Kashmir Bus Linking Divided Families 'a Lifeline'

23 October 2014
Shumaila Jaffrey

Muzaffarabad: Seventy-three-year-old Noor Hussain walks briskly as he enters the bus terminal in Muzaffarabad, the capital city of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. He is about to catch a bus that will take him across a disputed border to the place of his birth - India. It is a border that still causes confrontations. At least 20 people were killed as troops on either side of the border exchanged fire earlier this month. Nevertheless, just weeks later, Mr Hussain is on the move. Keeping his balance with a blue travel bag in one hand, he is accompanied by his wife, daughter and granddaughter. This journey will reunite him with his seven siblings and it is only his second trip home since 1958. Noor Hussain was born in Indian-administered Kashmir and moved to Pakistan as a young student. He was hungry for change and excitement. Unlike many others, he left of his own free will despite the turbulent times. But he underestimated how bad relations would get, with India and Pakistan fighting wars in Kashmir. As tensions worsened, he was caught in the middle, unable to return home for nearly five decades. 'My mother developed cancer after I left,' he said. 'I applied for visa many times. I showed her medical reports to the Indian High Commission but they didn't let me go and she died'. Noor Hussain was reunited with his family after a weekly bus service between Indian and Pakistani administered Kashmir started 10 years ago. Only Kashmiris can travel on the buses and must undergo security checks before receiving a special permit. Despite the recent violence along the Line of Control, the disputed border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, Mr Hussain was not scared to travel. Rather, he was worried about the future of the service. 'This bus is a lifeline for the divided Kashmiri families, and we wish that no matter how bad things become between India and Pakistan, this bus shouldn't be stopped,' he said. Testing times But the exchange of fire along the border is still continuing, raising fears that things may get worse, as both sides accuse the other of firing first. Many people in Kashmir are reminded of the dark days when they had to live without any contact with their loved ones on the other side of the border. Normally 60 passengers travel to Srinagar, the capital city of Indian-administered Kashmir every week, but on the day Noor Hussain was travelling, the bus was only half full. The bus takes passengers to the Chakothi checkpoint where the passengers get their luggage scanned and papers checked before they enter Indian-administered Kashmir. The bus was waved through and a few hours later, dozens of colourful trucks pulled up outside the checkpoint. The trucks were full of dry fruit, clothes, herbs and Kashmiri carpets. The gate opened, and one by one, each truck was weighed, and then moved to a huge shed. Every item was thrown on the floor, sacks ripped open, and every item scanned by the Pakistani border guards. They worked late into the night. These trucks, along with the bus service, are examples of a tentative normalisation of relations between communities on both sides of the border. The governments in India and Pakistan have agreed to them and they have been under way for approximately a decade. Despite there being a limited list of 21 items that both sides can export, intra-Kashmiri trade has grown to $89m (£56m) a year according to the US based foreign policy website, the International Policy Digest. However, all figures are estimates as no money is allowed to change hands and goods must be bartered. But any upsurge in violence in the region has an immediate impact on trade. Shabbir Ahmed is a Kashmiri trader who has been exporting goods since trade stared in 2008. He has seen many ups and downs but this time he is feeling jittery. 'Things are not very good at the border,' he said. 'We are worried about the future of trade from Kashmir. It's the backbone of our economy. If it is stopped, many people would lose their livelihoods.' So far, it seems that sense is prevailing between the two nuclear rivals at the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar border. But in the Nakiaal sector close to the Line of Control, it's an entirely different story. Zaheen Akhtar lives in a small village called Dabsi Naar, only a few hundred metres from the border. A few days ago, when she was feeding her children their evening meal in the compound, the Indian army stared shelling. A shell struck a tree, sending splinters everywhere and injuring her children. Her three-year-old son was wounded while her daughter now has a bandage on her neck. Some villagers have left but Zaheen is staying. 'We are very scared,' she said. 'Whenever I hear a gunshot, I gather my children and take them inside. I can't bring water, cook meals or work in the fields due to the constant shelling. 'But this is our home and our land. Where else can we go?' It's a story echoed on the other side of the border. Dozens of villages have been vacated in Indian-administered Kashmir after eight people were killed during shelling from the Pakistani army. Both armies appear to be showing some restraint after a tragic loss of lives on both sides but a permanent peace seems as elusive as ever.