Old Foes Cooperate Warily in Kashmir

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The one positive effect of the massive Oct. 8 Kashmir earthquake has been the hole it has torn in the heavily fortified frontline separating Indian and Pakistani forces in the Himalayan territory. The nuclear-armed neighbors have been locked in conflict over Kashmir since 1947, but on Tuesday Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf eased tensions by offering to open the Line of the Control—the de facto border—so that Kashmiris on both sides can help their relatives harmed by the quake.

India's foreign ministry welcomed Musharraf's offer, and Kashmiri families—some separated from loved ones for nearly half a century—are expected to soon come flooding across the LoC. The devastation they will encounter, particularly on the Pakistani side, is hellish. The stench of death still hangs in a pestilential cloud over Muzaffarabad, the largest Kashmiri city on the Pakistani side. Thousands died in the city, many of them in hospitals and schools destroyed by the 7.6 magnitude quake—on Wednesday, aid officials revised the final death toll upwards in Pakistan from 54,000 to nearly 80,000. Another 1,400 were killed on the Indian side.

Nor is the ordeal over: Powerful aftershocks continue, while the lack of relief aid is putting more lives at risk. Foreign assistance is being rushed into the Himalayas by helicopters and pack mules, but the scale of the catastrophe is overwhelming. According to the UN, nearly half a million people are still in need of food, medical help and tents. Their need is all the more urgent as icy winter storms bear down on homeless victims. "There is very little time left," says James Morris, executive director of the World Food Program. Meanwhile, the UN has launched another appeal for emergency earthquake funds, claiming that so far only 5% of the needed $272 million dollars was actually delivered by donors.

When Indian Kashmiris do venture across the LoC, one of their first stops will be Kamsa refugee camp, just north of Muzaffarabad on the banks of the Neelum river. The camp was hastily built 15 years ago to shelter Kashmiris fleeing a fresh outbreak of violence on the Indian side when jihadist separatist fighters launched an offensive against Indian troops. The militancy persists, with over 50,000 dead—indeed, the killing of a top government official on the Indian side within days of the quake suggests there has been no letup in attacks as a result of the disaster, while Pakistan's rejection of help from Indian helicopters piloted by Indian crews may have been driven by a desire to prevent those crews from flying over sensitive areas in Kashmir, such as military installations and possible militant camps.

The flimsy roofs of the homes at Kamsa crumpled like tin foil, and three schools were swept down into the raging Neelum river. Students who lived through the fall were swept to their deaths in the rapids.

One refugee, Imtiaz Butt, stood on the edge of the cliff, pointing out where 100 students were pulled into the river. He spoke bitterly of the plight of the Kashmiris, whose lives have been ripped apart by India and Pakistan's tussle over land. Talking to one reporter, he said, "We were told that we would stay at the camps for only a few months. But over 15 years have passed now, and we are still here. Half our families are still on the other side of Kashmir." He and many other refugees were unable to find jobs in Pakistan and now he would like to go back home to Indian Kashmir.

So far, though, it isn't clear whether Musharraf's offer extends to Pakistani-based refugees—Kashmiris say that Islamabad wants to keep them here to show the world that Kashmiris support Pakistan over India. Given a chance, Butt says that he and most Kashmiris would prefer independence over being governed by either India or Pakistan. But it will take more than an earthquake, even one as massive as the Oct. 8 jolt, for India and Pakistan to let Kashmir break away.