Things have changed so much across Line of Control (LOC) in Kashmir since the ceasefire agreement between Pakistani and Indian armies in 2003. Recalling those pre-ceasefire days in across near LOC, It used to be impossible to travel on the road in Titwal and Kairan sectors where the road is just adjacent to the LOC. Now a days, vehicles and people move freely on these patches without any fear.
It was summer of 2002 when I visited Neelum Valley for the very first time. Those were the times when one used to find Neelum valley in newspapers every few days in the form of cross border shelling incidents and casualties. Current Neelum valley road was considered as a death trap for vehicles. My plan was to visit Kutton/Jagran area with some friends who were working with an NGO Islamic Relief there on different community development projects. We left Islamabad in morning and reached Muzaffarabad in the afternoon. In Muzaffarabad, I was told that we will use Leswa bypass road to reach Neelum Valley. Leswa bypass road was built with the purpose of providing a safe alternate route to Neelum valley and was supposed to remain out of Indian guns’ range. However even this road could not be made completely safe as Indians managed to bring some of their long range artillery at some of the high grounds on their side in such a way that they could hit a point on the road directly. This point was known as Zero Point.
I was told that we will leave Muzaffarabad at mid night so that we can cross Zero Point before dawn. By avoiding the daylight we could decrease the chances of being hit by crossing the hit point with vehicle’s lights turned off. It was a smooth journey in a very light environment till we reached near Zero Point. A sign board with an army post and barrier indicated that we are about to enter red zone. Only after an annoying verification process and mentioning of a few army references, we were allowed to cross the barrier by the soldiers. Our driver turned off the tape switched the head lights off. My friend and his colleagues started reciting kalima and different verses from Quran. Sitting in the jeep, I could feel the tense environment inside. At that time, I had a feeling mixed of excitement and fear. I saw an army jeep standing on the roadside with full of bullet holes. I was told that unlucky jeep tried to take risk by crossing the hit point but couldn’t make it and was hit hard. Five or six soldiers got martyred in that single incident. Our driver rushed the jeep at fast speed till it approached another army barrier that indicated the end of hit point. Phew, we were out of danger and came along a great sense of relief. The atmosphere turned back to normal once again. Since then, I have traveled to that road many times. I still recall that journey and the tension on that patch every time I cross it now.
During my stay at Kutton, often the peaceful surroundings used to get shaken with explosion sounds coming from far. The war continued at many points across LOC. I found the people of affected areas to be very brave however. They were not ready to give up their homes and lands. In Athmuqam bazar, there wasn’t a single shop without bullet holes in the walls. A bunker was a must beneath every home. Locals used to say with a laugh that they can only be killed with the first shell. Any subsequent shell can never harm them as everyone would rush to the bunker in whatever state he/she may be in.
Now in 2010, this Neelum Valley presents an absolutely different picture. The tension has long gone and tourists now come to visit the area in large numbers during summers. Rest houses have been built with one at Kairan which is right at the border at stone throw distance from Indian occupied Kashmir. This rest house was badly damaged by Indian artillery shelling before ceasefire. It has now been completely renovated with more than 17 well maintained rooms. Indian soldiers can be seen patrolling the other side. A friendly exchange of waiving or whistling also occur sometimes.
In these apparently peaceful days, I wonder about those hard days these people have seen. While ceasefire certainly couldn’t bring anything positive for Pakistan from military and strategic point of view, it brought back the routine life for ordinary people living along the line of control. I pray for the day to come soon when we will be able to visit the other side of Kashmir and meet our brothers and sisters there who have been living under suppressing Indian rule for such a long time. Meray watan teri jannat main ayin gay ik din!!!