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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 April, 2005, 20:54 GMT 21:54 UK
Inside Pakistan-administered Kashmir

By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Pakistan-administered Kashmir

Pakistan administered Kashmir
Three million people live in Pakistan-administered Kashmir
When it comes to the historic bus journey linking the divided territory of Kashmir, not everybody living in Pakistan-administered Kashmir is worked up.

"Who can help feeling excited about a vacation in Srinagar?" asks a cynical local journalist in Rawalakot town, where you are more likely to come across visiting expatriates, visa seekers and recruitment agents than religious and political ideologues willing to die for whatever they believe in.

"If you are looking for a glimpse of the mood surrounding the bus service, you have come to the wrong place," he says.

But then, Pakistan-administered Kashmir - a thin strip of land running northwest along the edge of northern Punjab - is not an easy place to understand.

For a land so small by sub-continental standards - just over 5,000 square miles (13,000 sq km) housing some three million people - the region has more variety of opinion when it comes to relations with India than perhaps any other part of the country.

There are the religious parties who would settle for nothing but the handover of Indian-administered Kashmir to Pakistan.

There are secular groups who want nothing short of complete independence - from both India and Pakistan.

And within these two broad streams, there are dozens of ethnic voices that would each like a state of its own.

For most of the last half-century or so, Kashmiris on the Pakistani side have faithfully followed the line taken by the parties they support.

But that is not all.

Looking to the West

Public opinion in Pakistan-administered Kashmir also has strong geographical moorings.

In the affluent southeast, including the cities of Mirpur and Rawalakot, the political debate over Kashmir's status lost its place in public discourse a long time ago.

Mock missile
A mock missile looking toward India on the outskirts of Muzaffarabad
Few in these cities look back at Srinagar anymore - so focused they are on western capitals where most of them have made their fortunes.

Businessmen in Mirpur accept the UK currency and it is not uncommon to be reminded of the British chain Tesco's in its supermarkets.

Rawalakot, once a dusty little town, has recently distinguished itself for its distinctly European architecture. As diaspora money from all over Europe continues to pour in, the town shows little signs of being a part of a land that has been at war for over 50 years.

Moving northeast, one comes to Muzaffarabad, the regional capital.

The city is more a microcosm of what goes on in Islamabad than in Kashmir.

The excitement here has more to do with the commerce of the bus venture than its politics.

Hotels have doubled rates for the event and private taxis have sped into the city by the dozens.

Pakistani bus
A Pakistani bus takes part in a rehearsal near Muzaffarabad
Even the price of food has gone up and private residences are accepting paying guests. Everyone has a reason to feel excited - the reason in most cases being money.

True significance

It is not until one reaches the relatively inaccessible north-western towns that the true significance of the bus starts becoming visible.

Here is a Kashmir that not many Pakistanis have seen or even heard of.

The tiny settlements along the gurgling Neelum river are inhabited by a shy and introverted people.

They are extremely polite and hospitable, the kind who look uncomfortable charging for a cup of tea.

"I have not even been to Muzaffarabad, let alone Srinagar," says Mohammed Afsar, a 60-year-old resident of Chaliana.

This stunningly beautiful town, set against snow-capped peaks, can hold one's gaze forever.

But Afsar is deeply excited about the bus service.

"I only want to go there," he says, pointing to the hills across the river on the Indian side.

Afsar says he has been praying for the success of the bus service because he has not been able to go across to see his relatives for over 15 years now - or since the insurgency started in Kashmir.

"If today they are taking people to Srinagar, tomorrow they may allow us to cross this river and visit our friends and relatives," he says.

His son, a carpenter, last visited Muzaffarabad, only a 90-minute drive away, some three months ago when he wanted some new tools.

"I have no idea," he grins, when asked what he thinks of the bus.

"But I would like to go there," he says, pointing in the same direction as his father.

There is no excitement of better economic opportunities in their voices.

Just a sadness that for so long, they have been denied a simple pleasure in what is already a very simple life.

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