Frontline: Muzaffarabad, Kashmir - Spring casts a deadly chill in land of majestic beauty

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The Independent Online
KASHMIR LOOKS beautiful at this time of year. The rivers race along the deep valleys swollen by early meltwater and above them the steep slopes of the Himalayan foothills are thick with dark green pines and fragrant with spring blossom. Above the forests, the snow is pure white in the afternoon sun and goes pink in the evening.

But for the people of Kashmir there is no joy in spring. Its coming is signalled not by a cuckoo but by the dull boom of distant artillery pieces and the crack and whoosh of incoming shells. April is the month when the undeclared war between India and Pakistan gets going again after a winter break.

I spoke to Mohammed Yusuf, 62, a teacher, in a hot, dusty street in the Kashmiri town of Muzaffarabad. He straightened his hunched shoulders, sucked his gums and looked up at the clear blue sky. His phrases might have been a touch melodramatic but his emotion was obvious.

"Our joys have now finished," he said. "We just remember the past when in the spring the birds were chirping, we were going to the fields, singing our folk songs. Now everything is finished."

Last weekend the first shells fell on the lovely Neelam valley. The valley runs from the snow-capped mountains around Nanga Parbat - one of the world's highest peaks - down through terraced fields and villages to Muzaffarabad. It makes Switzerland look like Basildon. Unfortunately, immediately to the east is the Line Of Control - the United Nations-monitored boundary between Pakistan and India.

Neither country accepts the border as permanent and, as a result, every spring the shells start to crash down.

Last year there was widespread destruction and scores of people died. For a few weeks, when the bombardment reached its height, refugees poured into Muzaffarabad - a hot and dusty place with an unfeasible amount of corrugated iron on the roofs of its buildings reflecting a sun that is blinding even in April. This year, despite the recent thaw in relations between Delhi and Islamabad, everyone is preparing to go through the same thing again.

"It's a nightmare," said Khwajah Ghulam Mohammed, a wholesaler of rice and pulses. "Every year I am doing all right and then the fighting starts and business gets terrible."

Ever since the Hindu Maharajah of Kashmir led his state - with its predominantly Muslim population - into India in 1947 there have been problems. Twice Pakistan - which believes it is the rightful owner of the state - and India have fought wars over its thousand or so square miles of valleys, peaks and lakes. The international community has largely given up on the problem and is now reduced to keeping its collective fingers crossed, hoping that the dispute does not spark a conflict between the world's two newest overt nuclear powers.

Last year, immediately after the Indian nuclear tests in May, I interviewed Abdul Qayyum, whose brother, a credit officer in a local bank, was killed in June 1995 by Indian shellfire as he was riding his motorbike up the Neelam valley on his way home from work.

Last week, over tea in his simple home, Mr Qayyum said he could never forgive."How can I forget this? I am only sad because I have not yet had a chance to get my revenge. The Indian firing has created hatred in us towards India."

Around the city are half a dozen camps for the refugees who have fled from what the Pakistanis call "Indian-occupied Kashmir" and, almost to a man, share Mr Qayyum's feelings. They are now well-established townships with stone buildings, intermittent electricity, shops and cobbled streets. The shops are not exactly well-stocked - mainly limited to a few bars of soap and some odd-shaped bits of rubber described as children's toys. There appeared to be an inexplicable glut of umbrellas.

The camps are the recruiting ground for many of the fighters waging a guerrilla war against the Indian security forces. Though the Pakistanis deny it, these mujahedin are supported, armed and trained by organisations closely linked to the Pakistani intelligence services. It is these fighters' attempts to infiltrate Indian territory - which start when the snow on the high passes melts enough to allow passage - that provokes the barrages of artillery fire.

When they reach Indian territory the guerrillas set about matching the destruction wreaked by the Indian shelling in the Neelam valley. Soldiers and policemen are assassinated, houses torched, Hindus massacred. In an awful symmetry, scores of Indians learn to hate like Abdul Qayyum. Peace looks far away.

Everyone knows that when winter comes again the bombs and the bullets will stop while the Himalayan storms layer Kashmir with white. And, next year, when the sun starts to strip the snow away, the sounds of spring will once again shatter the peace.