Symbolic and perilous bus trip

Defying militant attacks, passengers in divided Kashmir cross a "peace bridge" at the India-Pakistan border, opened for the first time in 58 years.

Published April 7, 2005 1:53PM (EDT)

It is a five-hour journey through beautiful scenery in the northern foothills of the Himalayas. But when 20 passengers Thursday morning board two coaches under the snowcapped peaks in Srinagar, India's state capital in Jammu and Kashmir, they will be embarking on the world's most dangerous bus trip. Wednesday's spectacular attack by suicide bombers on a heavily guarded tourist center, which had been home to the passengers for the last three days, underlined the determination of some to stop the group of elderly couples from being reunited with long-lost relatives from across the border in Pakistan's portion of Kashmir.

The quiet of a sunny Srinagar afternoon was ripped apart by the crackle of submachine fire and the dull crump of grenade explosions. As the two gunmen ran amok in the center, the complex of wooden buildings quickly began to burn. People ran screaming toward the inferno, hoping that family members had not been consumed by flames. Five people were injured in gun battles between Indian troops and the attackers. One guerrilla was killed while the other escaped into the night.

Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir, and its predominantly Muslim population, for themselves and have fought three wars over the state since Britain left the subcontinent 58 years ago. The region now lies divided between both countries, and its two halves have been sealed since partition.

Tracing the 80 miles from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad -- the capital of the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir -- along the dizzying gorges and icy slopes of the Jhelum Valley past apple orchards and saffron fields, the bus route is the first link between Indian and Pakistani portions of the divided state.

Thursday's opening of the road is the most tangible benefit of a 14-month-old peace process between India and Pakistan for those living on the floor of the valley. Wednesday night the Indian and Pakistani governments made it clear that despite the attack on the safe house in Srinagar's highest security zone, the bus trip should go ahead. "We always knew that there would be trouble and the bus starting was not going to end the militancy. But we will go on regardless," said Omar Abdullah, a Kashmiri M.P. in India's Parliament.

But the armed separatist groups, which appeared until recently to be patronized by Pakistan as a legitimate freedom struggle, say that such moves are part of an Indian plot to pacify the insurgency. They warn that those taking the five-hour ride will be entering not a vehicle but a "coffin." That threat alone caused five people to drop out. But most decided to run the risk. When the Bhat family left their family home earlier this week, they took their most precious possession: a black suitcase packed with presents for grandchildren they had only ever seen in photographs. The bag was all 65-year-old Mohammad Abdullah Bhat and his wife Fatima could grab before they were forced into hiding by death threats, personally delivered to their home.

The message came from the same Islamic militant groups that launched the suicide raid Wednesday. For the Bhats, however, it was not political considerations but family that drove their desire to get tickets for Thursday's historic journey. Bhat has not seen his brothers since the partition of British India in 1947. A half-century has passed in which he missed funerals and weddings. Desperate to bring his family together Bhat married his daughter, Wazira Begum, to his younger brother's son 17 years ago.

But the blood feud between two nations, born from the womb of the empire, ensured that Bhat's family remained apart. He spent a small fortune traveling to New Delhi only to be repeatedly denied visas to travel to Pakistani Kashmir. In the intervening years, Bhat has missed seeing his four grandchildren and his own daughter grow up.

"We are not political people. Wazira was the apple of my father's eye and he has missed her every day since she left," says Ishrat, Bhat's youngest daughter, who was 5 when her sister left. "My father knows the risk he is taking. But he says he is an old man now and even if he is killed because of this bus he will die happy because he would have seen my sister and her children."

Thursday's road opening also signals a new working relationship between India and Pakistan, which in the past have seen hopes of peace raised only to have them dashed a few months later. Aware of the bus's significance, Indian authorities have gone to great lengths to spruce up Srinagar and surrounding towns. Highways and bridges are decked out with lighting and bunting. Fresh coats of paint are being applied to homes and shops along the route. There are signs in Urdu proclaiming "Army and People together with peace as a destination."

However, the heavy presence of troops, roadblocks and guns poking out of heavily fortified bunkers lends the place a surreal air. There are signs of a nascent peace, but the look is of a city under siege. The steady weekly toll of killing still continues and has cost, depending on whom you believe, between 30,000 and 80,000 lives in 16 years. The war has seen torture and disappearances become a feature of life in Kashmir.

The insurgents appear dazed both by Pakistan's support for the bus service and Islamabad's seemingly new Kashmir policy, with some even going as far as calling President Musharraf a traitor. The political wing of the separatist movement, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, is more circumspect. Its hard-liners blame Washington for pressuring President Musharraf to make peace on India's terms.

Pakistan "is under tremendous pressure from the USA and Kashmiris are very angry with the Pakistani government for accepting this bus," said Syed Ali Geelani, considered the most hard-line leader of the Hurriyat. "It will not change anything for us."

By Randeep Ramesh

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