Durriyah Balkhi Asghar
Durriyah Balkhi Asghar CPA, Class of '91, is a Tax and Financial Consultant. She began her career with PriceWaterhouse, New York and is currently on a sabbatical.
Shameelah Balkhi (her sister) has an MS in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology from Yale University and is currently a homemaker.
The Alpine landscape was like a scene out of Heidi, breathtaking. But Keran, Kashmir had more to offer. In addition to mountain flowers a steel-grey river snaked its way south, randomly growing trees were laden with apples and pears and the grass, trees, mountains and sky changed their hues of greens and blues with the lighting.
We wondered why we had never thought of coming to Kashmir before. 3 hours after setting out from Islamabad we were having breakfast in Muzaffarabad across from the Red Fort. Then it was another 2.5 hours to Keran. The well-paved road followed River Neelum upstream, winding from one mountain to another. Landslides had narrowed the road at some points to a single lane but didn't act as a bottleneck because there was no one travelling the route that day.
The road ran along the Line of Control in two patches. In these patches the river was effectively the LOC and the other side of the river was India. When we came close to the first patch of LOC a sign warned that foreigners were not allowed to go further without a No Objection Certificate from the Ministry of Interior and solar powered floodlights from our side faced the river. The houses on the other side were so close it was almost like being in their midst but strangely there was no-one in sight. Friends had mentioned that women even talk across the river, shouting necessitated, but there wasn't a soul visible to us.
Then we got to the second patch of road that ran along the LOC and on which Keran was situated. The last shelling there had happened 15 days ago. Our reservation was in Green Village Resort, Upper Neelum, for which we had to take a steep road 2km uphill. The Suzuki van in front of us stalled. Its local passengers calmly got out and meandered to a side. We on the other hand panicked when their stopping forced our car to lose momentum and there were some chilling seconds before we pulled up the hand brake and hurriedly disembarked, desperately hoping the burning rubber of the tyres would be our only loss that day.
Although the final 2km had shattered our nerves, when we got to the top we happily spent a day and a half on wooden balconies overlooking Neelum Valley. The people below were dots and buses looked like ants. We strolled through the lone street running through the village. We found the herb infused ice-cold stream coming out from inside rocks from which the locals filled their water containers. We had krum for breakfast with parathas and omelette and drank lots of Kashmiri tea. The villagers were very friendly and hospitable, even declining to take money for the biscuits we bought from a small shop.
Our view was unbelievably serene: huge brown houses amidst lush green fields and grass. We asked why there weren't any people visible on the other side of the border. The locals told us that many of the houses were deserted on the other side. The people had fled to Pakistan in 1990 and their houses were in neglect. There had been a time when they were not allowed to come out of their houses nor was smoke allowed to be seen coming out. Children who had fled across the LOC into Pakistan were admitted to Azad Kashmir schools with cigarette burns covering their backs. Thousands of such refugees still live in the dozens of refugee camps scattered in Azad Kashmir. But things are different now and they are allowed to go about their everyday business within their own town, though to leave their town they need permission. What then explained the eerie lack of visible life on the other side, we wondered?
Unknown to us, living in our little bubbles, the Modi government had once again imposed curfew in Kashmir. In addition, he had changed the Indian constitution to revoke Kashmir's limited autonomy and allow non-Kashmiris to buy property in the state. This sets the stage for altering Kashmir's demography should a plebiscite ever take place as was decided by the UN in 1947, and they vote on whether they would like to remain with India or not. The forcible annexation of the princely states of Hyderabad (Muslim ruled, Hindu majority state) and Kashmir (Sikh ruled, Muslim majority state) by the Indian army in 1947 had proved that might was right. Gilgit, Skardu and Muzaffarabad would also have been a part of India today had Pakistanis not laid down their lives for them. The battle for Kashmir was raging when the UN intervened. Hence it remains an open wound to this day.
As we crossed the dam over the River Neelum built with Chinese help I couldn't help wonder how different things would be today if Pakistan had not been dissuaded from moving with China in 1962 to take the land from which its waters came and whose population desired to join Pakistan. China annexed the Aksai Chin area of Kashmir which it claimed. Done and over with. On the other hand we have suffered through several attempted invasions and occupied Jammu and Kashmir has 1 Indian soldier over every 10 of its inhabitants with a genocide looming. A board by the river at Keran read: "Please stay away from the river. It may risk your life. YOU ARE AT LOC. (PAK ARMY)." Our case was clearly not closed.
On an earlier trip to Muzaffarabad as the two of us sat on PC's exquisite grounds looking north we had wondered what the bright light was beyond the hills. We were already in Azad Kashmir's largest city which was enveloped in darkness compared to that light. What could possibly be projecting this kind of illumination into the sky? In Keran we witnessed the moon emerge from behind the mountains, climb the sky and illumine the world below. The light of the moon was a discovery we had never made in the city.