MUZAFFARABAD, PAKISTAN — The deceptive peace of the Jhelum Valley ends abruptly at Chakoti, a lonely military outpost on the "Line of Control," the de facto border that divides the disputed territory of Kashmir.
After mile upon mile of rust-colored cornfields, the steep mountain slopes suddenly give way to bunkers and sophisticated surveillance equipment to check intrusions by Indian soldiers hidden in pine forests only a few hundred yards away.
Chakoti is situated in Azad (Free) Kashmir, a nominally independent state inside Pakistan with its own president, prime minister, and government. But on Indian maps the Jhelum Valley and most of northern Pakistan forms part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
India and Pakistan have fought two wars over their rival territorial claims to divided Kashmir and the dispute dominates the foreign and defense policies of both countries.
New Delhi accuses Islamabad of fueling the seven-year-old insurgency inside Jammu and Kashmir by training and equipping the pro-independence guerrillas. Islamabad counters by highlighting alleged Indian human rights atrocities in the area and the plight of Kashmiri refugees inside Pakistan.
The war of words escalated in recent weeks when India held the first elections in nearly a decade to the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly.
"The elections are a sham. Instead of one man, one vote, the largest democracy in the world has given another notion: that of one soldier with a gun behind every voter," says Mehmood Chaudhary, the premier of Azad Kashmir.
Although India has consistently ruled out the longstanding UN demand that a plebiscite be held to allow Kashmiris decide their future, India's new United Front government has promised the state the same degree of autonomy after the elections as enjoyed by Azad Kashmir.
Under the proposal, which is expected to face stiff opposition if introduced in parliament, New Delhi would be solely responsible for defense, foreign affairs, and communications. Not surprisingly, Pakistan's press has debunked the plan as another ploy by India to persuade the world that it is serious about resolving the Kashmir problem.
To many of the 12,000 Kashmiri refugees living in camps in Azad Kashmir, the elections are irrelevant no matter who wins. At press time, the pro-autonomy National Conference had won 54 of the state's 87 assembly seats, election officials said.
"Elections have no value in Kashmir," says teenager Muhammad Gulzar. "The people don't want to elect any leader. First of all, they want freedom, and then they want elections." Mr. Gulzar says his family fled across the Line of Control after his father was tortured by Indian soldiers searching for the hideouts of Kashmiri militants. Now they are housed at the Ambore refugee camp on the outskirts of Muzaffarabad.
The refugees are given red-carpet treatment when they reach Pakistan, receiving generous allowances, clothing, and shelter from local government bodies.
Five years ago Abdul Rasheed was a hard-working farmer at Kanthewali, 12 miles across the Line of Control. Today he barely manages to move around the camp's small grocery store, which he runs with the help of his wife and six children. His feet and hands were severely injured - the result, he says, of torture by the Indian security forces: "They came to my fields one day and accused me of being a guide for the guerrillas. I said I didn't even know where the border was, but they took me away. They interrogated me and tortured me."
The physical torture, the broken families, the dangerous flights to freedom, are all proof, says camp administrator Mohammad Sobhan Mir, that Hindu-dominated India has no right to rule over the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Human rights organizations have extensively documented human rights abuses in Jammu and Kashmir. But the situation on the Pakistani-controlled side of the border has also come under scrutiny from within.
Last June's elections in Azad Kashmir resulted in a victory for the Pakistan Peoples Party, which is also in power at the federal level. The outgoing prime minister, Sardar Abdul Qayyum, accused Islamabad of rigging the vote to ensure the defeat of his Muslim Conference government.
If there is one common refrain that can heard above the exchange of gunfire and accusations across the Line of Control, it is that the Kashmiri people want to be left alone to decide their own future.
"Kashmiris have their own nationality. Kashmir is ours," declares Gulzar, who like many of his generation says that he is ready to fight to free what he calls "occupied" Kashmir from Indian control. "First of all, ... this matter must be solved peacefully and if that does not happen then we will pick up weapons and fight for the Kashmir issue. We want back our homes, we don't want to stay here."
For all the autonomy Kashmiris enjoy in Pakistan, the question of outright independence, if that is the outcome of a plebiscite, remains beyond the realm of possibility for Pakistan. An independent Kashmir bordering China and India would be too strategically sensitive for Pakistan. And with the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan already knocking on its Western border, Pakistan wants to avoid the creation of another strongly Islamic state to the north.