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Thursday, June 3, 1999 Published at 21:24 GMT 22:24 UK


Kashmir's bygone days

Kashmir has been shattered by violence and suffering

By Owen Bennett-Jones in Islamabad

Before setting off for my post in Islamabad one year ago, I visited an antiquarian bookshop in London and picked up some old volumes about the subcontinent. I am looking at one of them now.

Entitled A Lonely Summer in Kashmir, it was published in 1904 and written by Margaret Cotter Morison.

Like a few women of her era, Mrs Morison was an intrepid traveller.

She went to Kashmir alone, or at least with no human companions - she went with her British bulldog Jones.

And in her book she freely handed out advice to any that might follow in her footsteps.

A stout waterproof covering, she says, is a must and, she added, she never regretted a somewhat heavy outlay for some sturdy aluminium saucepans.

Suitably equipped, Mrs Morison headed off for the Himalayas. This is what she found.

In days gone by

The trees were all bursting into life, she wrote, with white blossom. The riverbanks and fields were blue with iris and the chains of snow-capped mountains slowly unfolded their beauty.

The British, of course, were very much in evidence.

She wrote of the polo fields and smartly-dressed ladies playing croquet on the softest of lawns. She described strawberries and cream being dispensed under cool spreading trees.

Anybody could think themselves, she wrote, at a country house in England.

Dangerous terrain


[ image: An increasingly dangerous conflict]
An increasingly dangerous conflict
Kashmir looks rather different today. Those same mountains she travelled are now peppered with Indian and Pakistani bunkers and artillery positions.

The rocky inclines which she saw as so beautiful still rise steeply, lowering into the sky, but now they have an unforgiving aspect, challenging the two armies' troops to scale and ascend them.

This is no longer a place for a traveller seeking her muse. It's a place where India and Pakistan are engaged in an increasingly dangerous conflict.

Face to face

The Indian and Pakistani armies stand at places within view of each other, either side of a UN-monitored line of control.

A few days ago, a Pakistani brigadier took me down close to the line to see the wreckage of an Indian fighter jet which the Pakistanis had shot down.

The plane had crashed into the hard rock of the mountain and its wreckage lay strewn all over the area. Some pieces had fallen into the River Indus and Pakistani troops pulled bits of the engine and fuselage from the muddy water.

But perhaps the most poignant sight was a blanket, on which lay the survival kit and a few other belongings of the plane's pilot. The Pakistani troops had gathered the items and were displaying them to us.

On the blanket lay an emergency supply of food rations - chocolate and sugar - and a yellow Indian military-issue survival book.

It opened with the words: "You owe it to your country and your service to survive."

A mystery


[ image: Flight Lieutenant Ahuja's death remains a mystery]
Flight Lieutenant Ahuja's death remains a mystery
Perhaps the pilot had made every effort to do just that. Strangely it seemed that five or six bullets from his revolver had been fired.

Nobody knows what happened to Flight Lieutenant Ahuja. The Indians said that when his body was returned with full military honours it was full of bullet holes.

The Pakistanis indignantly denied that they had killed him - they say he was dead when he was found.

The Pakistani brigadier rather implausibly suggested that his parachute hadn't opened and that he fell to the earth like a stone. The fact that his parachute - plainly open - was lying at the brigadier's feet suggested that the truth was somewhat different.

But that is just one of the many mysteries to surround the current fighting.

Perhaps the biggest mystery of all is who are the militants who sparked off this crisis? The men who are holding territory on the Indian side of the line of control and who the Indians are trying to dislodge.

The Indians have made various suggestions - that they are Taliban from Afghanistan, Islamic extremists from Pakistan, even that they are led by regular Pakistani soldiers.

All these things could be true but Pakistani officials maintain a consistent line - they are indigenous Kashmir freedom fighters resisting the Indian occupation.

And since Kashmir is so heavily militarised and so difficult to reach it's impossible to say who's right. About the only thing we can be sure of is that the fighting is fierce and as ever civilians are paying the price.

As I was driving away from the line of control the Pakistani brigadier's car was stopped by some villagers who wanted his assistance.

A makeshift shelter


[ image: Women and children flee while the men sit it out]
Women and children flee while the men sit it out
The men seeking help were local farmers. Their women and children, they said, had left the area in search of somewhere safer to stay. And they had moved out of their houses to live in caves high in the Himalayan mountains.

I went with them to see their new makeshift home. Around 10 men had squeezed through an almost invisible narrow gap in the mountainside. Inside there was a fire where one man was cooking some food.

Behind the fire blankets lay on the floor. The men said that it was too dangerous to work their fields and that some of their crops had been destroyed by the artillery fire.

But they did not want to leave the area - they preferred to sit it out until the fighting died down.

So Kashmir today is a very different place than that visited by Mrs Morison nearly 100 years ago.

What once was a picturesque scene of romance and beauty is now home to fierce fighting and human suffering.

There are few tourists in Kashmir now - however intrepid.



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