At The LoC, Two Armies Forget Guns & Mines, Try To Bridge An Old Divide
8 March 2005
The Indian Express
Uri: For 58 years, this 200-ft ramshackle wooden bridge on the Srinagar- Muzaffarabad road was the most visible symbol of enmity between India and Pakistan. The Line of Control cut through it and, after three wars and decades of high tension, the two countries had found it impossible to divide the three brick piers of what everyone here calls the Wood Bridge. Today, hundreds of unarmed men of the two rival armies are busy rebuilding it because the first bus to cross the LoC since 1947 has to go over it. Rivalry has given way to bonhomie and the hostile LoC is now the Line of Celebration. 'It was difficult for the men in this post to see the sun. You couldn't even dream of coming out in open, without being hit by bullets,' says Col G S Rawat, pointing towards Kaman Post, the Army's last bunker on the LoC here. 'Now it is like the site of a big celebration.' Hundreds of men from his Dogra regiment, the Engineering corps, Border Roads Organisation and local labourers are working on a war- footing to rebuild the final 400-metre stretch of road along Jhelum river, defusing mines, clearing trees, and even building a complex for immigration, customs, a bank and other facilities. Not long ago, this area was a minefield where no one would have survived even a one-metre walk, with soldiers hidden inside bunkers on either side, exchanging bullets and shells. Today, they exchange pleasantries as bulldozers roll and men work. In fact, the area looks like a picnic spot. Lt Col Maninder Singh, who leads the Army's team of engineers here, says that they have been working for the last 15 days, clearing mines and restoring the old road that leads to the bridge. 'It has been a challenging task. And like all our tasks, we have tried to give our best,' he says. 'But this work has been special too. You are healing the wounds. It is like putting stitches in the wounds of the psyche of people separated for a long time.' Across Wood Bridge, Pakistani armyman Shahbaz stands watch as the road takes a right turn towards Chakoti-the first town on the other side of the LoC-and smiles as a bulldozer clears mounds of earth. The Indian Army is building an alternative road, too, straight through the stream, right below the bridge. 'We have been just metres away from a handshake with them,' says a soldier. 'For the first time in my life, we are so close to them (Pakistani soldiers) and so happy. It's time for peace, who doesn't love it.' The soldier says that although there has been no change in duty routine, this new bonhomie, generated by the announcement to re-open the Srinagar- Muzaffarabad road, has made life easy for them. The Army is in the forefront of this peace mission. Apart from working on the road and the bridge, Armymen are even giving Uri town a facelift, painting pavements. The Army has also conducted a 'Welcome Slogan Contest' asking its men as well as villagers, especially school children to write couplets and slogans that will be put on banners and erected all along the road to welcome passengers from across. 'We have had an amazing response,' says Brigadier Syed Atta Hasnain of Army's Uri Brigade. 'People have sent beautiful couplets of love and peace. It is historic, a great feeling.' The Border Roads Organisation's BEACON has put in its entire strength and expertise to make the road ready for traffic before April 7, when the first bus will leave Srinagar for Muzaffarabad with 30 Kashmiris. Says Dilip Marathay, a Beacon overseer: 'I feel very excited. This is not an ordinary road. Every inch of the road we rebuild is a contribution towards friendship and peace between the two countries. And we are doing everything possible.' BEACON has hired 700 local labourers to help out. 'They are very enthusiastic to work with us here. For them, it is not just work. Lots of them have close relatives living across the LoC and this road is a good news,' says Marathay. Says Mohammad Latief Sheikh (55), a labourer from nearby Ashim village: 'It all looks like a dream.' He says he has four uncles and their children in Athiyan Bhala village on the other side. 'We used to get letters from them but now we haven't heard from them for a long time. I can't tell you how happy we are. It has been like Eid ever since we heard the road is being opened,' says Sheikh. 'This was hell. But our life changed since the shelling stopped. Nobody had imagined this road will open.' Next to him, Mohammad Safdar Abbasi (18), a Class 10 student from Gawlata village, says he became a labourer only to be a part of this historic occasion. 'I have never worked as a labourer before. I was so desperate to come and see this road and be part of this work,' he says. 'My maternal uncle lives across in Chakothi. It's just three kms from here and I have never seen him.'