Watching wars come and go along world's oldest cease-fire line

THE road climbed steeply from 2,500 feet above sea level to 19,200 feet, dropping down into plains and valleys, then lurching toward awesome, snowcapped mountain peaks. The Jhelum River, its waters churning and brown, attested to torrential rainstorms and the likelihood of floods.

Then from behind came the thudding sound of a Pakistani military convoy of 12 olive-green trucks. They were carrying reinforcements or replacements to the 620-mile front.

The ``line of control'' we followed in the disputed state of Kashmir is as old as Pakistan and India, which gained independence from British rule 38 years ago. Three times since then they have gone to war -- twice over Kashmir.

Manned by 40 United Nations observers, the cease-fire line is nearly as old as the world body itself and is a forgotten artifact of the Indian subcontinent's partition.

Separated by only 1,600 feet on each side of the Jhelum, three divisions of the Indian and Pakistani armies face each other. They commit, on an average, one cease-fire violation a day along the world's oldest United Nations cease-fire line.

The leader of the UN force, Brig. Gen. Thor Johnsen, smiled when asked the duration of a cease-fire posting.

``One year,'' he responded. ``In principle, peacekeeping missions are temporary.'' But UN observers have been here for 36 years.

On at least three occasions the UN has suggested that its observers go home, but each time Pakistan has refused to let them leave. The refusals underline the basic difference in Indian and Pakistani perceptions about Kashmir.

India now holds two-thirds of the territory, and Pakistan the remaining third. New Delhi believes Kashmir's accession to India in 1947 was legal and final and wants the cease-fire line to be recognized as an international boundary. Pakistan, on the other hand, wants the future of the predominantly Muslim state, which has a population of 7.5 million, to be determined by a UN-sponsored plebiscite.

The line separating their armies was drawn in 1949, then revised slightly by the 1972 Simla accord following the India-Pakistan war in 1971.

The UN observers do not have the authority, mandate, or men to prevent outbreaks of fighting along the line, where they are politely tolerated by the Indians and warmly embraced by the Pakistanis.

However, the UN observers do keep the issue of Kashmir before the UN, which is exactly what Pakistan wants -- its fear being that the issue will evaporate into history before it is resolved.

It is a sometimes gratifying, sometimes frustrating job for the 40 blue-bereted observers from Australia, Belgium, Chile, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Norway, Sweden, and Uruguay.

Frustrating, says General Johnsen, because ``very little happens. Very little has changed. The conflict continues. It has its ups and downs. Perhaps my greatest virtue is patience. You learn patience in this job.''

The gratifications?

``You do something for the cause of peace. . . . But, in all peacekeeping operations, it's a basic condition that you have the support of both, or all, sides. Since the 1972 Simla agreement, there has been a very different interpretation as to the mission of the UN observer force.''

What the general was perhaps too diplomatic to say was that his operation -- maintained at a biannual cost of $4.8 million -- has been largely ignored by India since 1972. India believes all Indo-Pakistani disputes should be solved bilaterally. -- including cease-fire violations along the line or redeployment of Pakistani forces. Thus the six UN field stations on the Indian side rarely hear from the Indians. They may as well have left.

In contrast, here, in the capital of ``azad'' or ``free'' Kashmir -- which the Indians call ``occupied'' Kashmir -- Maj. Leonard Ernius, Swedish commander of the UN post, receives 30 to 40 Pakistani complaints a month over cease-fire violations and redeployment of Indian troops.

He or one of his men -- there are five in Muzaffarabad -- treks to the position to monitor each the complaint. It takes four days by jeep, then two days on foot, to reach the farthest UN post.

``It's mostly small arms violations in this area,'' said Brig. Gen. Barkat Ali Khan, who commands the Pakistani forward headquarters in Muzaffarabad. ``And if chaps like Major Ernius weren't here to monitor our complaints, it would be a sorry situation. The Indians just creep forward every chance they get.''

Outside the tiny UN field station is the Jhelum River. The river, perhaps, symbolizes why India and Pakistan have been pitted against each other for nearly four decades.

Water, as well as religion and geopolitical importance, lies at the heart of the Kashmir dispute. The rivers that flow through Pakistani Kashmir originate on the Indian side of the frontier.

``We are now leaving Kashmir and entering Pakistan,'' my Pakistani escort said as we crossed the Kohala bridge.

In theory, the Pakistanis do not consider Kashmir a province because of its ``disputed'' status.

Yet its residents carry Pakistani passports -- clearly marked that they are from Kashmir. Islamabad also provides most of its budget even though it has a separate Constitution and other privileges -- as does the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Once back in the Pakistani capital, I asked two politicians from ``azad'' Kashmir how they would vote in a UN plebiscite. There was an embarrassed silence. Then they both said, as if on cue, ``We certainly wouldn't want to be part of India.''

In Indian Kashmir that question had also drawn an embarrassed pause. One of Kashmir's most respected leaders had perhaps explained it when he commented two years ago: ``We're proud and we're headstrong, and, however unrealistic it is, in our heart-of-hearts what we really want is an independent Kashmir.''

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