India-Pakistan rail link reunites

Last week's opening of the Thar Express railroad between India and Pakistan is symbolic of more than just peace.

The last time Zahir Ahmad saw his daughter was 19 years ago, shortly after her marriage to a Pakistani man. She has lived in Karachi ever since - a destination so politically distant from Mr. Ahmad's home in Godhra, India, that a face-to-face meeting has been almost impossible - until now.

On Feb. 18, India and Pakistan launched a new weekly train service between Munaba, India and Khokhropar, Pakistan, called the Thar Express, linking the two countries and their simmering political differences. The new service meant an emotional reunion for many families, including the Ahmads.

"I'm dying to meet her," Ahmad said of his daughter before getting on the train last week. "I can't wait to hold my grandchildren in my arms."

Like cricket games and new bus lines, the Thar Express represents yet another stage in Pakistan's and India's continuing détente begun in 2004. But for the divided families who live along this historically contentious border, the train service is far more than a diplomatic milestone.

"Before 1965, people would freely cross borders," reminisces Nandu Ram, who sells dairy products in a tiny shack in front of the Munaba station.

Although other inexpensive transportation links have opened recently between the rival nuclear countries - the Samjhauta Express train, and the Delhi-Lahore, the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad, and the Amritsar-Lahore bus services - the Thar Express is believed to be a more significant link because most families divided by the Indian and Pakistani border have relatives based in Sindh, Pakistan and Rajasthan, India. The Thar Express now links the two states.

The division dates back to the partition of India in 1947, when Britain first granted full independence to the subcontinent. The division of the British protectorate into separate Muslim and Hindu states prompted the largest human migration in modern times, as Indian Muslims streamed into what is now Pakistan. Families that did not move have often been divided by national political tensions ever since.

The six-mile rail link between these two desert towns was laid by the British in the late 19th century. The train service, however, was suspended when war broke out between India and Pakistan in 1965. Included in the track's recent renovations is a swanky new station in Munaba to replace the old facility that had been destroyed by Pakistani bombing raids.

For the drought-prone Thar region, the end of hostilities and the new train service could also herald a much-needed economic windfall. During the last 40 years, the sparsely populated town of Munaba, on the edge of India's western border with Pakistan, has seen very little civilian traffic. The lack of business has hurt locals like Mr. Ram, who bitterly remembers how deep-rooted animosity, suspicion, and a spate of wars between the two countries have wrecked the lives of common people in the area. In the wake of the 1999 Kargil war, he says that 16 of his 18 milk cows were blown up by Indian Army land mines that had been planted in his pasture to preempt an attack by Pakistan.

"Milk, butter, curd will sell like hot cakes once the train service begins full swing and people start coming here," Ram says. "What use is war?"

But the train service, like all other bus and rail links over this border, is hampered by the red tape of getting a visa. Although the train has the capacity to ferry 400 passengers, less than 200 were able to board The Thar Express each way.

The Thar Express has brought cheer among Hindus who have migrated to India from Pakistan.

Ninety-year-old Bakhtu Rani migrated to India six years ago while three of her sons stayed in Pakistan. One of them died last year, but Mrs. Rani couldn't afford to travel to Pakistan to attend his funeral.

"We're stateless people," she says with a mirthless smile. "The train is our only hope to meet relatives. Hopefully, my sons will get a visa to visit me."

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