November 2005 News

Aid Crosses Kashmiri Line - But Families Remain Divided

9 November 2005
The Guardian

Friendship Bridge: 'Oi, hey hi you!' shouted Sajad Shafi, a doctor who stopped handing out Indian relief packages for Pakistani earthquake survivors to wheel his arms in the air. He was trying to catch the attention of a bespectacled reporter 20 feet away. On a dirt track flanked on either side by minefields, the pair stood under the collapsed remains of Friendship Bridge - built to join the divided halves of Himalayan Kashmir but destroyed by tremors last month. Article continues Dr Shafi's cries came from India, but his cousin, Khwaja Zulfikar, felt the surprise in Pakistan. The cousins were on opposite sides of the main frontier crossing in partitioned Kashmir yesterday, reopened to transport relief to victims of the devastating earthquake. A grinning Mr Zulfikar shouted back that everybody was safe, adding plaintively he was 'near and so far'. All that separated the pair was the past and a thin line of Pakistani and Indian troops. The de facto border, called the line of control, stayed closed to trucks and people. 'I could not hug him or talk to him and it has been 15 years since he left,' said Dr Shafi. 'He used to have a beard but I did not forget his face. It would be better if this line was erased so that we can meet our relatives.' Below the folds and snow-crested peaks of the Himalayas, military and civilian officials shook hands and posed for photos as porters scurried with bags of aid. None could give much succour to Mr Shafi. 'We would like the road to reopen properly and families to meet, but we have to deal with the crisis in Pakistan properly first,' said Ahmad Kiani, a Pakistani relief commander. Yesterday's events were a more sombre affair than the near-riot that erupted when Pakistani and Indian army officials opened a relief route running across the plains of southern Kashmir. Then Pakistani police fired over a crowd and used tear gas to break up protests against the enforced separation. The crowds were kept away yesterday. Although Pakistan's suffering has been much greater than India's, the shared history of Kashmiris means very few families have been left untouched on either side of the dividing line. An hour's drive south of Friendship Bridge in the Indian Kashmiri town of Baramulla, Shamina Mir can barely hold back the tears over milky tea and cakes as she describes her loss. Gone are her elder brother, Gulam Bhatt, and his wife, lost in the earthquake. Nothing is left of their fabric shop or home in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir. 'I have not seen my nephew and niece since they were small. Now they are without a family. They should be able to come here and I can look after them.' A further three crossings are slated for opening, although India's concern over the possibility of Muslim militants slipping across the new entry points has delayed that. The next exchange, across the river Neelum, is due at the weekend. The United Nations has been urging the two countries to at least open the frontier to aid trucks, saying thousands of lives could be saved. Millions are clinging to mountainsides, hungry and fearing winter's icy reach. The effects of the earthquake on the two sides are evident here. On the Pakistani side a hillside has crumbled, bringing down the bridge. In Indian Kashmir there is damage but life among the walnut trees and lime groves has soon returned to normal. Because there is no cleared road on the Pakistani side, only aid that could be carried by foot or mule was exchanged yesterday. From India came blankets, tents and rations while Pakistan handed over foods. Both armies said it was important to 'build confidence'. Friendship Bridge was opened in April as the first crossing between the two sides of Kashmir in over half a century when a bus service was launched from Muzaffarabad to Srinagar. The service, which took small numbers of Kashmiris across the line of control every two weeks, has been suspended since the bridge was destroyed. However, the authorities said they were trying to restore links. Colonel G S Rawat of the Indian army said: 'Things are much improved and the atmosphere is better. My Pakistani counterpart and I are in regular contact and we are hoping this is a beginning, not an ending.'


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