MUZAFFARABAD: Muhammad Ashraf’s eyes were filled with tears of overwhelming grief and joy all at once, as he recounts being reunited with his family, 26 years after they were torn apart by the insurgency in disputed Kashmir.
“My son was 12 years old when we separated. Now my grandson is 16,” he told AFP of his odyssey to see his loved ones again, bittersweet for its brevity and because it lay bare how much he had missed out on.
In 1990 Ashraf was serving with Indian security forces far from his family’s village, in Indian Occupied Kashmir (IoK) near Pakistani territory, as a violent insurgency against New Delhi gathered pace.
By October that year, there were reports of mass detentions and widespread torture as authorities tried to crack down on militants.
Ashraf’s family fled in fear.
Along with 20,000 other Indian Kashmiris, they crossed the de facto border and sought refuge in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).
But Ashraf was left behind.
It was a week before the word even reached him that his family were gone. Little did his family know that it would be at least a quarter of a century before they could embrace him again.
“The golden time of my life, which I should have spent with my family, is gone,” he told AFP.
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 when the subcontinent shook off British rule.
Kashmir is one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints, the Himalayan territory bitterly split between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan but claimed in full by both.
They have already fought two wars over the mountainous region, with no end to the dispute in sight.
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 for his daughter, who had remained in Indian Occupied Kashmir, and the repercussions she may have to face in the polarised region.
His attempts to visit Pakistani territory, while on active duty, proved futile.
Once he retired in 2006. Ashraf redoubled his efforts to see his family again. He first applied to use the Kashmir Bus Service, which was launched a year earlier to facilitate meetings between divided families.
But his five times were 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.
It took the former military man almost a decade to secure the necessary documents for the journey.
The reasons for the delay are unclear, but it is possible that being 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 both died in AJK.
His children’s weddings and the births of his grandchildren all took place in the years of their separation.
He also missed a lifetime with his wife Badarun Nisa who is now 62.
“I wept during the weddings of all my children because I missed my husband,” she told AFP.
“My mother worked very hard,” Ashraf’s son Muhammad 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 cut through IOK and AJK, where relatives on either side could wave to one another across the rushing waters.
Ashraf’s family described catching a glimpse of him once on Eid in 2006, after 16 years of their separation.
The river is just around 80 feet wide there, but with armed soldiers watching closely on either side, all the families could do was look.
For many, it only heightens the pain.
Ashraf Jan, a 60-year-old woman from the Karen village, too had been separated from her family in 1990, the same as Ashraf.
She described her heartbreak at seeing her son, Ashiq Hussain, from across the Neelum River.
“I wanted to jump in [the river] and reach him,” she told AFP.
“I was weeping on one side of the river while my son was weeping on the other side. We were helpless,” she added.
Seeing them again this February was like being “re-born,” she explained.
But for her and Ashraf both the reunions are tinged with grief: their visas only lasted a month. They have sought extensions, and remain in AJK for now, awaiting the Interior Ministry’s reply, but will eventually 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, his home, and pension behind.
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 Nisa is distraught.
“We have been very happy since my husband came to visit us. But these moments of happiness are brief. He has to go back.”
Published in The Express Tribune, April 13th, 2017.