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Familiar Gloom Replaces Hope for an Open Kashmir Border

November 08, 2005|Paul Watson and John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writers

TETRINOTE, Pakistan — For all of his life, Syed Taneer Hussain has waited to cross the de facto border that divides the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir and see relatives he has never had a chance to meet. But like every other day of belligerence between India and Pakistan, Monday ended in heartbreak.

The 52-year-old teacher had thought his time had finally come. Following Oct. 8's magnitude 7.6 earthquake, which killed more than 87,000 people, India had agreed to open a new crossing through the cease-fire line that divides the region so people could bring aid and condolences to relatives.

At the time of the scheduled opening, however, India and Pakistan exchanged only symbolic truckloads of relief across the so-called Line of Control. Hussain was among the estimated 1,000 Kashmiris living under Pakistani rule who watched in frustration from afar as the two sides met in the Tetrinote Valley.

"Last night I was so happy," Hussain said, surrounded by other villagers from nearby Hajira. "I was so thrilled to be able to see my relatives. But now I cannot go. When will these two armies go home and let us live our lives freely? My family has been separated from its other half from the day they made this line. The time has come to erase it."

India and Pakistan opened the cease-fire line to bus service in April. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has repeatedly asked for more crossing points, and after the quake, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to open five more.

But only one of those opened Monday. Indian officials said they needed several more days to clear land mines and make further preparations at the four other sites.

Musharraf is under increasing pressure to show significant results from a peace process with India that began more than two years ago. Talks have improved relations between the nuclear-armed rivals but failed to resolve the 58-year dispute over the once-independent territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

India and Pakistan both claim the territory, while many Kashmiris on both sides want independence for the region. The two nations have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir.

But for several hours Monday, the line almost seemed to disappear. It was marked by white tape drawn across the dirt of no-man's land, which had been littered with Indian mines only cleared in recent days.

At first, an Indian army officer tried to shoo back to the Pakistani side the foreign and Pakistani journalists who stepped across the tape. A few television reporters tested his patience, speaking to the cameras with one foot in India and the other in Pakistan. Eventually, journalists and officials milled freely along the line.

Indian officials said they sent 25 truckloads of quake relief aid worth about $115,000 to Pakistan on Monday, including 300 tents and several tons of rice, flour, sugar and medicine. India has pledged $25 million in aid to Pakistan's quake victims.

As a bitter Himalayan winter approaches, Pakistan repeatedly has asked foreign donors to send more aid to help the 3 million-plus people who lost their homes in the quake. Most of Indian-held Kashmir escaped the tremor's destruction, but on Monday, the Pakistani government insisted on sending a truckload of relief aid, mostly food, to the Indian side as a symbolic gesture.

Like many Kashmiris on both sides of the dividing line, Rakshanda Shah, Hussain's cousin in the Indian-controlled town of Poonch, is frustrated that the two countries are acting slowly on their vow to reunite families.

"We don't have permission from our government to cross over or even go close to the LOC for the opening," she said. "We have not met with each other so far, and life keeps going like this. Some of our relatives [in Pakistani Kashmir] have died while others are suffering the pain of separation."

Shah lives just six miles away from the crossing opened Monday, but she had to watch the ceremony on satellite TV. She was shocked to see what followed the formal handshakes.

When most of the aid had been transferred, and dignitaries and journalists had finished a buffet lunch catered by the Indian army, Pakistani security forces fired several tear gas rounds to disperse the crowd of Kashmiris watching the festivities from a distance.

Pakistani border police moved in after several people in the crowd began chanting anti-government slogans and demanding permission to cross.

"Every Kashmiri wants to go to the Indian side of Kashmir and kiss the land," said Sardar Mohammed Farooq Tabasum, an official in Pakistani Kashmir.

The exchange of relief aid was carefully planned with attention to diplomatic sensitivities. Bulldozers from both countries worked in unison to clear the crossing point in a broad valley where three years ago soldiers had exchanged artillery fire.

Then Indian and Pakistani trucks of equal size backed up within inches of the white tape and the aid changed hands precisely over the mark.

"It's historic," Brij Raj Sharma, the Pakistani divisional commissioner for Jammu, said Monday. "The physical boundary is going down, and the mental barrier is being broken."

The crossing opened Monday, near India's Poonch and the Pakistani town of Rawalkot, is known for the heaviest traffic of militants infiltrating from Pakistani territory to fight Indian rule in Jammu and Kashmir, Indian officials said.

That made the smiles and handshakes between opposing military officers all the more extraordinary. India says it has foiled at least eight attempts by militants to infiltrate into the Poonch district from Pakistani territory this year.

*

Glionna reported from Tetrinote and Watson from Chakan-da-Bagh and Poonch, India. Special correspondent Firdous Tak in Chakan-da-Bagh and Poonch contributed to this report.

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