Planned bus service will link separated regions of Kashmir

India and Pakistan agree to ease travel over line of control

February 20, 2005|By Kim Barker | Kim Barker,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

URI, India - Sajad Ahmad Lone flipped through a photo album of 22 pictures, of his cousin in a pilot's cap, of his only living uncle in owl-like glasses. He looked at weddings and babies. He recited the names of his relatives, memorized from the backs of their photographs.

They were strangers. These people lived only about 200 miles away, but for Lone, sitting in his family's restaurant in a border town of Indian-controlled Kashmir, they could be on the other side of the world. He met just a few of them when he was a child, when his family made its only trip to Pakistan.

"I remember my uncle, but that's it," Lone said. "Now his children don't know me, who I am. I want to go there and tell them, `I am your cousin.'"

For the first time in his 26 years, Lone believes he might be able to go. After a year of peace talks and little progress, the governments of longtime rivals India and Pakistan agreed last week to their first significant change in travel policy.

As early as April 7, buses will start carrying passengers between Srinagar on the Indian-controlled side of Kashmir and Muzaffarabad on the Pakistani side of the troubled Himalayan territory. Visas and passports will not be required; only special passes will be necessary.

The agreement marked a breakthrough in peace talks.

India and Pakistan have bickered over who should rule Muslim-majority Kashmir since winning independence from Britain in 1947. They have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir. And now both countries have nuclear weapons, making Kashmir one of the world's most dangerous conflict zones.

More buses are being planned on Kashmir routes. And the people of Kashmir hope that at some point, they'll actually be able to walk or drive across the line of control, the de facto border between the two countries.

Such plans are only dreams. Right now, they will settle for a bus.

The news was welcomed in Uri, a town of about 4,000 people that sits along the two-lane highway that will become the bus route. Here, everyone seems to have some family member who fled to Pakistan during the wars or after Islamic militants started fighting the Indian government.

Most people in Uri communicate with their relatives in Pakistan through letters, which take weeks to arrive. The Internet is only a rumor here, and just a few people own telephones, which rarely work.

On Wednesday evening, after people heard about the bus route on the radio and the rare TV set, they ran into the town's main street and yelled the news. Farouq Ahmad, 35, closed his walnut shop and hugged people outside. Others lit firecrackers.

"We have waited 50 years for this news," said Ahmad, who has an aunt he has never met in Muzaffarabad. "I am ready to go right now."

Like everyone else here, Lone had sorrows hidden in his photo album. His father was the youngest of seven children; his three brothers and three sisters all moved to Pakistan. Lone's father stayed in Uri to care for their father and land.

In 1989, the family traveled to Rawalpindi, Pakistan, to see relatives. They first took buses for about 30 hours to New Delhi. There, they waited several days for visas, before traveling by bus for 18 more hours to Rawalpindi.

The direct trip from Uri to Rawalpindi over the line of control would take about nine hours.

Two years ago, one uncle died. Lone's father suffered a minor heart attack when he got the letter, 40 days after his brother's death.

Last year, a second uncle died. This time, the family found out through a phone call to a family home about 20 miles from Uri.

Lone's father left for Pakistan last Sunday, after a relative called to say his only living brother was in the hospital with a heart problem.

Haji Asadullah Lone paid $204 - a small fortune here - for a taxi ride to New Delhi. He waited until Thursday for a visa, and he arrived in Pakistan on Friday. By Friday evening, his family in Uri expected, he would be with his brother.

On Friday afternoon, Sajad Ahmad Lone flipped through his family pictures in Uri and talked about this uncle, the one who looked like an owl. He was all his father had left.

The young man, who works in the family restaurant, said the new bus would be a great help to his family and his town. He said he would go across the border as soon as he could. Lone wanted to meet his cousins - the pilot, the professor and the doctor.

"We are alone here," Lone said. "Sometimes we need our other family."

But any new rules came too late for his father.

An hour later, as Lone poured tea in the sitting room of his house, his nephew walked in, his face flushed from the heavy snow outside, his eyes red. Lone's younger sister followed. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.

"He is dead," they announced.

Lone looked at the floor and shook his head at the news of the death of his uncle, whom he had met only once.

"What will happen to my father?" he wondered, half to himself. "He's all alone there."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.