As Pakistan observes Kashmir Day on February 5, TRT World visited the Muzaffarabad district in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, home to tens of thousands of Kashmiris who were separated from their loved ones either in 1947 or post-1989.
For the last 28 years Pakistan has been observing ‘Kashmir Day’ on February 5, to express solidarity with the people of India-administered Kashmir.
Besides observing a public holiday across the country, a one-minute silence at 10am is also held as a mark of respect to the thousands of Kashmiri people who have lost their lives in an independence struggle against India since 1989.
Exactly four days before Kashmir Day, Muzaffarabad, the capital city of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, was bustling with activity. Men and women walked purposefully through the streets in different types of traditional dress. But the men who wore phirans--a traditional Kashmiri winter cloak--stood out. Many of them belong to the other side of the divided land, the side controlled by India, where phirans are worn by almost every inhabitant to brave the harsh winter chill.
In Muzaffarabad, most of the phiran-clad Kashmiris are the ones who are born and raised in India-administered Kashmir and have ended up on the Pakistani side to escape reprisals from Indian armed forces.
Uzair Ahmad Ghazali is one such displaced Kashmiri who lives in Muzaffarabad. In 1990, he left his home in Indian-controlled Kashmir's Kupwara district as a 15-year-old teenager, and crossed the de-facto border to seek refuge on the other side of the line.
"All of my family is there," said Ghazali, who is now 43, pointing towards the far off mountains. "I have a mother, two sisters and one brother on the other side."
He keeps a tab on his distant family through social media and mobile applications like WhatsApp.
Recalling the circumstances that forced him to leave his home, Ghazali said the Indian forces killed at least 30 people in Kupwara in January 1990, triggering widespread fear across the disputed territory.
“We marked the Indian Republic Day, January 26, as a black-day in Kashmir and chanted slogans against the Indian rule and in favour of independence,” he said. “We later got to know we are on the arrest list. I and my three other friends sneaked into Azad Kashmir (Pakistan-controlled territory) without informing anyone.”
Ever since then he has been living in a refugee camp in Muzaffarabad.
He is married with two daughters and five sons and although he has scraped together some work and settled down with his family of eight, he still misses his native village every single day. “The language, culture and food here is different from the other side,” he said, adding that he finds the harsh and chilly winters of Kupwara better than the warm days of Muzaffarabad.
On several occasions in the past he has walked up to the Neelum River, between India and Pakistan-held Kashmir, to see family members standing across the waterway waiting to catch a glimpse of him. The days when the de facto border is calm, the divided families can see each other from a particular spot with water streaming down between them. They can't cross the river, so they raise their voices to hear each other.
“My hometown is around 18-20 kilometres away from India-held Kashmir. We sit on the Teetwal side of the riverbank whereas they would sit on the Chalyana side,” explained Ghazali.
There were moments, he said, when he thought of jumping into the river and crossing it to hug his mother, brother and sisters.
Stranded away from home and frustrated with the protracted Kashmir dispute, Ghazali says Pakistan should do more. “Just solidarity isn’t enough," he said. "It should play an active and offensive role if it wants to resolve Kashmir permanently.”
To counter India's military might, he said, civilians with stones in their hands are becoming soft targets for Indian soldiers. "Only a military can drive another military out," he said, advocating for a full-scale war with Indian troops.
Pakistan's rhetoric that Kashmir is its 'jugular vein' hasn't changed since 1947, when the dispute was born as a consequence of Great Britain leaving the subcontinent, without resolving the question of Kashmir's princely status.
With both India and Pakistan claiming the region in its entirety, but only partially ruling it, the two sides have fought three wars and engaged in several dialogues. But they couldn't resolve the dispute. The rhetoric just kept getting more shrill and the human rights record continued to deteriorate on the Indian side.
In Pakistan, it's the Kashmir Day that has kept the memory of the conflict alive among the people. The day is marked with human chains on bridges that connect mainland Pakistan with Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The day was first observed in 1990 in response to the call given by Qazi Hussain, who before his death was the leader of Pakistan's oldest Islamic political party Jamaat-e-Islami.
Mushtaq ul Islam, 48, is another Kashmiri migrant who like Ghazali entered Muzaffarabad during the 90s. Like Ghazali, Islam was also raised in Kupwara district.
In 1987, he was a student at Islamia College for Science and Commerce in Srinagar city and campaigned for a local pro-India politician during the infamous election held that year. The election is widely believed to have been rigged and the anger it generated among the Kashmiri youth was one of the issues that contributed towards the insurgency against Indian rule.
"We were very energetic and peaceful and believed in democracy," Islam said. "But the massive rigging changed our whole ideology. We attacked liquor shops and [the act of vandalising] ultimately forced us cross over to Muzaffarabad.”
Soon after his departure from India-administered Kashmir, he said his father Habibullah Khan and brother Saifullah Khan were killed by the Indian army.
He's now heading the International Forum for Justice and Human Rights Jammu and Kashmir in Muzaffarabad. The organisation records the reported incidents of human rights abuse in India-held Kashmir.
“Last year we registered more than 800 cases, most of them related to pellet guns and a significant case of Farooq Dar, which the Indian military made hostage and used as a human shield,” Islam said.
Islam favours the merger of Kashmir with Pakistan. "We have proved that in our funerals where people put rose petals on martyrs and prefer to drape their love ones in Pakistani flags in front of the Indian soldiers," he said. “There is no more fear to be killed by an oppressive force. LoC (the de-facto border) has no meaning to us as the divided families can’t wait anymore.”
Kashmiris on both sides have different perspectives on how they envision India-free Kashmir. Though a significant number of Kashmiris are resisting India's rule, the separatist leadership hasn't figured out whether the region should merge with Pakistan or adopt complete independence if New Delhi and Islamabad agreed to leave the disputed territory.
Abdul Hakim Kashmiri, who is the secretary at General of Central Union of Journalists AJK, supports complete independence from both the countries. He wants both India and Pakistan to resolve the issue through peaceful means and stop fuelling the violence through both India's hawkish military policies and the Kashmiri armed resistance.
“What have we achieved by this violence since 1948, other than the bloodshed?” he said.