Miserable Eid for divided Kashmir families

AFP , Friday 9 Aug 2013

Kashmir Families separated by a demarcation line that splits India and Pakistan struggle to reunite during the Eid al-Fitr Islamic holiday

For thousands of Kashmiri families divided by one of the most heavily militarised borders in the world, this year's Eid al-Fitr festival offers cold comfort as India-Pakistan tensions flare.

Families split between Indian and Pakistani administered Kashmir have barely seen each other for decades and with peace talks on ice following deadly cross-border attacks, hopes are bleak.

The nuclear-armed neighbours have fought two of their three wars over the Muslim-majority Himalayan region which is claimed by both countries in full but divided along the Line of Control (LoC).

Eid is a time for new clothes, sweets and giving children money. But for many families, finances are too tight for celebration. Instead they spend Eid remembering loved ones across the border.

"I miss my mother, sisters and brother all the time but especially at Eid," said Uzhair Mohammad Ghazali, 38, at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Muzaffarabad, the main town in Pakistani Kashmir.

"I've been weeping for them here while they've been weeping for me there. We have no hope that we'll be reunited in our lives."

He fled India's crackdown against a separatist insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir when he was just 15.

Since arriving in Pakistan, he has married and had six children of his own, but apart from trekking to a border crossing to stare at them through the barbed wire, he has not seen his family again.

Sometimes the families speak by telephone and Ghazali saw his sisters after Eid in 2012 when they stood on opposite banks of the river next to the Tetwal crossing point and stared at each other.

Thousands of people have been killed since rebel groups rose up against Indian troops in 1989, fighting for independence for Kashmir or a merger with Pakistan.

Eid 2013 comes with India under mounting domestic pressure to delay indefinitely proposed peace talks with Pakistan after five Indian soldiers were killed in a cross-border attack on Monday.

India says specialist Pakistani troops were involved the killings and has hinted at stronger military action.

Pakistan denied involvement in the attack. A flare-up along the LoC in January, in which two Indian soldiers were killed, brought stop-start peace talks to a halt.

The low-level talks had only just resumed following a three-year hiatus sparked by the 2008 Mumbai attacks that claimed 166 lives.

Khwaja Ghulam Rasool, 50, lives in Garkot village on the Indian side in the Uri sector, near the LoC. His brother, uncle and their families live right across the de facto border on the other side.

They met for the first time in 30 years after a bus service started between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, but frequent visits are increasingly difficult, he says, because it takes up to six months to process repeat permissions to travel on the bus.

"We live across a bloodied line of bad luck that has divided my family. The fresh incidents on the border unfortunately strengthen this divide," he told AFP.

He says the sadness at separation is much worse at Eid, "when the urge to be together and meet freely is at the greatest".

"All I pray for, all the time, is that India and Pakistan come together so that this line just vanishes," he said.

In Pakistani Kashmir, there are 15 camps housing 34,747 registered refugees, who each get a stipend of 1,500 rupees ($15) a month, says government refugees official Nabeel Qureshi.

Nasima Bibi, 50, came in 1992 with her husband, two daughters and one son but left behind her eldest son as he was away staying with his grandparents when Indian troops came to their village.

"Indian forces launched a crackdown in our village. They arrested my husband, tortured him and broke his arm," she said crying.

"We were terrified and fled in darkness. We reached Pakistani Kashmir in three days. We hid during the day and travelled during the night. We did not wait to treat my husband's broken arm and that's why my son was left behind," Bibi told AFP.

Her son is now 33 and married with children. He saw him at Tetwal three years ago and could not get through on the phone during the holy fasting month of Ramadan that ends with Eid.

"How can a mother celebrate Eid without her son? I've missed him very much every time," Bibi said.

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