousins in Urdu. For most Kashmiris separation from their loved ones is an issue close to their hearts. No wonder the webcast on the BBC's Urdu Online service has almost acquired the status of a national event. The level of people's engagement with such an event and their excitement shows how much this troubled region needs initiatives for more dialogue which may have a larger impact on political negotiations in the region. BBC Urdu Online will webcast more of these meeting on Wednesday, but people have already started raising the question as to what happens after that.