Praying for peace

Sunday, June 16, 2002

LINE OF CONTROL, India -- They live just a stone's throw from each other, separated by a stream and a rice paddy with water buffalo. But Muslim neighbors in the Himalayan province of Kashmir are divided by an invisible line of sorrow -- the Line of Control between India and Pakistan.

"I may be a Muslim, but I am an Indian first. The Pakistani, he is my enemy, he killed my son," said Mohammed Ibrahim, a Kashmiri farmer whose son was blown up last week by a shell fired from Pakistan. "I lost my son, and I will always be at war."

Still, hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris, who live on both sides of the cease-fire line that divides this lush Himalayan province between India and Pakistan, are hopeful the world has begun to acknowledge their plight, even if it has meant pushing the South Asian adversaries to the brink of war.

The princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, claimed in its entirety by Pakistan and India, was divided after the two countries gained independence from Britain in 1947. A cease-fire established the Line of Control in 1972 after the third war between the two countries.

Since India and Pakistan are now nuclear armed, the international community has rushed to intervene in the latest standoff between the two nations. For the first time, world leaders are acknowledging the five-decade dispute over Kashmir must be resolved.

The United States and Britain are offering surveillance sensors and other technology to monitor the infiltration of Islamic militants into India's part of Kashmir. They're calling on New Delhi to resume talks with Islamabad and demanding that Pakistan end terrorism launched from its territory.

"Pray for peace, protect us from Pakistan," said Ibrahim, a 55-year-old farmer from the Line of Control village of Jalas. "There is a lot of love and brotherhood among the Hindus and Muslims here. We have been living together for generations. We don't want Pakistan, we just want peace."

Separated by mere feet

More than 60,000 Kashmiris, Indian security forces and Islamic militants have been killed since guerrillas launched an insurgency 12 years ago. They are demanding that Indian-controlled Kashmir be independent or merged with Pakistan.

Many Muslims and Hindus who lived in the Himalayan region before its maharaja chose to go with India just after partition, were again separated by mere feet when the South Asian neighbors drew up the cease-fire line.

"What divides our village and Pakistan is but a stream," said Sathinder Kumar Sharma, the chief of the village of Jalas, where shelling on June 7 killed Ibrahim's son and two others. When the mortar rounds resumed Monday, razing most of their houses, nearly all of the 6,000 villagers fled to a nearby Indian army base in Mandhar.

"They have ruined our lives," said Sharma, a Hindu.

Most of the 3,000 residents of another Line of Control village, Balakot, are now sleeping near the army base, in animal sheds and on school floors

'We will never go back'

"Some of our relatives are over there on the other side," said Mohammed Arif of Balakot village. "We will never go back and we might never seem them again."

India accuses Pakistan of training and financing the Pakistan-based militants who cross over the thickly forested Line of Control into Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Two attacks by militants put India and Pakistan on war footing, with more than 1 million troops deployed at their border. A suicide assault on the Indian Parliament in December claimed 14 lives, including five militants that New Delhi insisted were Pakistan-sponsored.

On May 14, a militant attack on an Indian army camp in Jammu-Kashmir state killed 34 people, most of them soldiers' wives and children. Indian warships moved near Pakistan.

Since then, there has been a marked increase in cross-border shelling, killing hundreds of civilians and soldiers on both sides of the disputed cease-fire line. However, India acknowledges militant infiltration appears to be down after Pakistan announced a crackdown on such groups.

On Friday, during the first Indian army press tour of the Line of Control since December, shelling continued along Jubbar Ridge. Monkeys shimmied up pine trees to escape the tremors as soldiers sheltered in mud bunkers turned their mortars and guns toward Pakistan, only 300 yards away.

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