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Footprints: A reunion after 68 years

Updated December 13, 2015

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Ghulam Hussain (right) with his brother Mohammad Islam.—Photo by writer
Ghulam Hussain (right) with his brother Mohammad Islam.—Photo by writer

ANY family reunion may be emotional; but if the reunion is taking place after 68 years, it is bound to flood the eyes. As tears streamed down his face, Ghulam Hussain, about 70, just clung to his younger brothers and sister and their children as he finally made it to their home in Maju Chak, a village off Sheikhupura-Gujranwala Road, after a long journey from Rajouri district in Jammu that took him to Mirpur in Azad Kashmir before he could join his siblings and their families early this month.

“It was one of my life’s happiest days when I found myself in the company of my brothers and sister,” sighs a soft-spoken Hussain, whose father had left the motherless infant in the care of his elder brother before migrating to Pakistan after communal riots broke out in their area at the time of independence.

The villagers present at their reunion say “moving scenes were witnessed when the brothers collapsed into one another’s arms”.

“I am glad that I could meet, spend some time, laugh and cry with my brothers and sister,” adds Hussain.

His brothers and sister had always known that they had an elder brother from their father’s first marriage, but didn’t know how to find him and where to look for him. Their late father too had lost contact with his elder brother back at Rajouri and was not certain if his son was alive.

“We always wanted to meet him, but didn’t know what to do. We just held on and waited until a man from Rajouri known to one of our relatives came to visit them in Mirpur 15-18 years back and told us that he knew our brother,” says Mohammad Islam.

The family sent back their pictures with a letter. Yet they were unable to communicate with him for many years even by telephone. “We tried to telephone him on many occasions, but the calls somehow would never connect. It was only years later that I and my brother went to Dubai for work and were not only able to talk to our brother, but also help bring his son to the UAE and get him a job there,” says Islam as he lights a cigarette.

The partition of the subcontinent that created Pakistan and India in 1947 saw millions of families move from one side to the other while tens of thousands men, women and children got killed in communal clashes that had erupted months before the announcement of independence.

Several thousand families were divided, and the wars and tensions between the two countries meant that many of them would never be reunited in their life even for once. In spite of improvement in the bilateral relationship and a much increased traffic across the borders, the harsh visa restrictions mean that the cost of travel for the poorer families on the two sides is too high to think of visiting their long-lost relatives and friends.

Even the technological advancement hasn’t been able to cut the long distances between the divided families in many cases. Getting Pakistan’s visa was not easy for Hussain either, who crossed the Wagha-Atari border with his two neighbours travelling to meet their relatives in Mirpur.

“We received a call from his son the day our brother boarded a bus for Wagha. After that we lost our contact with him. Then we received a call from him from Mirpur a couple of days later. We immediately set off to bring him home. It was more than an Eid day for us,” says Islam.

Hussain realises that it could be his first and last visit to his father’s home and his siblings. Though the very thought that he could not see his father, who passed away in 1982, still rankles him, he says it is heartening enough for him to know that he has met the people he had craved to meet all his life and see them prosper.

“I have a visa for one month. I would love to extend my stay here if allowed. Who knows if we will ever meet again in our lifetime? Our father didn’t live long enough to be here today. Even after crossing the border I was not sure if I will succeed in visiting and meeting my brothers and sister,” he says in reply to a question, wrapping himself in a warm shawl.

While Hussain is lucky to have met his lost family, many others like him on both sides of the India-Pakistan border are still waiting for the governments of the two countries to fulfil their promise of easing visa restrictions so that they could also find and meet their long-lost relatives.

Published in Dawn, December 13th, 2015