Bordering on fear: the lives under threat near the Line of Control
When India and
Pakistan exchanged artillery fire near here more than a decade ago, the house
of Bashir Ahmed Abbassi was badly damaged. Now, whenever tension ratchets up
between the two nations – as it frequently does – Mr Abbassi fears his home could
be hit again.
“In 1999 and 2000 there was shelling. My house suffered a lot of damage – around R100,000,” said the shop-keeper from the village of Isham. “We live on the Line of Control. We are involved. When there is tension I feel bad because of what happened in 2000.”
Mr Abbassi and his neighbours reside in the shadow of one of the most hotly-disputed borders in the world. The snaking 460-mile Line of Control (LoC) that divides Pakistan Kashmir from Indian Kashmir and represents the unofficial but de facto border, is rarely far from the headlines.
Most recently, three Pakistani and two Indian soldiers were killed south of here in clashes that lead to another war of words between political leaders. India expressed outrage that one of its troops was apparently beheaded. Pakistan retorted saying that at least a dozen of its soldiers had been decapitated in incidents in the past decade.
“When there is shelling, there is nothing we can do to save our lives,” said Mohammed Amir Abbassi, a cousin of the shop-keeper who runs a roadside shack selling tea and vegetables. “Two months ago there was shelling further south.”
The road towards the LoC from the town of Uri becomes increasingly high and narrow. From the road, the mineral-green water of the Jhelum river flashes from the bottom of the valley. For many years, the Indian authorities have worked to upgrade the road.
“I have been working on the road for 25 years. There is no other work here,” said Nazir Ahmed, crouching with other members of a road-crew who were trying to brew tea in the lea of a large boulder.
The work to improve the road, technically National Highway 1, is partly to benefit the military and partly to enable cross-border trade that began in October 2008 after a halt of 60 years. (A bus service began three years earlier but locals complain it is very difficult to get permission to cross.)
Four days a week, 50 brightly-painted trucks from Pakistan Kashmir arrive in Indian Kashmir bearing oranges, spices and vegetables, and 50 rather more ordinary trucks head in the opposite direction, carrying bananas, embroidered goods and apples. Under the watch of Indian officials, the Pakistani drivers unload their cargo at the Salamabad trading centre.
Officials are proud that even when tensions are high, as in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, the trucks have never stopped. “The trade helps address the trust deficit,” said NA Baba, the chief trade official.
The furthest point one can reach without a permit from the Indian military authorities is the sentry post of Lal Pur, named for the red metal bridge that crossed a ravine flooding into the Jhelum. “See the snow,” said a soldier, pointing a mountainside a couple of miles away. “That’s Pakistan.”
The Indian armed forces declined permission for The Independent to visit the actual LoC, which was formalised by the 1972 Simla Accord, signed following the 1971 Indo-Pak war. It was based on the ceasefire line established following clashes that erupted after Partition in 1947 when the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was divided. Both countries still claim the right to that part of Kashmir held by the other side.
In 2001, in the Indian city of Agra, then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Pakistan’s military leader Pervez Musharraf, reportedly came close to agreeing a deal that would have made made the LoC less relevant. The deal fell through but a ceasefire was signed in 2003.
For the people whose homes are barely a mile from the border and whose lives are under the conflicting pulls of India and Pakistan, their loyalties are clear. They believe there should be no border between the two Kashmirs and that Mr Abbassi should be able to visit the cousins he has in Pakistan whom he has never met. He said: “We are Kashmiris. They should get rid of the border so that both sides can meet.”
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