All aboard for the long ordeal. Crossing contentious India-Pakistan border by train takes patience

As the train chugs out of Amritsar station, Amir Ahmad settles himself amid a mountain of baggage for the long ordeal. The 35-year-old tailor, his wife, and three children already have been on the road for two days, traveling hundreds of miles from their north Indian village to see relatives in Pakistan.

Situated near the border, Amritsar, in India, is just 35 miles by rail from the Pakistani city of Lahore. But Ahmad, who is making his second trip, says the train will take hours to reach its destination. ``We have come so far in our journey,'' he sighs, ``and there is still the border to cross.''

The ``Agreement Express,'' named for the peace pact that followed the most recent India-Pakistan conflict in 1971, daily traverses one of the world's most contentious frontiers.

When British India was partitioned in 1947, millions of people fled across the border: Hindus to India, Muslims to newly created Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands lost their lives in sectarian massacres on the roads and the railroads. Three times in the 40 stormy years since independence, train service was stopped by war.

Today, the trains have been running continuously for more than a decade despite relations that are as strained as ever. About 1,000 people cross the border daily by rail, while hundreds more go by car or on foot.

Most of the rail passengers are Muslims, like Ahmad, whose families were split by partition and who get permission for occasional reunions. Several times a year, several thousand Sikh pilgrims may visit their shrines in Pakistan while Muslims can travel to their holy sites in India.

For half the year, passengers ride in Indian trains. The other six months, Pakistani engines and cars are used. The railroad crews switch at the frontier. Last year, when more than 200,000 Indian and Pakistani troops faced each other in a tense standoff along their common border, the trains still met their schedules.

Yet, with relations taut, the border between the two rivals has become increasingly touchy. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi faces a mounting insurgency by Sikh extremists demanding a separate state called Khalistan in Punjab. In the past three months, almost 500 people have been killed in a spree of violence by separatists.

India blames Pakistan for allowing weapons to be smuggled across the border, and for harboring extremists, and has repeatedly threatened to seal the border. Last month, the Indian Parliament passed a constitutional amendment that would allow Mr. Gandhi to impose a state of emergency in Punjab. That could further restrict movement along the border, observers say.

Just two years ago, in a show of friendship, Gandhi and Pakistan President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq revived plans for a second border crossing between Rajasthan State in India and Pakistan's Sind Province. But with separatist tensions running high in Sind, Pakistan is blocking the proposal.

The political gulf makes traveling an ordeal for Indians and Pakistanis alike. Visas can be difficult to get and take a month or longer.

With foreigners barred from Punjab, Pakistanis are taken by a special train directly to the border. There, they can wait up to 20 hours for a train to go the last 15 miles to Lahore. Those in cars must travel in special convoys that drive through Punjab only several times a month. Likewise, passengers leaving Lahore sometimes have to wait up to a half-day at the station before boarding.

Travelers of both nationalities must detail their itineraries beforehand and check in with local police at every stop. Failure to do so runs the risk of detention.

Last year, Lahore journalist I.H. Rashid went by train to see a Muslim shrine in New Delhi. More than 2,000 people had applied for the 180 places on the pilgrimage that were filled by lottery.

``I also wanted to see the Taj Mahal in Agra, but the Delhi authorities said no,'' recalls Mr. Rashid. ``It is difficult to get a second trip to India.''

Across the border, Salin Dass, the stationmaster in Amritsar, grew up in Punjab and spent his life working for the railroad there. But he has yet to see Lahore.

Aboard the ``Agreement Express,'' which normally takes an hour between Amritsar and Lahore, Mr. Ahmad has endured almost five hours of riding, waiting, customs and security checks.

At the floodlit border station, a corps of 60 security officials orders all passengers off to check passports and later fans through the train to search luggage. Officials say security at the crossing has more than doubled in the last year.

Ahmad haggles with an Indian Customs officer demanding a $60 export duty on the cloth and spices that the tailor has planned to sell in Pakistan to finance his trip. Eventually, they settle for $45.

``We have to be extra careful these days. These people are liars and cheats,'' says the official, pocketing an $8 bribe.

Arriving in Lahore just before 11 p.m., Ahmad faces several more hours of Pakistani immigration and customs formalities before boarding a train for the day-long trip to Karachi, his relatives' home. ``If we could travel through Rajasthan, this trip would be much shorter. But we cannot say when it will be opened.''

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