Tears, sweets and flowers at family reunions across Kashmir
by Izhar Wani
Passengers who rode the first trans-Kashmir bus service in nearly 60 years were Friday enjoying emotional family reunions, visiting ancestral homes and getting to know life on the “other side” of the divided state.
“I am reborn today. I feel great to be back in my house,” a tearful Farida Gani, 57, said as she and her brother Mehboob Gani, 45, returned to their family home in Jamalata area of the Indian Kashmir summer capital Srinagar.
The Ganis were among 30 people who arrived in Srinagar late Thursday after travelling the 160 kilometres (100 mile) route from Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir, on the first bus service linking the two zones since 1947.
Nineteen passengers went in the opposite direction in two buses flagged off in Srinagar by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The passengers from Muzaffarabad were hosted overnight by the state government in a Srinagar lakeside hotel but left to rejoin families early Friday.
Some, however, went to pray first at the revered Muslim shrine Hazratbal on the shores of Dal Lake, which houses a whisker Muslims believe comes from Prophet Mohammed’s beard.
Four rebel groups have threatened to attack the passengers but on Friday they and their relatives were seen moving freely around Srinagar.
For the Ganis, it was a happy homecoming to the ancestral house. Their father, then a prominent lawyer, fled to Pakistani Kashmir in 1948, a year after India and Pakistan fought their first war over Kashmir.
Although Farida Gani was only two when she and her parents headed for Muzaffarabad, home for her has remained the modest house in Jamalata. The entire neighbourhood poured out to welcome the sister and brother when they arrived, presenting them with bouquets, flower garlands and sweets. Mehboob Gani was born in Pakistani Kashmir and said he had come to visit his family.
“It is my right to be here. I have come to see my ancestral land,” he said on meeting his relatives for the first time. We have received love and care from all quarters here.”
Similar scenes have been repeated in both Srinagar and Muzaffarabad since the “peace buses” arrived at their destinations late Thursday, reuniting families who in many cases had been split for decades.
Holding her son Naseer Ahmed tightly on the lush green lawn of a government guest house in Muzaffarabad, the more Fatima Butt tried to control herself, the more she wept. Mother and son had last seen each other 15 years ago.
“It seems more like 150 years,” Ahmed, 35, told AFP.
Fatima and her husband Abdullah Butt were among the 19 passengers who crossed to the Pakistani zone, to where their son had moved after he married his cousin. She had been unable to visit him because of the impossibly complex bureaucracy involved in getting a visa as well as security clearance for the journey.
Wearing a traditional Kashmiri black burqa, Fatima wiped away tears as her son tried to comfort her. “Of all my family members, I missed my mother the most,” Ahmed told AFP.
“The thing which stuck in my memory were her pieces of advice on everything,” he said, receiving a kiss on the forehead from his mother.
Inside a hall of the guest house, AshiqSuleria was elated as he met his cousin Firdous Nasim and her husband, Khalid Hussain, for the first time. Hussain, a former bureaucrat in Indian Kashmir, and his wife had received threatening phone calls from militants to cancel the trip. “I never had an idea that we could ever meet each other. Thanks to the bus service which made it possible,” he told AFP.
They were later to travel to Pakistani Kashmir’s southern Mirpur town, where Suleria lives.
The bus link is seen as the first tangible result of the 14-month peace process between the two nations who have fought two of their three wars over the disputed Himalayan region.