Mazhar Hussain could scarcely conceal his delight. Revving the engine of his white pickup truck laden with over a ton of rice and spices, the 35-year-old driver from Pakistan-administered Kashmir says his dream would soon be realized. "I've never been to the other side of Kashmir. It is the land of my forefathers, our land," he says, with rising emotion.
Minutes later, Hussain would become the first driver whose truck would cross the Line of Control dividing Kashmir since Pakistan and India first clashed over this plush valley of vast hills and deep gorges over sixty years ago. As the battle with Taliban insurgents rages on its Western frontier and its economy is roiled by rampant inflation and capital flight, Kashmir and the gentle thaw in relations with India has emerged as an unlikely bright spot on Pakistan's dark horizon.
Just six years ago, close to a million combat-ready troops were deployed along the Line of Control the truce boundary bisecting Kashmir that has functioned as a de facto border between the Indian- and Pakistani-controlled sides of the disputed territory. A 2003 cease-fire agreement managed to pull the two sides back from the brink of what could have been the fourth major war between them. And in the intervening years, as events related to the U.S. "war on terror" came to dominate Pakistan's security situation, the conflict that began at birth between modern India and Pakistan has given way to something approaching a semblance of peace.
Five years ago, a bus route was established to ferry passengers between Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, and Srinagar, the capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir. Mazhar Hussain's truckload of goods marked the opening of trade across the 460-mile long armistice line.
"We couldn't achieve anything through fighting, hopefully we can achieve peace through trade," Hussain says, moments before his truck trundles across. Here, just beyond the Pakistani village of Chakothi, the Line of Control seems a great deal less menacing. It is marked by a small white steel bridge beneath which flows the shimmering Jhelum river, winding its way between two ranges of hills that compete in scale and beauty.
Both sides have hailed as historic the opening of trade across the Line of Control. "It is a great day," says Sardar Attique Khan, prime minister of the Pakistan-controlled Azad (or "Free") Kashmir. "We have always demanded that both sides be allowed to interact with each other. We hope that this will allow for that to continue to happen."
And the occasion was certainly marked with much pomp and ceremony. On the Pakistan side, two stern-faced soldiers, sporting camouflaged fatigues and luxuriantly curling mustaches, stood at either end of the gate. Above the heads, the flags of Pakistan and Azad Kashmir lightly fluttered. Azad Kashmir is not one of Pakistan's main four provinces and enjoys a large degree of autonomy, with its own legislature, president and prime minister.
Some yards away from the gate, a local police band, regaled in elaborate turbans and stiff uniforms, trumpets the national anthem. Beside them, serried schoolboys chant patriotic songs. Despite the somewhat affected talk of peace, Kashmir retains its visceral importance on both sides of the divide. When the prime minister's retinue releases half a dozen white pigeons into the air doves are as rare as peace has been in these parts a mild breeze prompts them all to fly back to the Pakistani side. "See, none of them wanted to go over to the other side," one observer notes with evident satisfaction. Moments later, the schoolboys begin to belt out slogans laced with religious pride in support of Kashmiri independence.
Some of the same slogans were heard in Indian-administered Kashmir during the summer, when tens of thousands of people poured out on to the streets in a surprise wave of protests, triggered by a dispute over a 99-acre piece of land designated for the use of Hindu pilgrims visiting a nearby shrine. The Indian government eventually backed down, but Hindu hardliners subsequently enforced a blockade of the only road linking the Kashmir valley with the rest of India. The opening of cross-Line of Control trade route is seen by some as a concession to the Muslim majority of Indian-administered Kashmir.
That's certainly how the first driver to arrive on the Pakistani side of the once princely state sees it. "I'm very happy. I cannot express my joy," says Taslim Arif, whose pickup truck is carrying fruit and spices. "It's good to be in our homeland, to be among my brothers. If Kashmir stays with India, it will be very bad. We need to be free."
Nearly twenty years since a Pakistan-backed insurgency began to fight India for either Kashmiri independence or a merger with Pakistan a conflict that has claimed over 68,000 lives feelings are still strong. When Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari, who has been keen to develop stronger ties with Pakistan's neighbours, recently told an interviewer that India had "never been a threat" to Pakistan and labeled as "terrorists" the Islamist militants who had fought India in Kashmir with the backing of the Pakistani military, there was outrage in Pakistan and among Kashmiris on the Indian side of the Line of Control.
So, there's clearly more than commerce riding on the new trade across the Line of Control, gingerly reviving an old trade route from Srinagar to Rawalpindi. But a durable peace in a conflict that has been at the epicenter of the existential hostility between India and Pakistan since independence from Britain in 1947, will require a lot more than a modest trade in spices and grains and fruit.