SRINAGAR, KASHMIR, INDIA – “Everyone dreams, and so did I,” says 32-year-old Shabnam Bhat, a resident of Karachi, Pakistan, whose dream was to be able to live in her husband’s family home after getting married.
Little did she know that it would take two years to clear the formalities to reach Indian-administered Kashmir, the birthplace of her husband, Jameel Ahmed Bhat. And it wouldn’t be the dream homecoming she had hoped for.
Bhat, now in his late 30s, was among the hundreds of youth who in 1994 crossed the Line of Control, a line that divides Kashmir between Indian and Pakistani administration.
Youth wanting freedom from Indian rule crossed the snow-clad mountains to land in Pakistani-administered Kashmir as part of the armed separatist rebellion that erupted in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1989.
“I crossed over from Gurez sector in north Kashmir’s Bandipore district,” says Bhat, who was just 18 at the time.
Bhat wanted to be part of a liberation struggle launched by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, the militant group that carried out attacks in Indian-administered Kashmir to mark the start of armed rebellion against Indian rule.
“It took me 16 hours to land on the other side of the L.o.C.,” recalls Bhat of the guarded fence. “We were seven in the group.”
He says he met many fellow Kashmiri youth who had already crossed the Line of Control in a camp at Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir. There, they were undergoing arms training from various militant groups, which had initially received training from the Pakistani army.
“I stayed there for two months and changed my mind,” he says. “I decided to go to Pakistan and I, with the help of a friend, reached Karachi.”
Bhat says he found happiness in Karachi, the financial center and main seaport of Pakistan.
“I, somehow, managed a job of a bus driver there,” Bhat says. “I managed a room to live in on monthly rent. My monthly earning was good as I started to live a happy life.”
One morning, Bhat saw a girl walking down a Karachi lane. It was love at first sight, he says.
“I approached her cautiously,” he recalls. “And finally, I managed to persuade her to marry me.”
Bhat says his wedding day with his wife, Shabnam Bhat, who comes from a middle-class family in Karachi, was the most precious day of his life.
Within three years, Bhat became the father of two children.
“I got a job in a private school as a driver,” he says. “I used to ferry schoolchildren in the morning and evening as well. My salary was too good, and we were living a happy married life.”
He had only long-distance communication with his family in Indian-administered Kashmir. A person can make a call from Pakistan or Pakistani-administered Kashmir to Indian-administered Kashmir, he explains, but there are restrictions against the reverse.
“I used to talk to my parents, especially my father and mother on phone every week,” Bhat