Web Weaves Reunion for Kashmiris

SRINAGAR – Technology bridged a decades old divide this week when separated families across the Indian and Pakistani sides of Kashmir interacted through a web cast, amid tears, laughter and hopes of peaceful tomorrows.

The three-day event organized by the BBC in the Indian city of Srinagar and Pakistani town of Muzaffarabad brought a ray of hope for thousands of families divided by a conflict that has raged since the independence of both countries in 1947.

At a hotel here where the webcast took place, locals wept and laughed and chattered with screen images of their loved ones.

Indian Kashmiri teacher Rehana Masoodi cried profusely when she saw her sister Abida Masoodi, whom she last met in 1985.

Abida has been living in Muzaffarabad since 1985, when she and her husband traveled to Pakistan-administered Kashmir to meet their relatives. The couple was unable to return to India due to an insurgency raging in this state since the 1980s.

Abida’s 70-year-old mother, who had traveled from the frontier district of Kupwara along with her husband for the teleconferencing, anxiously asked her daughter, “Why are you looking so weak? Why don’t you try coming to meet us?”

Even as she consoled her sister and parents, a distraught Abida voiced the plea of thousands of Kashmiri families separated by the conflict, “I hope the two countries will lift their restrictions and allow us to meet again.”

The interactions were especially significant as many of the locals had minimal interactions with their relatives across the border in the past years because of mail consistently getting lost in transit and restrictions on telephone calls.

Srinagar based BBC journalist Altaf Hussain, who coordinated the event, reveals that the situation was so pitiful that locals would communicate by sitting across both sides of the dividing Line of Control (LoC) and waving at each other.

“My colleagues in London decided to organize the video conference after they saw Kashmiris sitting on the banks of a river along the LoC and waving at each other. They were unable to talk because the roaring waters drowned out their voices.”

Thanks to the BBC initiative, families separated for decades can now use technology to cross barriers set up by governments.

Like Farah, who was born in Kupwara and went to Muzaffarabad when she was two years. She urged her cousin Saba to send mails via the Internet, a hitherto unexplored option for many in the state.

Many families exchanged telephone numbers, urging those living in Pakistan to call because India does not allow locals in Kashmir to telephone people across the border. The BBC also needed clearance from both governments to organize the event.

Many families complained about disappearing letters. “You send letters that never reach us. We write letters that never reach you. I wonder where these go,” an Indian woman was heard telling her sister in Pakistan.

Even relatively well off people in Srinagar used the teleconferencing facility. Like former high court chief justice Mian Jalaluddin, who spoke to his brother and nephew. They discussed how travel documents were a major hurdle to crossing the border.

Thousands of families like Jalahuddin’s are unable to visit each other because of strict visa restrictions.

One such household is the Mir business family of Hazratbal in Srinagar. Separated family members came face to face after four decades. Nooruddin Mir, whose brother Ghulam Rasool and son Muhammad Farooq live in Muzaffarabad, could not restrain his tears.

Ghulam Rasool settled there in 1965. Muhammad Farooq went in 1975 and married a cousin. They haven’t yet been able to return to their birthplace. Farooq promised to visit his family in Srinagar in September if his travel papers came through.

The emotional reunions brought a lump to the throats of observers and mediapersons. Confessed photojournalist Habib Naqash, “Tears just flowed as I took snapshots of people interacting with their loved ones after so long.”

Gushed another onlooker, Kashmiri engineer Abdul Aziz, “It was a historic occasion. I hope policymakers in New Delhi and Islamabad take note of the plight of separated families and take steps to reunite them.”

And government employee Maqsood Ahmad, who has several relatives in Pakistan, charges that it is unfair for two countries to keep so many families divided for so long, adding that the “Berlin walls of separation” must soon be destroyed.

In a bittersweet finale, scores of women from the frontier district of Kupwara congregated at the BBC office in Srinagar on the last day of the event. They had learnt about it from the newspapers and radio and wanted to take part.

“Unfortunately, we had only regrets to offer them,” rues journalist Hossian, adding, “But despite these setbacks and limitations, we succeeded in our main objective – to highlight the agony of separated families.”

Even as people across the Kashmir Valley are hailing the initiatives, there are warnings to refrain from politicizing the event.

As Kashmir University research scholar Ishaq Ahmed points out, “The plight of separated families should not be politicized for different parties to make gains, as was done in the recent parliamentary elections (April-May). This is a human issue and must be tackled humanely.”

He adds that the Indian and Pakistani governments must “read the writing on the wall” and renew efforts to open the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar road, which has been closed since 1947.