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When I crossed the ceasefire line

Faisul Yaseen

I was in Poonch to cover what had happened one-year after the deadly October 8, 2005 quake in Kashmir, which consumed around 80,000 lives on the two sides of the ceasefire line.

I was not all that enthusiastic to visit the place. I recollected my last visit to Poonch when the Chakan-Da-Bagh crossing on the ceasefire line was thrown open and Congress President and UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi had opened the gates on the side of Indian administrated Kashmir for the passengers travelling from the Pakistan administrated Kashmir.

I enjoyed the trip but only I knew how I managed to file the news stories by dictating them to my colleague back at Jammu as there was no access to Internet, the mobile phone network was non-existent and electric supply played hide and seek.

However, I somehow decided to leave for the place to take a breather away from the gruelling heat in Jammu. The humpy bumpy roads from Jammu to Rajouri and Poonch irritated me a little lesser this time around. Last time I was filled with pain to see the dirty politics New Delhi had been playing in the State for about six decades by deliberately keeping the districts with majority Muslim population under-developed or to put it in blunt words "backward".

But as we reached Poonch, 250 km northeast of Jammu, the only thing on my mind was work. I talked to the earthquake-affected families, those who had lost their loved ones in the quake and those who were critically injured. The government apart from providing Rs 40,000 in the form of compensation to a family whose house was damaged had done nothing.

The Government Higher Secondary School at Sheesh Mahal where India’s most influential politician Sonia Gandhi had came immediately after the quake and promised reconstruction at the earliest was still in ruins. Not a single brick had been laid or renovation started.

Luckily, for me soon after my assignment was completed on October 8, I came to know that the Poonch-Rawlakote Express, the bus services, which ferries passengers from Poonch town to the Chakan-Da-Bagh crossing on the Rah-e-Milan, the 10 km stretch of road, was running the next day.

Next morning, we headed for the place and interacted with the passengers going from this side to the other side. All of them were excited at the thought of meeting their separated family members. For years they had been unable to meet due to the hostilities between India and Pakistan, primarily over the long-standing dispute of Kashmir.

New Delhi considers Jammu Kashmir its integral part while Islamabad has been urging upon the implementation of the United Nations resolutions, which call for conducting plebiscite in the region and allowing people to decide for themselves whether to accede to Pakistan or India.

The first Indian Prime Minster Jawahar Lal Nehru took the Kashmir case to the United Nations and agreed over holding a referendum in the region, which New Delhi over the years has backtracked from.

However, of late Islamabad has bent its back and gone down from its demand of implementation of the UN resolutions. New concepts like self-rule floated by the Pakistan President Parvez Musharaff are emanating with a few more like moderate All Parties Hurriyat Confernece chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq's concept of United States of Kashmir, coalition ally in the State Peoples Democratic Party's regional-federalism and opposition National Conference's greater autonomy.

Though New Delhi has not exhibited the same sort of flexibility like Islamabad, Mushraff's suppleness has bridged the gap to some extent.

This was clearly evident to me when I was near the ceasefire line in Poonch. In company of Captain Ashrat of the Indian Army, when I had a look on the Pakstani side of Kashmir, I could hear the voices from the other side: "Companions, what delicacies are you preparing for the dinner?"

Later at the crossing of the passengers at the Chakan-Da-Bagh, I saw the Indian and Pakistani troops getting cosy in a brief interaction between the two in the No Man's Land. As Captain Khurram of the Pakistan army and Captain Ashrat of the Indian Army and some lieutenants from either side were exchanging pleasantries, I keenly observed the proceedings.

The two were making friends and it was hard to guess what had made enemies out of the two Armies for the last six decades. Question "What is cooking for the meals?" had replaced "What is cooking up in your backyard to launch a conspiracy against us?"

The interaction was a festival time for the troops of the two countries. Captain Khurram of the Pakistani Army posted across the ceasefire line was curious to know whether the date of engagement of the Indian Army officer Lt M A Noor had been fixed. The two after exchanging pleasantries inquired about one another's families, girlfriends, fiancées and whether their leave would be sanctioned on Eid, the religious festival of Muslims so that they could spend the festival with their families.

Lt Khalil, Lt Tahir and Lt Khalid of the Pakistan Army easily got mixed with Captain Ashrat, Captain Parvash and Captain Gyan Chand of the Indian Army. However, the focus of their talks unlike the politicians and media persons in the two countries was not the resolution of Kashmir dispute or militancy but girlfriends, cricket, entertainment and all that stuff.

The Indian Army officers were keen to know whether their Pakistani counterparts were fasting like their colleague Captain Ashrat. "Hey what happens to Inzamam-ul-Haq every time? He's such a cool customer and yet gets involved in controversies. The four match ban on him is not justified," Ashrat inquired from Khurram while Lt M A Noor was curiously trying to know about the badge Lt Khalil was spotting on his chest. "It is given for completing a one-month course in paragliding in Pakistan Army," Khalil informed him.

Curious to talk to the Pakistan Army officers, I chipped in to get some sound bytes. Lt Khalil who was around told me that he was a cricket buff and that he missed watching the world record holder of the highest one-day innings Saeed Anwar. "I listen to famous Pasthu singer Zarsanga and watch the video footage of the sultan of swing Wasim Akram. I too am a leftie like him," Khalil said.

But it was Lt. Tahir who became the focus of all attention when he started reciting his 15-word name when inquired about it. "It is Khan Bahadur Nawab Khan Sir Sahabzada Abdul Qayoom Khan Sagar Nawab Tahir Ahsan Khan Khatak," he said to which Captain Ashrat of the Indian Army wondered in disbelief, "I can't believe it! How can a name be so long? Start spotting your complete name on your chest."

"I will but I feel pity for the person who will be asked to make that nameplate," Lt Tahir said pulling Captain Ashrat's leg.

Tahir was again the focus when I pressed him for telling something about his girlfriend. However, he tactfully brushed away the question saying, "My girlfriend is my uniform and I love my girlfriend (uniform). I love listening to Arabic songs and watching Shahid Afridi go on the leather hunt," he said.

However, when I kept inquiring for other details, which I thought would enrich my copy, Tahir smelled fishy things "If you want to take my complete interview, why don't you accompany me to our nearest post. There we can sit together and away from this noise, you can get the complete interview," he told me.

Unable to understand his notoriety, I got excited and started leaving with him towards the Pakistani side from the No Man's Land we were talking at. It was only after crossing around 200 to 300 metres across the ceasefire line when the Pakistani Army officer told me that I was his guest and my return would be his prerogative that I smelled his notoriety.

"Tahir Bhai, why are you threatening me? If you don't want to give an interview, it is no problem. Let us return," I said perplexed with the attitude of the Pathan. He probably took me for an Indian spy who was trying to dig things from them.

And when we returned, the Indian Army officers swore to Tahir that I was just a journalist and had nothing to do with the Indian Army. This made him even more suspicious of me. Trying to clear the things, I took out my visiting card from my wallet and handed it over to him and with it the website addresses of my organisations. He gave me his email address and asked to send the story to him also so that he could read what I had made out of the interaction.

Overall happy with the outing with Indian Army officers, Tahir said that these were the ways, which could bring the two countries closer to one another.

Soon the time was over and we had to return. However, the Indian Army officers had spotted me getting cozy with their Pakistani counterparts. My being a Muslim and that too a Kashmir could have landed me in trouble. But luckily for me they were not as suspicious as my newly formed friends on the other side.

I took small steps back while the pleasant whether in Poonch cheered me up.



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