Crossing the Line of Control

Pakistan offered shelter to Kashmir’s dispossessed Muslims as they fled sectarian violence. But with

On a sunny Friday afternoon at Manak Piyan migrant camp for refugees in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Rizwan Ahmed, an ex-jihadi, sits in a classroom overlooking the River Neelum and holds forth among a group of elders. "Nobody wants to take responsibility for us. It's like we don't exist," says the bearded schoolteacher with a prosthetic leg, who, at the age of 37, is already regarded as something of a community leader. "We want to go back, but the governments of India and Pakistan won't allow us. They are violating our fundamental rights."

His audience murmurs in agreement. They belong to a group of people who migrated from Indian-administered Kashmir, fleeing torture and killings during the insurgency of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some, including Ahmed, openly admit that they fought against the Indian military. "It is our right under the United Nations Charter," he says. Though he fought in the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, the main militant group in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and trained in Khost under the command of the Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the watchful eye of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, Ahmed is not your average jihadi: he favours education for women and workers' rights, and says he was impressed by the relief efforts of Christian charities in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake that killed 80,000 people. He works at a school sponsored by the Read Foundation, funded jointly by the Foreign Office and Save the Children. Others contend that they had nothing to do with the fighting but were interrogated and tortured all the same.

Now, 20 years on, most of the 35,000 people who fled continue to live in makeshift camps and say they face discrimination at the hands of local Kashmiris. As second, third and even fourth generations are born in the camps, up to 40 per cent of the refugees lack the citizenship papers or ID cards that would entitle them to go to college or get government jobs. Unemployment rates in the community are even higher than the estimated 35-40 per cent for the region as a whole.

Some independent analysts argue that the migrants are hostages to the political disputes between India and Pakistan; they see Pakistan's reluctance to offer citizenship to the displaced people as a direct result of its insistence on holding a plebiscite to determine the future of the entire population of Kashmir, as envisaged in a 1948 UN Security Council resolution.

Rana Altaf was just five years old when, in the spring of 1993, he and his family were forced to flee their village in the Kupwara district of Indian-administered Kashmir. During the insurgency against the Indian authorities in the early 1990s, thousands of young men, including Rana's father and uncle, were arrested, beaten and tortured. Fearing for their lives, they eventually crossed the Line of Control, trekking on foot for three days across treacherous, snowy terrain. The threat of Indian landmines, designed to deter Pakistan-based militants, loomed large.

The group was 60-strong. “We knew that if we turned back, we faced certain death. They would have shot us," recalls Rana's father, Abdul Rasheed. He says he was arrested three times and interrogated by a man who threatened to have him killed if he didn't give the names of militants hiding in his village. He insists he had nothing to do with the armed struggle, in which an estimated 84,000 civilians lost their lives.

Get on the bus

Seventeen years on, the family lives in a make­shift shanty house on the outskirts of Muzaffarabad. Though they count themselves lucky to be alive, the family's dream of a welcoming Pakistan was short-lived.

“We're grateful to Pakistan, but we're always made to feel different. The people here don't like us, they don't mix with us and it's hard to get a job," says Rana, who has not yet received Pakistani citizenship or an identity card. Rana's mother, Sobia, complains that the family struggles for food each month as the men of the family find informal work only occasionally. Almost all the migrants continue to live in camps and subsist on government handouts of 1,500 rupees (£11) a month per person.

At Rana's residence, three families cram into two rooms and live on government welfare cheques. Not one of them possesses a Pakistani ID card.
“We left our land, our properties, our animals and businesses to come here," says Abdul, head of the family. "We want to go back home, but only after the Indian army has left. What business do they have in Kashmir?"

They say that the bus service between the two Kashmirs, launched as part of peace efforts between India and Pakistan in 2005, is "just for show" - bureaucratic hurdles make travel almost impossible. According to a recent poll by Chatham House, the London-based think tank, only 1 per cent of the total population of Kashmir has been able to visit friends or relatives on the other side in the past five years.

Ahmed finally got his identity card seven years ago, after a long struggle with an unrelenting bureaucracy. Some members of the community petitioned the high court in 2005 for citizenship rights, but the court's ruling extended only as far as a few dozen individual cases. Other migrants were granted citizenship in 2006 in the run-up to the state elections, in what they see as a cynical ploy by politicians to garner votes.