Bus service drives peace process

India and Pakistan announced last week a new bus route to run across Kashmir's Line of Control.

The scenic Himalayan valley of Kashmir is covered with snow these days, but for Mir Mohammad Farooq, the announcement last week of new bus service between the Indian and Pakistani zones of divided Kashmir was the first sign of spring.

"I want to hug my ailing old mother and visit the graves of my family elders. It has been 18 years," says Mr. Farooq, who lives in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, while his family lives in Kashmir valley on the Indian side. "I will relive the Kashmiri spring of my childhood," he says.

There are thousands of divided families like Farooq's living on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) that splits the valley claimed by both Pakistan and India. They have been the ones most affected by the military rivalry between the two countries.

Since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, India and Pakistan, now both nuclear powers, have fought three wars over the territory. And through the bus service, scheduled to begin in April, they may be the first beneficiaries of a new warming trend between Delhi and Islamabad.

Jubilation

Now, as a comprehensive peace dialogue enters its second year, news of the bus link between the capital cities of Kashmir - Muzaffarabad and Srinagar - has lifted hopes of the people of Kashmir on both sides of the border.

"Just after the news, I called my family," says Farooq, who crossed into the Pakistan side of Kashmir from Srinagar in 1977; he's now settled there with his wife and three young children. "My parents were crying from that end and I was speechless here. We don't know whether the tears were for the terrible moments of the past or for the happy moments that lie ahead. It is a miracle."

Farooq is not the only one feeling jubilation. Hafiza Begum crossed the LoC from Srinagar in 1980 as a teenage bridegroom of her cousin, Salahuddin, in Muzaffarabad. "I had never thought that I would be cut off from my parents, brothers, sisters, and friends for so many years," she says.

"I never knew only five hours' journey between us could take almost a quarter of a century for a family reunion due to the rivalry between India and Pakistan," says Ms. Begum. "My family members are desperate to visit me with the first bus."

Tough road ahead

But the bus faces a tough road ahead. The route itself has been cut into the steep sides of avalanche-prone glacial valleys and follows the Jehlum River that flows through the valley from Muzaffarabad to Srinagar.

Portions of the route closest to the LoC need major repairs and are surrounded by land mines. Officials say strict security measures will be adopted, and repairs and demining will begin soon to ensure that vulnerable stretches are safe before the first ride on April 7.

And there are fears it may be attacked on the Indian side by Islamic militants or mujahideen. They've been fighting against Indian security forces since the insurgency began in the Kashmir valley in 1989.

Some Kashmiri militant groups have expressed displeasure over the initiative. "The starting of bus service is not going to bring any positive change. Neither can the Kashmiris can be fooled by this cosmetic change nor could it curb the freedom movement," says Salahuddin, chief of an alliance of Kashmiri militant groups, Muttahida Jihad Council.

"The initiative does not need hype but continuous efforts for sustainability of these confidence-building measures," says Khalida Ghaus, head of International Relations Department of University of Karachi. "Any unfortunate incident could derail the peace process. It is just a beginning of a long journey."

The bus route was announced last week after Natwar Singh, conducting the first trip by an Indian foreign minister to Pakistan for bilateral talks in 16 years, signed an agreement with his Pakistani counterpart, Khurshid Kasuri.

Both sides agreed to open a rail link between Pakistan's Thar desert and Rajasthan state, and to begin talks on reducing the risk of nuclear accidents. They also said they planned to reopen their respective consulates in Pakistan's port city of Karachi and Bombay (Mumbai).

The bus service is believed to be run on similar lines to the "Friendship Bus" between Lahore and New Delhi, another key confidence-building measure between the two countries which began in July 2003.

That route is currently plied by six buses a week - three from Lahore and three from Delhi - carrying about 40 passengers each.

On the new route, entry permits for travel across the LoC will be issued by both sides upon verification of identities, but citizens of a third country will not be allowed to ride the buses.

"It will be like removing an iron curtain," says Zulfikar Ali, a journalist based in Muzaffarabad who crossed the LoC from the Indian side in the1980s.

"Kashmiris on both sides lived with misconceptions in absence of contact, but as the interaction will increase, it will bring them into real world," he adds. "It will help change the attitudes of political leadership, and if it continues, it will isolate militants. It is a courageous and bold step of President [Pervez] Musharraf and the Indian leadership."

Making plans

Meanwhile, families like Farooq's are preparing for their journey to cross the LoC to meet their relatives in Indian Kashmir. "I have packed our bags," says Farooq. "I have already bought gifts for relatives." In Srinagar, my mother has been praying for the success of the bus journey. She wants to visit Muzaffarabad to meet her grandchildren for the first time," he says. "We all do not want to miss the first bus."

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