Kashmiris Credit Quake With Bridging Border Divide
20 November 2005
Teetwal: Last month's earthquake killed tens of thousands in Kashmir but, for divided families in the disputed region, it also opened up new routes to reunite with long-lost relatives across the frontier. Two dozen men and women from Indian Kashmir created history on Saturday when they became the first in nearly 60 years to be allowed to cross over a new bridge on foot to the Pakistani side to learn the fate of relatives and mourn the dead. Despite the tragedy, the travellers and their relatives said they were delighted about the unprecedented opportunity. 'The earthquake was the wrath of God. But for many of us, it is a blessing in disguise,' Nadir Shah, a retired government employee, said in Teetwal, the last village on the Indian side of the heavily militarised frontier. 'For decades, it was just impossible to cross over this stream and meet your brother across,' he said, pointing at a narrow bridge of steel wire and wood built over the shimmering Kishanganga river and opened to people on Saturday. The river marks the military ceasefire line between India and Pakistan, both of whom claim the Himalayan region in full but rule it in parts. 'Finally Kashmiris are walking across, but unfortunately at a very high cost,' said Shah, a Teetwal resident who plans to travel to Pakistani Kashmir next week to meet relatives. The Oct. 8 quake killed more than 73,000 people in Pakistani Kashmir and elsewhere across Pakistan. About 1,300 people were killed in Indian Kashmir. India and Pakistan, who have been at loggerheads over Kashmir for more than half a century and have fought two wars over it, agreed two weeks ago to allow cross-border movement of aid and meetings of divided families as a humanitarian gesture. BUILD TRUST The South Asian rivals have opened five crossings along the Line of Control to exchange relief goods. Teetwal was the first point for civilians to cross. 'It is only the earthquake which facilitated the opening of this route,' said 45-year-old Asmat Begum, one of the 24 Kashmiris who crossed over on Saturday. 'Though it brought death and destruction, it has done something amazing to this region,' she said. 'We are now able to meet relatives we have never seen before.' In a highly symbolic move in April, India and Pakistan launched a bus service linking Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, the capitals of Indian and Pakistani Kashmir respectively. The bus ran only once a fortnight, and passengers could visit the other side for just two weeks. But the devastation caused by the earthquake forced suspension of the service. Before the bus service, Kashmiris on either side had to travel hundreds of miles south and cross the frontier in the Punjab region or fly through the Indian capital, New Delhi, to meet relatives living barely a few miles away across the hills. 'People died on both sides but those who are alive are coming closer,' said Shakeela, a student. 'These two countries were firing and shelling each other for years. Today, if they are building bridges, it is only because of the earthquake,' she said. Although Islamist militants fighting against New Delhi's rule in Indian Kashmir continue to launch attacks, analysts say opening new frontier crossings could boost a fragile peace process between India and Pakistan. 'Relief is passing through the same routes which, in the past, were used for carrying guns and grenades,' Indian Kashmir's new chief minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, said on Friday, referring to militant incursions from the Pakistani side. 'What can be a bigger confidence building measure?'