Kashmir

A couple of months after the failed Pakistani spring-summer of 1999 offensive around Kargil, Kashmir, we happened to travel to both the Pakistani and Indian sides of the Cease-Fire Line. We entered India on foot from Lahore, then made a counter-clockwise loop by public buses, who took us back very close to Pakistan, first through Ladakh, then Kashmir on the Leh-Srinagar Himalayan route, the second highest in the world.

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Islamabad, Pakistan, October 1999. Army captain Assad Zafar playing with son while on leave from the Pakistan-India conflict in the Kashmiri Himalayas. Notre ami le capitaine Assad joue avec son fils lors d’un répit du conflit pakistano-indien dans les Himalayas kashmiriens.

Ever since we met them, years ago, our friends Zafar proudly told us about their daughter studying medicine in Iran, their older son in the Pakistani Navy, and their middle one, Assad, an Army captain. The youngest was still at home, and planned for the… air force. On our second visit, Assad was coming home. We expected an arrogant, haughty military. We found a very sensitive human being, playing with baby Cherry he seldom saw, interested in our further traveling. “India is a beautiful country”, he readily said, his mother grumbling in the back. In Europe too, the older French and Belgian generations still feel animosity against Germany.

By middle August, newspapers were still reporting exchanges of artillery fire high in the Himalayas [The Indian Express, Aug. 13, 1999]. Assad laughed, “Sometimes the Indians fire a lot of shelling to get rid of ammunitions, and we do the same.” Encouraged, I attacked, “This is a crazy war, inhospitable terrain, young soldiers, waste of both countries scarce resources”. “I totally agree, but somebody has to do it, so I do it”. Assad plans to write about his experience of fighting in the Himalayas. “Actually, my commanders like that, to have a personal, intellectual project. It’s very hard to keep soldiers motivated.”

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Western Himalayas, Jammu & Kashmir, October 1999. Trucks coming down the steep road to Kashmir Valley. La longue, abrupte et dangereuse descente vers la vallée du Cachemire.

From Kargil on, we crossed dozens and dozens of regular and tank trucks, military and civilian, the latter bearing the note “army duty”, most the old Ashok Leyland and Tata type, but some 4X4. At a military post on a plateau, I counted over 200 trucks and hundreds of jerry cans. Due to this heavy traffic, for the last, hair-raising descent to Srinagar, the road had been turned into an alternate one-way, with the typically humorous Indian signs like, “Speed thrills, but kills”, “World’s highest road builders”, or a large A encompassing “lways, lertness, verts, ccidents”.

“Kashmir is now the theatre to whip up the Pan-Islamic fervour that [Ossama bin] Laden is funding”. Did Gurbachan Jagat say that recently? No, the Jammu & Kashmir police chief’s warning came exactly two years before the World Trade Center attacks as reported in the October 4, 1999 weekly India Today which already sported OBL’s now so familiar face on its cover. Bin Laden or not, the Indians and Pakistanis did not wait for him to elaborate on a persistent conflict inherited from Partition. A former Greek-British employer of mine once told me that the British were not kicked out of India but left on their own because they felt it was the right time. It seems they left the right way too — how can we not see a track of intractable conflicts left by an old imperial power sowing seeds of division to keep two nations shaky even without direct control, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Palestine.

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Lake Dal, Srinagar, October 1999. On the huge lake, early morning commute… Sur l’immense lac, la navette matinale…

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Lake Dal, Srinagar, October 1999. … schoolboy paddling to school … les écoliers vont l’école…

Like in every area of conflict, life goes on as usual on huge Dal Lake, Kashmir’s showcase right in its capital. Early risers paddle to work along the lake’s many waterways, children paddle to school, women walk to the market. We met Fatimah on the main causeway crossing the lake. With a beautiful smile, she asked us to carry her 25-kg flour sack on the rack of my bicycle. She kept walking and laughing with her companions. From my advantage position, I extorted a picture, always a difficult affair with a Muslim woman. I won the picture but lost her smile.

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Lake Dal, Srinagar, October 1999. … woman returning from the market … et les femmes au marché.

Up in the Himalayas too, we had had only one very simple control on the 2-day long route, where an officer asked us to write down our data in the same old register. The assault by tourist-hungry Srinagar hoteliers was far more intimidating, unlike anything we had ever seen. They tried to recruit us as far as Kargil (over 200 km away), then boarded our bus several kilometers before the city, managed to snatch the only other foreign couple — we saw them being herded in a minivan to the “best boat-house” of the whole lake . We clang to our seats, turning a deaf ear to the siren’s chant. Appalled and embarrassed by these gangsters’ methods, our fellow passengers and the driver came to our rescue and heroically managed to expel them. At the bus terminal we had more fight as others awaited us, even enrolling the collaboration of the police.

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