Old dangers of Kashmir growing worse

2 longtime enemies, now nuclear powers, intensify confrontation

War On Terrorism

November 04, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CHAKOTHI, Pakistan - One mile high in the Himalayan foothills, Pakistani Army Lt. Col. Nauman Saeed peered through binoculars, searching for his enemies on the other side of a deep ravine.

"Look! Look! There they are," he said, handing off his binoculars to a group of journalists visiting the Line of Control, the heavily armed border dividing the disputed province of Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

Sure enough, five Indian soldiers standing together behind a stone wall came into focus. One leaned against a tree and smoked a cigarette. Another stared back with binoculars. The rest smiled and waved, enjoying the attention.

"Don't worry. They won't shoot. They are not that stupid," Saeed said with a sneer before he paused and added: "But who knows? Maybe they are."

Like many of the Pakistani soldiers guarding this tense border, Saeed never seemed to miss an opportunity to take a swipe at his Indian adversaries 500 feet away. But in recent weeks, the two countries have exchanged more than insults. They have shelled one another in some of their worst armed clashes in years, ending 10 months of peace along this cease-fire line and adding tension to a region already frayed by U.S.-led airstrikes against Afghanistan.

The struggle over Kashmir, which both countries claim as their own, has dragged on for more than a half-century. In that time, two wars have been fought over the mountainous province and thousands of lives lost, leaving the two nuclear powers with one of the bitterest and most irreconcilable relationships on the planet.

For Pakistan, the renewed fighting highlights a conflict they think has been ignored far too long by the international community. And thus, with hundreds of news agencies swarming their country to cover the war in Afghanistan, the Pakistani government has started sponsoring media tours to the Line of Control, an area normally strictly off-limits to visitors.

"Kashmir is bleeding and burning, and yet the international community is not paying due attention to this problem," says Brig. Gen. Mohammad Yaqub, a tall, regal military leader who runs this frontline army base about a six-hour drive north of Islamabad. "If there are two people killed in the Middle East it makes the headlines in all the media in the world. And there are also Kashmiri people getting killed every day. Nobody talks about that."

But they should, Yaqub argued, because of what is at stake.

"Pakistan and India are both nuclear states," he said. "The two countries could go to yet another war. And, unfortunately, if they do it can result in a catastrophe for the entire world."

In an hour-long presentation, Yaqub stood before a flip chart and offered a dim portrait of life just a few hundred feet away in Indian-held Kashmir. There are dusk-to-dawn curfews for all people living within 5 miles of the front lines, checkpoints and gang rape, he says. And, he claimed, Indian troops force civilians to carry munitions and rations for them.

A diagram titled "Details of Atrocities since 1990" listed the incidents of violence against Kashmiris, allegedly at the hands of Indian soldiers. Among them: "School children burned alive: 553; Dead bodies recovered from River Jhelum: 617; Raped (Between age 7 to 70): 7613."

Though it is difficult to assess how much of the diagram was hyperbolic propaganda, the 2001 Human Rights Watch report says Indian security forces have used "draconian counter insurgency measures," including arbitrary arrest, torture and rape, against Muslim citizens who were suspected of supporting guerrilla activity.

The report, however, also found that armed Islamic freedom fighters were also guilty of mass killings, rape, execution-style slayings and other threats to members of Kashmir's minority Hindu community.

At a camp for Kashmiri refugees, journalists were introduced to a man named Sulaiman, who said he fled Kashmir nine years ago because Indian forces were raping women and beating the men. The Pakistani government provides free schooling, medical care, electricity, water and a monthly stipend to more than 17,000 refugees.

"All hell has been let loose against the poor inhabitants of Kashmir," Yaqub said during his rehearsed speech.

Indians, of course, see the conflict much differently. For years, Indians living in Kashmir have been the targets of terrorist attacks carried out by Pakistan-based groups fighting for Kashmir's independence. On Oct. 1, a suicide bomb attack on the Jammu-Kashmir state legislature killed 40 people, one of a number of attacks that have rocked Kashmir in recent weeks.

In response, Indian forces have fired across the Line of Control, claiming that Pakistan supplies the terrorist groups with arms and assists them in slipping across the guarded border. Many Indians believe that as the United States pursues a worldwide campaign against terrorism, it should include Pakistan on its lists of nations sponsoring terrorism.

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