Flowers, bagpipes as bus crosses Kashmir divide

With bouquets of flowers around their necks and the strain of Indian bagpipes in their ears, it was almost as if the last 58 years of painful separation had never happened.

Some of the first 30 bus passengers for more than half a century to cross from Pakistan’s side of divided Kashmir to the Indian zone kissed the ground in what just minutes before had been alien territory.

They had waited nervously for about 10 minutes after their green-and-gold coach pulled up at Kaman Bridge, the only route across the Line of Control, the heavily militarised, de facto border between the two zones.

Then soldiers in formal uniforms swung open the steel gates on both sides, and the crowd moved off as one.

“This is the happiest day of my life because the walls have fallen,” said 82-year-old Sardar Mohammad Yakub, before breaking down and weeping after setting foot on the other side.

The passengers were greeted by children dancing and singing, as well as Indian Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who had earlier waved off the first bus from Srinagar, the summer capital of New Delhi’s side, welcomed them via satellite phone.

Both buses were heavily guarded by security forces after militants on Wednesday attacked a complex holding bus passengers in Srinagar.

“I think I am reborn today and I am feeling very happy. I have come to meet my brother-in-law,” said former Pakistani Kashmir lawmaker Zamarud Begum (75), who crossed the bridge in a wheelchair.

Passenger Zulekha Bibi was similarly overwhelmed.

“For the first time since I left my home in 1965 after the war, I am returning home to see my five sisters. My father died during my absence. It is very emotional for me.”

There was also a musical accompaniment to the historic crossing, in the form of an Indian military band featuring bagpipes, a reminder of the region’s British colonial past.

Kashmir was initially an independent state when the British divided the Indian subcontinent in 1947. But when Pakistani tribal rebels raided the region after the partition, Kashmir’s Hindu ruler hurriedly acceded to India.

The scenic territory has been divided ever since and all transport links severed.

The new bus service is seen as a first, albeit modest, step towards resolving India and Pakistan’s seemingly endless rivalry over the region.

Officials said to keep the passengers calm they were not told about a reported attack on the bus coming from Srinagar.

Indian police later said the gunfire may have been the result of “accidental firing” by an armed constable.

There was little sign of enmity on the Pakistani side.

In every village and town along the 61km route from Muzaffarabad, large numbers of people turned out to catch a glimpse of the bus.

They threw rose petals and waved their hands in excitement.

Meanwhile, the passengers themselves were allowed a short break, including a lunch of traditional Kashmiri food, before boarding a bus on their onward journey to Srinagar.

They will make a short stop in the town of Salamabad, 13 from the Line of Control, for another welcoming ceremony.

“Warm welcome to our Kashmiri brethren,” said posters pasted on almost all houses on the Indian side of the narrow, freshly painted bridge.—Sapa-AFP



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