April 2006 News

Peace Bus Carries Few Passengers, Flickering Hope

15 April 2006

Kaman Post: Abdul Qadir ignored militant threats more than a year ago and queued for a permit to board an historic bus service that promised to reunite families in divided Kashmir. But 13 months later, the 52- year-old shopkeeper is still waiting for the paperwork to be processed.'The launch of the bus had given us hope we never had, but I don't think I can make this trip now,' Qadir, whose brother lives in Pakistani Kashmir, told Reuters at his home in Uri, the last Indian town along a 170-km (106 mile) highway linking the capitals of the two regions. A mood of optimism has evaporated as elaborate security checks and suffocating bureaucracy have combined to stall the Kashmir 'peace bus' launched amid much fanfare by India and Pakistan in April 2005, the first such link in almost 60 years. 'These two countries have played with our emotions, they are making fun of us by putting formalities like time-consuming security clearances (in the way),' said Ghulam Mustufa, a school teacher as he points to the latest bus to leave Uri. 'See it is going empty.' On Thursday, the cross-border service - known as 'Carvane Aman' or peace caravan and always escorted by police vehicles - carried just a single passenger. 'On both sides of Kashmir the security agencies are suspicious and strict in issuing permits,' the lone traveler, Nasir Abbass, said as the bus waited to cross the 'Aman Setu', the 'Peace Bridge' that spans a Himalayan stream marking the border.According to Indian foreign ministry officials, only 311 of the 6,000 who applied to travel to Pakistani Kashmir have made the trip in the past year, while 505 people came from Pakistan. DEATH THREATS On several occasions, the fortnightly bus, which was opposed by separatist groups and militants who threatened to kill passengers at the time of its launch, has run with only a handful of travelers - - or totally empty. 'So far it is more symbolic than real,' Abbas, a resident of Pakistani Kashmir, said. The bus service has been one of the few concrete achievements since a formal peace process between India and Pakistan began in early 2004 after more than half a century of animosity, largely over the disputed and divided region of Kashmir. The nuclear rivals, who each claim the region in its entirety, have fought two wars over the region since 1947. Although ties have improved - with increased transport, sporting and cultural links* - New Delhi still accuses Islamabad of abetting Muslim militants fighting its rule in the region, a charge Pakistan rejects. Progress toward bridging differences has been slow. More than 45,000 people have been killed in a separatist revolt in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir - the country's only Muslim- majority state - since 1989. But despite the empty seats, some say the fact the bus is still running holds out hope. 'The bus is the first step toward a resolution of the Kashmir dispute,' said Mehbooba Mufti, a leader of the People's Democratic Party. 'What is most important is that the bus is running. The number of passengers is immaterial, it still carries hope.' Indian officials say a devastating earthquake last October, which damaged the peace bridge and killed more than 73,000 people in Pakistani Kashmir and around 1,300 in the Indian part, was a major setback to the service. 'After the earthquake the bus service was suspended for at least six weeks but we are hopeful it will pick up again,' a senior Indian passport official said.


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