Families separated by politics


Tensions: With travel between India and Pakistan suspended, many people are afraid they might not see loved ones again.

January 03, 2002|By Vanessa Gezari | Vanessa Gezari,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ATTARI, India - The train had left New Delhi hours before, but Suneeta Lal can't stop crying.

She lies on a vinyl mattress in the frigid sleeper car, her face buried in a thin cotton blanket, and sobs. It is almost midnight, and the noise wakes other passengers. Teen-age boys poke their heads from beneath quilts and stare. A woman across the aisle shushes her. Suneeta's husband, Manohar, reaches over and rests a hand on her arm.

"I just feel so alone," Suneeta tells him. "Even with you here, I feel alone."

Suneeta Lal is on her way home, but she is also leaving home behind. Like hundreds riding the last train from India to Pakistan this week as relations between the two countries deteriorate, Lal has family on both sides of the border: She lives with her husband and three children near Karachi in Pakistan, but her mother, father and brothers live in Bombay in India.

As the all-night train surges across the north Indian state of Punjab, many passengers feel they are reliving the most traumatic event in the history of India and Pakistan. In 1947, when India gained independence from Britain and Pakistan was created, thousands of people rode trains like this to new homes in unfamiliar cities.

Families were split as Hindus headed south and Muslims traveled north to Pakistan. Sectarian violence led to massacres on board the trains, and some engines arrived at the border pulling carloads of bodies.

"Everybody is rushing to his homeland, and after a lapse of 53 years, we are not killing each other. That is the only difference between this and Partition," says Zeeshan Hashmi, a 26-year-old bank worker from Karachi who is riding the train home after visiting cousins in Calcutta.

India decided to end rail, bus and air links with Pakistan as tensions escalated between the two countries after a Dec. 13 suicide attack on India's Parliament in New Delhi. India has accused Pakistan of harboring terrorists who want to drive India out of the Himalayan state of Kashmir, and imposed sanctions against Pakistan for not cracking down sufficiently on two militant groups linked to fighting there.

India blames the groups, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Army of the Faithful, and Jaish-e-Mohammed, Soldiers of Mohammed, for the attack on its parliament, when a five-man suicide squad killed nine people before being gunned down by security forces.

Since then, long-simmering tensions between the two nuclear-armed rivals have flared, raising fears of war. Both sides have moved troops, tanks and artillery to the border. The Indian government evacuated tens of thousands of people from villages near the Line of Control in Kashmir, where militant insurgents and Indian security forces have been locked in a bloody struggle for the past 12 years.

Yet the concentrated rage of the two governments belies the broad common ground shared by their people. Indians and Pakistanis line up to see the same Hindi movies and listen to the same fast-paced, jazzy music. They crave the same piercingly sweet desserts and speak nearly the same language. While India is mostly Hindu and Pakistan is an Islamic state, there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan.

"The only way you can differentiate between Indians and Pakistanis is by looking at their passports - there is no other proof," Hashmi says. "When I visit Calcutta, I feel I'm in my own house. There's no difference."

On board the Samjhauta Express - the train's name means "agreement" - there are few signs of hostility, and the ties that bind the two cultures are impossible to overlook.

Pakistani women show off the glass bangles they bought in India. The intricate henna designs on their hands remind them of the weddings they left too quickly. The fried fish and curried vegetables in their metal lunch pails brought thoughts of the sisters and sisters-in-law who hurriedly prepared food for their journeys.

They left in a rush, packing their belongings into tin trunks and tying their bedding with twine. They carry bulging cotton sacks filled with clothes and gifts, boxes of pots and pans and mesh bags of food. They sleep through the frigid winter night wrapped in woolen shawls, embracing their children to keep them warm.

As the train pulls out of New Delhi, Shafia Ansari cradles her 4-year-old son in her arms and wipes tears with quick strokes of her hand.

Visiting her mother and siblings in India has been a yearly ritual for her since 1987, when she married a Pakistani man who is a distant cousin. This year, she traveled from her home in Karachi to attend her sister's wedding in the central Indian city of Indore. She left unsure of when or whether she would return.

"I don't know whether I'll be able to see my mother again or not," Ansari says.

Like many on board, Ansari and her husband, Rais, believe the cancellation of train and bus service will have the greatest impact on the poor. The cheapest train ticket from New Delhi to Lahore costs 145 rupees, about $3 - affordable even for the impoverished citizens of both struggling nations.

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