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Families sundered by the 1971 war yearn for reunion

Updated Jan 26, 2017 12:15pm

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Every day Zaiba sits on a rock by the Shyok River outside a small village, Thoqmus, in the eastern part of Gilgit-Baltistan. Surrounded by grey mountains, under tall green trees and beside flowing clear waters, her perch is a dream spot for anyone seeking happiness in the company of nature. Yet, her heart is heavy and the natural scenery around her makes it heavier. “How lucky is this river that comes right from my home. How lucky is this river that sees my beloved mother every day, while I am not able to see her,” she sings in her native Balti language as part of a daily ritual. “Oh mother, I am stuck here and separated from you,” she laments, her voice choked and her eyes full of tears.

Zainab's song | 00:49

Zaiba was a teenager when she was separated from her mother in December 1971.

India and Pakistan had gone to war that month in what was then East Pakistan. Thousands of miles to the north-west of the main war theatre, Chewang Rinchen, an adventurous major in the Indian army’s Ladakh Scouts, marched through the snow-laden valleys of what is now called Gilgit-Baltistan in sub-zero temperatures. Heading a small bunch of soldiers, he crossed the Line of Control (LoC) that divides this Himalayan region into Pakistani and Indian territories and occupied the villages of Turtuk, Tiaqshi, Doey Thang and Chalunka on the Pakistani side.

While sifting through some dog-eared, fading images, her wrinkled face becomes expressly sad. She takes out another photo album, from a wooden chest in her room, and points to a group photo of men and women of all ages

Rinchen’s story is recounted only by Indian sources. There is no record of his campaign available within Pakistan and there is also no official explanation – either by India or Pakistan – as to why Indian troops, which had occupied the four villages, did not go back to their original positions after Pakistan surrendered in Dhaka. Rinchen’s exploits, therefore, pushed the LoC many kilometres into the Pakistani territory, outside a village called Frano.

Many in the captured villages, however, decided they did not want to live under the Indian occupation and about 500 families took up an arduous journey to migrate to the other side. A newly married Zaiba and her husband were among them. “We walked all day and all night in the cold, through the rough mountainous terrain, to reach Khaplu city,” Zaiba recalls. Once in Pakistani territory, they dispersed across Gilgit-Baltistan. Some of them, including Zaiba and her husband, found refuge in Thoqmus village.

Zaiba is pointing at her mother on the group family photo that she received in mail in early 90s
Zaiba is pointing at her mother on the group family photo that she received in mail in early 90s

For many months, she did not know what had become of her parents and brothers. Like so many members of the migrating families, they had to stay back in her ancestral Chalunka village. While migrating from Chalunka to Tiaqshi, her father hurt his foot and was unable to move; her mother and brothers had to stay back in order to take care of him. She was perpetually worried about their safety and well-being when finally, in 1973, she received a letter from them saying that they were okay.

Chalunka to Tiaqshi | 1:10
Letters from back home | 00:48

Zaiba has created a new world around her in Thoqmus since those distressing years. After her husband from Chalunka divorced her, many moons ago, she married a local, Sikander Ali. The couple have three daughters and three sons — all adults and all except one daughter married with children of their own. Sitting on a straw mat inside her house, with its walls painted in traditional pastel motifs, Zaiba joyfully holds her youngest granddaughter in her lap. Now approaching 60, she appears to be leading a normal life — until the word Chalunka is mentioned: she still cannot get over the pain of separation from her family.

She gets misty-eyed as she listens to her mother’s voice on an audio cassette. She has heard the contents of the tape many times since she first received it in the 1990s. She has also stayed in touch with her family by exchanging letters and photographs. While sifting through some dog-eared, fading images, her wrinkled face becomes expressly sad. She takes out another photo album, from a wooden chest in her room, and points to a group photo of men and women of all ages. “This is my family,” she says, as she uses the border of her white chador to wipe away her tears. For the last 44 years, she has held on to these cassettes, photos and the thousand memories they evoke.

Zaiba with her grandchildren
Zaiba with her grandchildren

The people in her audio-visual albums live just behind the grey mountains, on the other side of the river: Chalunka is only about 30 kilometres to the east of Thoqmus. Yet, there is an invisible line across the land that she cannot cross.

The only way for her to cross that line is to take a long road trip down south to Lahore, cross into India and then travel all the way up to the Himalayan Mountains in Indian-administered Kashmir. In 2008, her elder brother, Abbas Ali, took that route in reverse to reach Pakistan through the Wagah border near Lahore. Since Gilgit-Baltistan is a disputed territory having been part of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947, its citizens cannot visit India on Pakistani passports; and those living across the LoC from Gilgit-Baltistan cannot enter Pakistani territory carrying an Indian passport. Ali, therefore, needed a special permission from Pakistan’s interior ministry to visit his sister.

In 2013, her younger brother, Sher Muhammad, also visited her under the same arrangement. The day Muhammad was due at Wagah, Zaiba sent a huge advance reception party, comprising her close relatives, all the way from Thoqmus to that border checkpoint to welcome him. He brought with him photographs and video messages which she added to her prized collection. Thoqmus and Chalunka do not have Internet facilities but, Ilyas Hussain, Zaiba’s nephew living in Skardu, is “constantly in touch with” his “cousins on the other side of the border”. They use social media platforms, such as Whatsapp, to share photos and latest updates about each other. Whenever Zaiba visits Skardu, Hussain and his cousins in India arrange a Skype conversation between her and her family back in Chalunka.

Hussain believes transcending borders is easier now with all the technological developments. For Zaiba, and many in her generation, however, the border continues to be a very real division.

Zaiba was a teenager when she was separated from her mother in December 1971
Zaiba was a teenager when she was separated from her mother in December 1971

Qurban Ali was in Thoqmus for some work when the war broke out in 1971. After the border shifted in the wake of the war, he was stranded here away from his family – wife and two sons – living on the wrong side of the LoC. He couldn’t see them again until he was 88.

Abdul Rahman’s tale is also similar. One cold night in 1971, while working at a hotel in Skardu, he found out he could no longer go back home. The changed border now stood between his workplace and his village. At the ripe age of 65, he is still baffled at how, all of a sudden, his birthplace became part of a foreign land.

Upon their return to Gilgit-Baltistan last month, they were mobbed by friends, relatives and others who had left those two villages in 1971: everyone wanted to know what their native villages looked like, what life was like in the vales and mountains that once echoed with their laughter.

Earlier this year, the two old men were able to travel to their respective villages of Turtuk and Chalunka. Upon their return to Gilgit-Baltistan last month, they were mobbed by friends, relatives and others who had left those two villages in 1971: everyone wanted to know what their native villages looked like, what life was like in the vales and mountains that once echoed with their laughter.

In Turtuk and Chalunka, too, they were treated as celebrities. “We were guests of the entire village,” Rahman tells the Herald reminiscing about how residents of his native village would come and have long chats with him about life in Pakistan while sharing stories of their own. “It was heart-wrenching to see my brothers after 44 years,” Rahman adds.

The visit did not come easily. Both Ali and Rahman spent their entire life’s savings to get to their villages. They had to travel 2,200 kilometres and at a huge expense — 500,000 rupees each.

Their visit, however, has given Zaiba hope. She is undeterred even by the almost prohibitive length and cost of travel. She is applying for permission to go to Chalunka and Hussain is helping her complete the paperwork. Zaiba’s father died in 2009, having never seen his daughter become a mother and a grandmother. She now wishes to see her 96-year-old and paralysed mother one last time but fears that her old and ailing mother may not have time to wait for her travel permission to come through.

Zaiba’s cousin Ghulam Rasool, who migrated to the Pakistani side in 1971 as a 12-year-old boy, is becoming frustrated with the wait. “The people of Neelum Valley in Azad and Jammu Kashmir are allowed to cross the LoC and meet their families,” she says. “We thought it would be the same for us in Gilgit-Baltistan, but both governments don’t seem keen on that”.


This article was originally published in Herald's September 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald in print.


All photographs and videos are by the author, who is a travel writer and photographer. He tweets @DanialShah_.