In 1947, Wazir Hussain, who lives in Pawdan village in the frontier town of Uri, North Kashmir, was seven years old when his maternal uncle, Mohammad Alam, crossed the Line of Control to settle in Muzaffarabad, in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
Hussain and Alam did not see each other for the next 58 years. When India and Pakistan launched Karwan-e-Aman — or “peace caravan” — bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad on April 7, 2005, it was the first time families divided by the LoC could hope for a reunion. Another bus service was launched between Poonch and Rawalakot on June 20, 2006.
“I knew only two things about him, his name and that he lived in a village called Taratabad. It was my dream to see him,” said Hussain, now 80.
Thousands of Kashmiri families were separated after the British partitioned India in 1947 and the subsequent India-Pakistan war of 1948 drew a de facto border through what was then the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. The bus service, and later the internet, brought them back together.
However, after the Pulwama attack in February last year and the abrogation of Article 370 in August, these families are divided again. The Indian government suspended the bus service after Pulwama and internet and mobile services after revoking Kashmir’s special status.
Five months on, communication and internet services have been only partially restored.
On April 7, 2005, Hussain was part of the first batch of 30 Kashmiris who travelled to Muzaffarabad via Kaman Post, a bridge that connects Kashmir with Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
They were given a rousing welcome. It was the first time the bridge had been opened since 1947 for ordinary Kashmiris living on either side of the LoC. The armies of India and Pakistan would open the gates only on special occasions, on August 14 and 15, to exchange sweets.
The launch of the bus service meant the gates would open every Monday, allowing divided Kashmiri families to meet.
When Hussain travelled to Muzaffarabad for the first time, he and his fellow visitors stayed in a government facilitation centre for a day or two. They had little knowledge about the whereabouts of their relatives in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
“I didn’t have Alam’s phone number. How could I locate him? I had no idea,” Hussain said. An official in Muzaffarabad managed to contact Alam on the phone and tell him that his family had come to see him. “The next day, Alam arrived along with his sons, and took us home,” said Hussain. “We received a grand reception.”
Hussain spent 13 days in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir during his first visit, meeting Alam, his family, and other relatives. “It seemed like a new beginning of my life,” Hussain said. “Jubilation all around buried all my sorrows.”
The relationship stayed alive. Hussain gave Alam his phone number before returning home to Uri. Over a year later, Alam told him he was coming to visit. Hussain hired a car and decorated it with flowers. He picked up Alam from the Salamabad TRC and brought him home. “He came here to meet us, our relatives, neighbours,” Hussain said. “He left for Pakistan Occupied Kashmir overjoyed.”
It was the first and last time Alam had visited Kashmir since 1947; he died in a road accident in Muzaffarabad a few years later. Hussain made his third trip to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to mourn the death of his uncle. He returned three more times, first to visit Alam’s grave and subsequently to meet Alam’s daughter, Nageena, and son, Mohammad Azam.
His uncle’s children visited him in Uri too, a few years before the bus service was suspended.
According to an annual report published by the Ministry of Home Affairs last year, at least 11,028 people had used the bus service to visit Pakistan Occupied Kashmir until March 2019, while 25,725 people from across the LoC had visited Jammu and Kashmir.
The fortnightly service on both Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalakot routes was converted into a weekly service in September 2008 owing to the “good response to these Confidence Building Measures from both sides of the LoC”, the report said.
Over the years, the bus service witnessed plenty of disruptions due to the vagaries of weather, ceasefire violations along the LoC, and militant attacks which India blamed on Pakistan. After the , which left at least 45 paramilitary men dead, the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service was again suspended.
Riyaz Ahmad Malik, sub divisional magistrate of Uri, told Newslaundry that the bus service remained “suspended in the aftermath of the February 14 Pulwama attack”, despite . “In June last year, we received two passengers from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and later three passengers from this side were allowed to go to PoK,” he said. “After that, it remained suspended.”
The bus service between Poonch and Rawalkot also remains suspended since September last year.
Rahul Yadav, the deputy COMMISSIONER, Poonch, Deputy Commissioner Poonch, Rahul Yadav said the service was suspended from Pakistan's side.
“Post August 5, the service was suspended for two weeks. After that the stranded passengers on both sides of the LoC were allowed to return to respective places," he told Newslaundry."Thereafter, it was again suspended. Mainly it is suspended from Pakistan side. The service has remained suspended since September last year.”
For Kashmiris with relatives on the other side of the LoC, the situation is a throwback to the pre-2005 era. Hussain had applied for fresh travel papers in early 2019, hoping to make his seventh visit to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, but he has abandoned the plan now. “I didn’t pursue the travel permit after the bus service was suspended,” he said. “I thought it was a waste of time.” It had never struck him, he said, that the bus service would ever come to a halt.
Attauallh Handoo, 70, is a retired government employee in Uri. Like Hussain, he was looking forward to visiting relatives in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir last year. The suspension of the bus service has left him dismayed. “It’s a human right to allow physical contact between the divided Kashmiri families,” he said.
Handoo first visited Pakistan Occupied Kashmir in November 2006. His aunts, Hajra and Naseema, live there, with other relatives sprinkled across Muzaffarabad, Bagh and Forward Kota.
“We received a grand reception combined with local rituals,” he recalled. “It was an occasion of joy as we met for the first time since 1947.” In a conversation punctuated with deep sighs, Handoo recalled how his relatives took him everywhere, and never let him feel “disappointed”. He visited again for the last rites of a relative. “It was a soul-healing moment to be part of an important occasion,” he said.
In 2012, Handoo’s relatives crossed the Kaman Post bridge to visit him in Uri. They were welcomed by women with wanvon — a traditional form of singing in Kashmir — and stayed for 20 days. The relatives managed to attend Handoo’s nephew’s wedding during that time. “Hosting them as special guests on a marriage occasion gave us such a feeling that it is beyond my explanation,” Handoo said. “It was a real reunion.”
Like Hussain, Handoo had applied for a fresh travel permit last year. He stopped following up on it after the service was suspended. “The bus service had united us,” he said. “But now we feel divided again.”
At the time of the Partition, Mohammad Sultan left North Kashmir’s Baramulla district and moved to Muzaffarabad. There, he got married and started a shop. Sultan died in the late 1980s. His brother, Abdul Aziz, still lives in the family’s ancestral home in the old town in Baramulla.
According to a relative, Aziz travelled on a visa via Wagah, Punjab, and met his family in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir at least three times. After the bus service was started, Sultan’s son, Farooq Ahmed, and his family visited Aziz’s family three times between 2005 and 2015. “Each time, they stayed for around 15 days in Kashmir and met every relative,” said the relative, on the condition of anonymity.
The divided families find it easier to use the bus service rather than travel by plane via New Delhi and Islamabad. “The trip to Muzaffarabad via Uri takes just a few hours,” the relative explained. “It’s less expensive and saves time compared to air travel.”
Sitara Begum, 80, lives with her son Irshad Ahmad Khawaja, 43, at Garkote village, about 10 km from Uri. In 2006, her cousin, Khawaja Samad Joo, came to meet her from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir for the first time. Sitara broke down when she went to receive her cousin at the Salamabad TRC, her son said. Joo hugged and consoled her.
“It was an unimaginable meeting,” Khawaja said, speaking to Newslaundry at a hotel in Uri.
Joo spent around 40 days with his relatives in Uri, Khawaja said. He asked after all his relatives, including those who had died in the 60 years of their separation, including Khawaja’s grandmother Fatima. Fatima was from Khaliyana in Muzaffarabad. She had married Khawaja grandfather, Baba Amir-u-din, in Garkote before the Partition.
Until Joo’s visit, Khawaja said he had only seen pictures of his relatives in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. In 2012, Sitara and Khawaja visited Joo and his family in Muzaffarabad.
“The joy of seeing my relatives in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir is hard to express today,” Khawaja said, adding that they were taken to Joo’s house in a decorated cavalcade. Joo’s family even organised a “marriage-like reception” for him and his mother.
Joo died a year later. Khawaja’s older brother, Abdul Rahim, went to Muzaffarabad to attend the funeral which, Khawaja said, further cemented their relationship with their family on the other side of the border.
“Meeting relatives after decades, despite being nearby, is like going on a holy pilgrimage,” he said. To him, the road from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad is no ordinary road — it’s a vein that connects families.
When Khawaja got married in 2012, a relative in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir sent traditional clothes, bangles and a shawl for his bride through a visitor. Khawaja returned the favour, sending back gifts of his own. The back-and-forth continued for years, until the bus service was suspended.
However, all was not lost, as long as they had the internet. Khawaja said he would occasionally video-call his relatives, and share photos, videos and voice notes on social media. They would discuss everyday issues, like the weather, the crop season, and chores.
“This internet-sponsored communication would make us feel near, despite being divided,” said Khawaja.
The communication blackout in Kashmir after August 5 has left him bereft. “While there is little hope for the resumption of the cross-LoC bus service, we don’t know when we’ll be able to reestablish contact with our relatives,” he said. “We feel divided — again.”