A minor logistical problem or a major political issue: Kashmir bus service
2 September 2004
New Delhi: What at first sight would appear to be a minor logistical problem, is indeed a major political issue a bus linking Azad Kashmir with occupied Kashmir will be a central topic at discussions of the foreign ministers in New Delhi. The talks begin on Sunday, they are the highest ranking between the two countries since the ongoing peace process was started at the beginning of the year. If the bus route is agreed upon, it would be the first time since 1947 that there would be a direct route of travel between the two regions of Kashmir. For Kashmiris like 80-year-old Abdullah Gama from Salamabad, the bus link could mean a long delayed reunion with his brother Ahmed, who lives in Azad Kashmir, only a few kilometres away, but on the other side of the Line of Control (LoC). To cross the LoC, is not legally possible and is deadly to do so illegally. There is no postal or telephone service between the two zones, and Gama hasn't heard from his brother in 57 years. 'I still miss him,' says Gama. 'Even if I don't even know whether he is still alive.' The bus might be the last chance for the frail old man who longs for a reunion. 'I would be the luckiest person if I could see my brother again.' To travel between the two zones is possible, if you have the time and nerve to do so - and you need money, which Gama doesn't have. Mohammad Zaman Abassi, from the nearby village of Uroosa, decided to undertake the odyssey to visit his relatives. The 75-year- old had to get from Uroosa to Srinagar, then travel to New Delhi, to apply for a visa to Pakistan. He then had to wait for a seat on one of the few buses to Wagah, the only border crossing between India and Pakistan. The journey then took him from the cities of Lahore and Rawalpindi to Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Kashmir. There Abassi took yet another bus to his destination of Hattian - near the LoC and only a few kilometres as the crow flies from his hometown of Uroosa. The trip - more than 2,000 kilometres - took him one week. Abassi still remembers when the trip on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus took a few hours. Though India and Pakistan have been in discussions for months, the revival of the bus route would be the first major breakthrough since the peace negotiations started in February. But so far both sides are stuck on the question of identification documents. India refuses to accept United Nations documents or special 'for-Kashmiris-only' permits for crossing the LoC and insists on passports being used. But Pakistan refuses to accept passports as a means of identification to cross the LoC as it would equate it with an international border - thereby, according to Islamabad, implying an acceptance of the division of Kashmir. For the impoverished villages along the dead-end-street towards LoC the bus route would not only end their isolation, but could be a small economic boom. Farmer Qamaruzzaman, from Uroosa, is already thinking about opening a small restaurant down at the street, and the owner of the shop at the red bridge is dreaming about new, paying customers, unlike his regulars who run tabs. But the road still ends below Uroosa, the last kilometres are damaged and mined, and a bridge connecting to Pakistan is still missing. Within a few months, the army estimates, it could make the stretch passable again - if one day the orders are handed down to do so.