June 2004 News

Divided Kashmir Families 'meet' At Last, Via Video

23 June 2004

Srinagar: Her eyes swelled with tears, but Hafeeza Begum's broad smile showed that they were of joy, not sorrow. She was seeing her 80-year-old mother for the first time in 20 years via a video link between the Pakistani and Indian sides of the hotly contested and divided region of Kashmir. 'Twenty years is such a long time, it was like a dream, it was like a real meeting,' Begum told Reuters in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, after the video conference set up by the British Broadcasting Corporation. 'I cannot express my happiness in words.' The scenic, mostly Muslim Himalayan region has been torn between Pakistan and India since 1948, a year after the two countries gained independence from Britain. The nuclear-armed neighbours have fought two of their three major wars over Kashmir. A heavily fortified 742-km (463 mile) ceasefire line cuts through its jagged mountains and leafy green valleys, dividing families and communities. 'Please come soon, I don't know how long I will live,' 50-year-old Fahmida cried when she saw her brother on the screen. 'There are rumours the road is opening, please take the first bus,' she said in Srinagar, capital of Indian Kashmir. 'Don't cry...don't cry...let's talk,' her brother Farooq Bach replied in Muzaffarabad. DECADES OF SEPARATION Begum was in her teens when she came to Pakistani Kashmir along with her brother and got married to a cousin in 1980. She went back to Indian Kashmir twice, in 1982 and 1983, to see her mother, but since then has only spoken by telephone or exchanged occasional letters because of travel curbs brought on by tension between the countries. 'I could not believe my eyes when I saw my mother, sister, brother and other loved ones,' Begum said. 'My home is just four hours' drive from here but I cannot go there, so we pray that the road between Muzaffarabad and Srinagar opens.' Six divided families will be brought together through the video link organised by the BBC over three days this week. Their desires, shared by most Kashmiris, may be realised one day, provided Pakistan and India can maintain progress in a formal peace process begun in January. The foreign secretaries of the two countries meet later this week in New Delhi and foreign ministers are due to meet next month on the sidelines of a regional conference. 'I am sure our misery will end and we will reunite one day,' G.M. Shah said in Srinagar after talking to his family. Indian authorities cut telephone links between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir in 1989 when a rebellion broke out in the Indian part of the Himalayan region. India says Pakistan has armed and trained Islamic guerrillas and helped them cross into Indian Kashmir and fight its rule there. Muslim Pakistan denies directly backing the rebellion but says it supports the 'legitimate freedom struggle' of the Kashmiri people. The violence, which Indian officials say has killed more than 40,000 people in 14 years, has declined in Kashmir since India and Pakistan embarked on their peace process and reestablished diplomatic, transport and sporting links. 'Both the countries should find a solution to Kashmir, keeping in mind the miseries of the divided families,' Shaukat Jan Bach said in Muzaffarabad. 'This is a very big human issue.'


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