Kashmiris wait for bus for hugs across frontier
URI, India - Kashmiri farmer Mohammad Hafiz has been hearing his uncle's call to prayer every morning for years but has never been able to meet him.
But things are about to change.
An agreement this week between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan to run a bus service from April 7 across the heavily-militarised ceasefire line that divides Kashmir will make it possible for Hafiz to fulfil a dream: giving his uncle a hug.
"I want to see him and hug him just once. With God's grace, it will be possible now," said Hafiz, who lives in Hajipeer village in Indian Kashmir, late on Thursday.
His uncle lives half a mile away in Pakistani Kashmir, but because of fortified frontier Hafiz has not been able to meet his mother's brother.
Hajipeer lies on the outskirts of Uri town located next to the fenced Line of Control (LoC) that divides disputed Kashmir, the cause of two out of three India-Pakistan wars.
Uri, ringed by snow-capped Himalayan peaks, is the last point from where a bus will leave Indian Kashmir and enter the Pakistani part.
The 742-km line, which cuts across rugged mountains and streams, has divided Kashmiri families caught up in India-Pakistan tensions over the flashpoint Himalayan territory.
A cautious peace process between the nuclear rivals over the past 14 months received a much-needed boost when both nations agreed on Wednesday -- after much wrangling over travel documents -- to a bus between Srinagar in Indian Kashmir and Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Pakistan side.
The highway that connected both towns was shut after India and Pakistan fought their first war over Kashmir in 1947/48.
TOO HAPPY FOR WORDS
"Finally, God has answered our prayers. I will catch the first bus and meet my brother and relatives after 50 years. I can't express my happiness in words," Abdul Majid, a 75-year-old year-old vegetable vendor, told Reuters as tears trickled from his eyes, wrinkles emerging from their corners.
His brother lives just 30 km away across the line, but for Majid it has seemed a world away.
There are hundreds of others like Majid who have been separated from relatives and friends by the partition of the subcontinent in 1947.
The division on religious grounds cleaved the region into Hindu-majority India and Islamic Pakistan and its aftermath continues to bleed Muslim-dominated Indian Kashmir where a separatist revolt against New Delhi has left more than 45,000 people dead since 1989.
But for Kashmiris, weary of violence and diplomatic tension, the prospect of the bus on the 170-km Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road which weaves its way through forests and past gushing river waters, is causing huge excitement.
"It has been a long wait. Not only have I not seen my only sister for ages, I don't even remember her face. Now a dream is coming true as the bus will unite us," Assadullah Khan, a former teacher, said.
Khan's teenage daughter was killed in 1998 when a Pakistani artillery shell exploded near his house.
"Only we can understand the pain of separation and turmoil," he added.
On outskirts of Uri, Indian soldiers in battle fatigues frisk people, a reminder that Kashmir is still a dangerous place though violence has fallen off due to the peace process.
Nearby, artillery guns on the bank of Jhelum river are draped in water-proof cloth and have remained quiet as a 13-month India-Pakistan truce on the LoC continues to hold.
"Experience the joy of peace," reads a hoarding displayed by the Indian army on the road leading to Muzaffarabad.