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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April, 2005, 17:07 GMT 18:07 UK
Divided Kashmir families look to big day

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Srinagar and Bijhama

Nasiruddin Khan
Nasiruddin Khan - 'to hell with politics, let us travel'
Haji Nasiruddin Khan was born in the Kashmiri city of Muzaffarabad. His adopted family brought him up in the village of Bijhama.

But when Kashmir was divided after the Indo-Pakistan war of 1947 he found himself living on the Indian-controlled side.

The 60-year-old retired local government official has never been able to return to his birthplace.

"I have never visited my father's grave and my brother died a few years ago," he says.

Now Mr Khan is among the fortunate few who have been granted a permit to travel on the inaugural Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service on Thursday - a bus service that many hope will be a major boost to the peace process between Pakistan and India.

Separated families

"This is a blessing," he says, his face breaking into a wide smile.

"I applied for a passport twice but was rejected each time."

"My entire family lives on the other side. But we can't communicate with them."

As Mr Khan's sons help him pack his suitcase, local residents gather at his home.

Many of them have given him letters and photographs to carry to their relatives on the other side.

Not so lucky

Asgari Khan is a 75-year-old lady who came to live in Bijhama village close to the Line of Control that divides Kashmir after her marriage in 1947.

Asgari Khan
Asgari Khan has not met her parents and siblings since 1947
Her parents and siblings live on the Pakistani side - they haven't met since the road was shut nearly 60 years ago.

"But I haven't been given a permit to go visit them," she says.

Abdul Hamid hasn't seen or heard from his brother Sharif after they were separated in 1948.

He is anxious to travel across to look for him and was delighted when the news of the bus service was made public.

But he was unable to apply for a permit.

"Nearly 90% of the families here are divided," says Mr Khan's son, Sajid.

"They can look at the villages on the other side, wave to the people there but they cannot cross over."

Frustrated

Most of the villagers say they are frustrated at being caught up in the politics of India-Pakistan relations.

"To hell with politics," says Nasiruddin Khan.

"We should be allowed to travel freely. If the borders open, 80% of the Kashmir problem will be solved."

But there's a shadow over the happiness in the Khan household.

Photo of Salahuddin
Fatima has only seen a photo of her son-in-law, Salahuddin

Four local policemen are posted outside his home after a threat by separatist militants to passengers travelling on the bus.

Like the other travellers, he is being taken to Srinagar - the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir - by armed escort 36 hours before the bus service and lodged in a high-security facility.

There is anger at the militants' call as well as defiance.

"I am not afraid," declares Mr Khan as he snaps shut his suitcase.

"I am only going to visit my kith and kin. I am not committing a sin."

On Thursday, Nasiruddin Khan will be among 29 passengers making a six hour journey to Muzaffarabad.

It has taken him more than half a century to return home.

Making plans

Others like Fatima who lives in Srinagar's old quarter will have to wait a while to receive their kin from across the border.

When I met her, the 70-year-old woman was preparing to welcome her daughter Hafiza, son-in-law Salahuddin and two grandchildren from Muzaffarabad.

She was under the impression that they would be on the first bus from Muzaffarabad.

It has been 25 years since Hafiza left Srinagar to marry Salahuddin.

"I cannot believe this day is here," Fatima told me, her voice breaking.

She has never met her son-in-law or seen her grandchildren Bilal, 21, and Mariam, 17.

Her family says she has been very sick for the past few years.

"For years I prayed that I would be alive to see this day," she says.

"Truly God is great. He has preserved me for this moment."

Fatima's daughters Zumaira and Shaheen have planned a grand welcome for their brother-in-law.

Fatima
For Fatima the waiting goes on

"We are planning a wedding feast," says Zumaira beaming.

"Since our brother-in-law has never visited us, we plan to treat him like a new groom," she says smiling.

They were particularly excited at the thought of meeting their grown-up nephew and niece soon.

"We have only seen them in photographs," says Shaheen.

"Can you imagine what that's like?"

However, when the BBC contacted Salahuddin and Hafiza in Muzaffarabad they said they would not be on the first bus but hoped to be on the next one.

That means a delay of at least two weeks.

So for Fatima, the waiting must still go on.


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