Photos: 75 years after partition, Kashmiri village remains split

A roaring Himalayan river and one of the world’s most militarized borders separate the Khokhar family from Kashmir, a mountainous region divided between India and Pakistan – bitter rivals since independence from Britain 75 years ago.

Abdul Rashid Khokhar (73) lives in Titwal village in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Across the fast-flowing waters of the Neelum River, also known as the Kishanganga, his nephews, Javed Iqbal Khokhar and Munir Hussain Khokhar, run small shops in the town of Chilehana, which falls under Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Above them, towering, verdant mountains on either side, from which the armies of nuclear-armed neighbors have intermittently rained mortars, shells and small arms on each other for decades.

Since early 2021, the Line of Control (LoC), the 740 km (460-mile) de facto border that bisects Kashmir, has been mostly quiet since the renewal of a ceasefire agreement between the South Asian neighbors.

The narrow rope bridge connecting Titwal to Chilehna is blocked by barbed wire on both sides and no crossing is allowed since 2018.

There are sentry posts on both sides of the bridge adjacent to the Line of Control.

“The line goes through our hearts,” said Abdul, who heads the village council of Teetwal, referring to the Line of Control.

“It’s very traumatic that you can see your relatives on the other side but can’t talk to them, can’t meet them.”

On the Pakistani side of the Neelum River, Abdul’s nephew Javed said he remembers a time when he couldn’t turn on even the dimmest lights in his home in Chilehana because he might get hit by gunfire.

The never-ending shelling and mortar shelling at the time forced the family to move their elders and most of their children away from the border to the relative safety of Muzaffarabad, a city 40km (25 miles) away in Pakistan, he said.

“They are still there – because you never know what happens and then it will be a challenge to get them out,” the 55-year-old said.

On a warm afternoon this week, Javed’s brother Munir stood outside his small shop, overlooking the Indian settlement across the LoC, and scooped out bright green and white ice cream cones matching the colors of Pakistan’s national flag.

Over the years, commercial activities in the area had almost come to a complete standstill, he said, adding that constant clashes had disrupted traffic on the road that hugs Neelam.

After the 2021 ceasefire, tourists have returned and the Khokhar brothers have been able to expand their business by setting up two new shops.

“The ice cream is going well,” the 32-year-old said as he served the cone.

There is no mobile phone service in Chilehana, and the Khokhar brothers said they have not spoken to their relatives across the border in years. The younger brother said that he had last visited in 2012.

“It’s weird,” he said. “We live very close to each other, but don’t or can’t talk.”

There are no spectators in India’s Teetwal, but residents of the once-bustling city and its surrounding areas say they are also reaping some of the benefits of the end of hostilities.

In Dildar, a village in Teetwal, local school principal Aftab Ahmed Khawaja said he used to take his 550 students to a safe room when there was cross-border firing.

“And after the shooting, only 25 percent of the students were going to school,” Khawaja, 33, said. “For the past year and a half, there have been no problems.”

However, many people are still paying the price for the battle raging in this area.

On the night of September 19, 2020, a shell fell in the courtyard of Nasreena Begum’s house in Gunde Shat village, killing her husband – the sole breadwinner of a family of four.

“The hostilities and firing have taken everything away from me,” said Begum, 35, who now supports her two daughters and a son.

On Neelam’s side in Pakistan, Omar Mughal is hoping for peace to continue, as it may give him an opportunity to expand his small restaurant offering a wider view of the Indian side.

The 26-year-old Mughal said, “It’s been 75 years.

“There is a need for some long-term solution for the benefit of Kashmiris. Are we going to wait another 75 years?

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