In four years of its operation, the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus has ferried 11,000 passengers across the Line of Control to meet their families. Thousands are still waiting to catch the peace bus. Zubair A Dar narrates their stories.
Suhail was uneasy. I could sense it as we stood on a higher rock near the Kaman Bridge on the Indian side of Line of Control.. His eyes anxiously scrutinised each woman’s dress across the bridge. He was searching for that clue – a blue colour shilwar-kemeez and a white scarf. His aunt had promised to wear that dress. He too was trying to demonstrate something – a rust colour coat.
Suddenly his eyes noticed someone across. She was waving her right hand. She had probably recognised Suhail, or at least his dress. He too waved back, in excitement. But the moment of joy was short lived.
“She is there, across this bridge. But I can not meet her. I can not embrace her,” Suhail said as tears welled up in his eyes and ran down his cheeks. “It pains.”
It was October 21, 2008 – a historic day that would add a new chapter to the relations between two parts of Kashmir, divided by a 740 kilometre long de-facto boundary – the Line of Control (LoC). The historic peace bus that promised to unite the divided families had been ferrying passengers to this line for traversing it for three years. That day, governments of India and Pakistan had decided to take the initiative further and allow goods to flow across the line. Almost every media crew, every photo journalist and every scribe had reached Kaman Bridge on LoC to report the event. What they, however, happened to catch in their cameras and jot down on their notepads were moments of an emotional ordeal – separation of a family that had come so near, and were yet so far.
“She is Tahira, my mother’s maternal sister. She had applied for a permit to visit Kashmir,” Suhail told me. “The process is taking a lot of time.”
Tahira had called Suhail the evening before. “She was seeking my help to get the case processed quickly,” Suhail said, as he moved close to the bridge. Tahira too was moving close on the other side. But that was the closest they could have got. The governments of the two countries did not allow unauthorised passage across the bridge. The trade was happening, people still separated.
“Last evening when she called, I told her that I am going to Kaman Bridge to cover this event. She said she was also going. So we decided on a dress code,” Suhail revealed the secret. They had never seen each other before. “Last time any of their family members travelled to Kashmir to meet us was in 1989 when her brother Peerzada Irshad Ahmad came on a tourist visa.”
Peerzada Irshad is a deputy director in PaK’s tourism department. “His (Irshad’s) father had gone to Muzaffarabad after some differences in the family and settled there,” Suhail said. “Their relatives are settled across Europe and Mid-east. All of them meet, except us.” The travel permit is still pending for clearance.
Like Suhail, thousands of families across Jammu and Kashmir wait for a travel permit across LoC to meet their relatives, or mourn the deaths of those who could not last the wait.
“All my maternal uncles and other relatives live in PaK. During October 2005 earthquake, 11 of our relatives died. We were shattered. My mother and I applied for travel to Muzaffarabad in October 2005. Till date, nothing has materialised,” complains Khawaja Jameel Ahmad Badoo of Garkote, Uri.
Jameel challenges the way governments of two countries deprive the divided families of a chance of reunion. “I approached (Regional) Passport Office, Srinagar many times but their parroted answer is that they have not received verification from Pakistan. I contacted my relatives in Muzaffarabad and gave them application number to cross check. The authorities there said that they have sent back the application with a positive note,” says Jameel (32), a businessman residing just five kilometres inside the LoC.
He seeks clarification from the government for “allowing those who otherwise are not entitled to go across”.
“I don’t know who are allowed and who disallowed. If being relative of a militant is a criterion, then none of our relatives is or had been one. Besides, PRO of a state minister was once a militant and he was recently allowed to visit his relatives on the other side,” adds Jameel.
The tales of emotional reunions make the families even more eager. Jameel has not been as lucky as Abdul Aziz Khan Afridi, 80, of Taripora, Baramulla and Makeena Begum, 75, of Hajeera, Muzaffarabad. Aziz’s son Mohammad Farooq Khan Afridi, 41, says that even the menacingly hot summer’s sun at Chakoti could not spoil the movement when the brother-sister duo took each other in a firm embrace on July 6, 2006. Separated for sixty years, they had sunk into an inexplicable ocean of relief. The tears that ran down their creasy faces were of joy, boundless.
In 1947, many of Aziz’s family members including his younger sister Makeena left the valley for PaK. Aziz was 20 then. They settled there and never came back. Since then, Aziz and his sister had never seen each other, letters remaining the only means to exchange information.
“I could not believe my eyes seeing my family members together for the first time in my life. Estranged relations between India and Pakistan had closed the floodgates of warmth. That day they were thrown open. I felt the whole world singing for me”, Farooq exults, mixing doses of his Pashto accent into Urdu while narrating the joyous journey of his life.
Farooq, who serves at a restaurant in Srinagar, cherishes the moments he spent with his relatives across. “I wish I could visit that place again. For 45 days, I roamed carefree in that place,” he says. “An owner of a cloth shop gave me a suit free of cost refusing to accept money. The suit cost Rs 6000.”
Mohammad Lateef Aawan (32) of Salamabad, Uri was eager to meet his relatives after the quake. Dismissed from police for staying home after the 2005 earthquake, Lateef later travelled to PaK to visit his relatives.
“The moment I stepped down from the bus, a cavalcade of 16 cars was waiting for me at Chakoti. My maternal cousin, Atar Jan who had earlier visited our home, leapt towards me and took me in his arms. Others followed and I felt like the hero of the moment,” he recalls his travel across in November 2008. “Some of my relatives I had never seen before went on kissing and hugging me,” says Lateef.
He says he was taken to Goarabad, a hamlet situated on the bank of speeding Jhelum river, in Hatiyan tehsil in a cavalcade. “When we reached Goarabad in the evening, the entire village had assembled and each determined to take me to his home. Ultimately Atar Jan persuaded everyone that he would host me for the first two days,” says Lateef, his voice nostalgic and sentimental.
“The bus service is a blessing for the divided families. Only those, who experience the pangs of separation, can feel it,” says Lateef. It was this separation that hurt Suhail. For the first time I saw him stammering during a piece to camera. On the other side, his aunt was speaking to camera men who had come to cover the event. “To me this LoC trade was worth less. I have my son on the other side, but I can not see him,” she said.