MUZAFFARABAD: Mohammad Ashraf’s eyes fill with tears, overwhelmed by grief and joy all at once, as he recounts being reunited with his family 26 years after they were torn apart by conflict in India-held Kashmir.
“My son was 12 years old when we separated. Now my grandson is 16,” he said of his odyssey to see his loved ones again, bittersweet for its brevity and because it lay bare how much he missed out on.
In 1990 Ashraf was serving with Indian security forces far from his family’s village, in India-held Kashmir near Pakistani territory, as an armed campaign against New Delhi gathered pace. By October that year, amid reports of mass detentions and widespread torture as authorities cracked down on militants, Ashraf’s family fled in fear.
Along with 20,000 other Kashmiris, they crossed the de facto border and sought refuge in Pakistani territory. Ashraf was left behind. It was a week before word even reached him that they were gone, and little did his family realise it would be more than a quarter of a century before they embraced him again.
“The golden time of my life, which I should have spent with my family, is gone,” he said.
Ashraf’s tale highlights the plight of thousands of refugee families divided by a conflict that stretches back as far as the bloody partition of India in 1947.
Ashraf found himself trapped by his career as a soldier. “I thought if I quit my post I would be considered a traitor,” he said, adding that he also feared repercussions for the one daughter who also lived in India-held Kashmir.
He was not allowed to visit Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), while on active duty. But when he retired in 2006 he redoubled efforts to see his family again.
First Ashraf applied to use the Kashmir Bus Service, which was launched a year earlier to facilitate meetings between divided families. He tried five times in total — all in vain.
Access to the service remains largely at the whim of authorities and is routinely disrupted during periods of high tensions. He then decided to apply for a passport to allow him to cross the formal border further south in Punjab province, but the document took 10 years to procure.
The reasons for the delay are unclear, but it is possible that as a former Indian soldier, authorities were not keen for him to travel to Pakistan. The passport finally arrived in 2016 — but it was too late for him to see his parents again; they had both died in AJK.
His children’s weddings, the births of his grandchildren all took place there too — over the long years they were without him.
He also missed a lifetime with his wife, Badar-un-Nisa, who is now 62. “I wept during the weddings of all my children because I missed my husband,” she said.
“My mother worked very hard,” Ashraf’s son Mohammad Asghar added. “It is very difficult for a woman to bring up her children without her husband’s support.”
When a ceasefire agreement was signed in 2003, authorities designated two spots on the Neelum River, which cuts through AJK and India-held Kashmir, where relatives on either side can wave to one another across the rushing waters.
Ashraf’s family describe catching a glimpse of him there once, at Eid in 2006 — 16 years into their separation. The river is just about 25 metres wide there, but with armed soldiers watching closely on either side, all the families can do is look.
For many, it only heightens the pain.
Ashraf Jan, 60, who is from the same village as Mohammad Ashraf — Karen in occupied Kashmir — has also been separated from her family since 1990.
She describes her heartbreak at seeing her son, Ashiq Hussain, across the Neelum River.
“I wanted to jump in and reach him,” she said. “I was weeping on the one side of the river while my son was weeping on the other side. We were helpless,” she added.
Seeing her family again this February was like being “reborn”, she explained.
But for her and Ashraf both the reunions are tinged with grief: their visas are valid only for a month. They have sought extensions, and remain in Azad Kashmir for now awaiting the interior ministry’s reply, but eventually they will have to return.
If they surrender their Indian passports they could seek refugee status to remain in the camps in AJK — but for Ashraf that would mean leaving his other daughter as well as his home and pension in India-held Kashmir.
If he keeps his passport, he can visit again. But with tensions once again high between India and Pakistan, no permanent solution is yet in sight.
Ashraf’s desolate wife is distraught: “We have been very happy since my husband has been with us, but these moments of happiness are brief. He has to go back.”
Published in Dawn, April 13th, 2017