“Life is slow here,” remarked the thirty-something man next to me, as a cock crowed outside the door of the pharmacy of a friend of his we were in, a few kilometres from the centre of Muzaffarabad. A cow lazily walked by along the dusty path running parallel to the flowing Neelum river nearby, emphasising the point.
Muzaffarabad is the capital of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJ&K), a province of Pakistan, with a High Court, Legislative Assembly and President of its own. Ultimately though it answers to the authorities in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, a point of contention and frustration with many locals who support the push for independence, and who refer to the collective regions outside of AJ&K as Pakistan, as if they were a separate country. Not so with John (not his real name) as he didn’t really want to be there in the first place. (In fact he thought it would be much better if the British were back in control). After having lived in Britain for a few years, with its attending western freedoms that he craved, he had been recalled to Muzaffarabad, ostensibly to help out his father with his road construction business. As for me, the lack of local political clout was to prove fairly debilitating for my trip to this troubled region, lying on the north-east edge of Pakistan.
My problems, irrelevant in comparison, were over a No-Objection-Certificate (NOC), a permit issued by the authorities, essentially proclaiming that you are permitted to travel in the province, subject to certain restrictions. In the case of AJ&K, no foreigner is officially, and quite understandably, allowed to travel within 16km of the Line of Control (LOC) with India; understandable because there is continual shelling from the Indian side; but still rather disappointing as the mountain peaks you usually see on television along with rugged-up soldiers, weapons at the ready, standing guard, must be an awesome sight in person, even from a distance. That a foreigner is not allowed to travel within 16km of the LOC is a given, even with a NOC. The rest of the region is fine at present, although a NOC is still required. The trouble is is that previously one could arrive in Muzaffarabad and apply for the NOC then, and I had assumed this would still be the case. Now a NOC must first be obtained in Islamabad. DAMN. (I heard from one source that it could take up to two weeks but I was unable to confirm this, as time was ticking and I didn’t want to have to traipse around Islamabad to find out; Islamabad, as I was to discover later on, is a hole.)
I found out the details of the current situation the previous evening from a local policeman, just before midnight, as John and I pulled up to my hotel in his 4WD. This being Pakistan, these kind of predicaments can be dealt with quite quickly, and so it was; the policeman had seen nothing. This would continue to be the case with other authorities if a low profile was maintained, a nosy and attention-gathering camera to be firmly stowed away in my bag, I was advised.
I met John at my hotel in Muzaffarabad, after a four and a half bus trip from the Pir Wadhai bus station in Rawalpindi. The road to AJ&K heads up into mountainous terrain, subsequently cooler, more scenic and pleasant than the Punjab. Not that the driver seemed to notice, as he tore dangerously around sharp bends and crumbling road, ignoring a sign that read “We love our children. You too? Drive Slowly” and on cue sending a bunch of kids walking around a hair-pin bend hurrying onto a barricade preventing a fall down a sharp drop. The further we drove away from Rawalpindi, the more the colour palette changed from light brown to the greener shades of its forests, a welcome refreshment at the mere sight of them.
Near the border of AJ&K is the town of Murree, a hill station established by the British to get away from the heat of the Punjab and now a popular tourist spot for better-off Punjabis. The former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, before being sent to Saudi Arabia for a luxurious exile after his conviction of attempted murder against current President Pervez Musharraff, was sent to Murree after the military coup in 1999. Detention with a view. Tough punishment indeed.
Entering AJ&K itself one hardly gets the impression that one is reaching a somewhat restricted travel area, with less than cursory police inspections alongside shack-like border huts. We passed by rather easily a sign requesting that foreigners register at the border. What was more distinct about AJ&K’s status was the condition of its roads. Although much work seemed to be going on, with large tractors and bulldozers in operation, digging up roads and shifting large rocks to the side of the roads, one shudders to think what the state of them was before the work was undertaken. It was as if the poor roads were the real demarcation between AJ&K and the rest of Pakistan.
I arrived in Muzaffarabad around 7pm and checked into a hotel. An hour later I got a knock at the door. An hour in and the police are around already, looking for permits, I thought. I opened the door, prepared for the inevitable question about my lack of permit. Instead a rather tall and youngish-looking man, dressed in western clothes and wearing glasses, stepped in and greeted me rather hiply, as more western-influenced locals are inclined to do. It turned out that he owned the hotel as well as a number of other properties in the vicinity. His manager had told him that a foreigner was at the hotel and thus he wanted to meet me in person and offer his services. As he would remark later while driving me around the capital that night, its hills filled with houses lit like Christmas trees, stopping in at his family-owned sumptuous three-storey house currently being renovated, he was already quite bored and needed a little western company. As it happened, a project of his father’s company was underway down south and despite some work he had to do in the capital, he would take me down there the next day, along with some friends of his who were working on the same project. And that is what we were waiting to do, in the pharmacy of his friend, next to the river, with the cow and the crowing cock.
“We can be independent,” stated the pharmacist.
“How?” asked John.
“We can produce things.”
“Power. The Mangla Dam.” Mangla Dam, an earthfill dam on the River Jhelum contains a Hydro power Station.
“You can produce two things. Power. And babies.”
The pharmacist grinned at the cheap shot.
“What else can you produce?”
“But look at our history.”
Unfortunately for those who seek independence and see that what went before must necessarily direct the future are living under a false hope. What both Pakistan and India can most probably agree on is that independence for Jammu and Kashmir is not an option for both their states. Whether this is just or not is ultimately irrelevant. When Partition between India and Pakistan came about in 1947, the status of a number of “princely states” in greater India were still undecided. Jammu and Kashmir turned out to be the most contentious one. Back in 1846, The British East India Company sold Kashmir to a maharajah. In 1925, Maharajah Hari Singh conquered the throne of Kashmir. While he was a Hindu, he ruled over a majority Muslim state. When it came time for Partition he was still undecided on which way to lean, not sure whether to opt for control by the Hindu-majority India, or less likely Muslim-majority Pakistan. His real wish, hoping that he wouldn’t have to do either and be able to remain independent, able to maintain his glorious lifestyle, was not seen favourably by those organising Partition. In the end he was made to make the choice sooner than he would have liked, as some Pathan tribes charged in after a few months after Partition in August 1947, fearing that the Maharajah would sign over to India. He did sign up to India and they sent in their own troops to secure their new land from what they saw as a Pakistan-led invasion, although Pakistan insisted that it was a spontaneous uprising. (A similar argument reigns today, with India charging Pakistan with funding and directing “terrorists” while Pakistan contends that it only supplies moral support to Kashmiri “freedom fighters.”) War then broke out between India and Pakistan, which was halted by a UN cease-fire in 1949, with the promise of a referendum by its people on the status of the state, a promise yet to be fulfilled. What remains is India-controlled Jammu and Kashmir alongside Pakistan-controlled Azad (“Free”) Jammu and Kashmir.
Business also seems to work slowly here, readily apparent from the interminable waiting around we had to do before we could go down south. The ubiquitous mobile phones that can be seen in the Punjab are less apparent in AJ&K. Instead a system of driving around and waiting in offices, meeting up on side-roads with messages to be conveyed in person, seemed to be how things were conducted. It did afford a good opportunity to see a little of Muzaffarabad, albeit from the vantage point of a window-tinted 4WD, away from the prying eyes of police, if they were even to care, judging by the casual following out of their duties and their time to chat to passers-by. Its heart, in the north of the city, is situated along the banks of the Neelum river. Down the main thoroughfare which leads south and towards AJ&K’s western border can be found various government buildings, as well as the President’s lavish residence. A few bridges span the river, enabling traffic and persons to cross over to either side, although those in the south of the town will have to wait a little longer for work on a new bridge to be commenced, cut-off from the main hive of activity in the city.
A common topic of conversation that was struck up in my presence, besides politics, was the desire of many to leave, not to the rest of Pakistan, but overseas. Australia and Europe were the most common choices for many, although they were more pipe dreams than options. Even those who could afford the plane trip abroad would soon find it a struggle to live overseas.
“Take this one friend of mine,” John said, referring to a man who owned a small convenience store selling packaged food, drinks and cigarettes, across from an office we were sitting in.
“He has a good life here and makes good money. Look. He just woke up half an hour ago.” The clock above us on the wall struck midday.
“But if he goes overseas to see some girl and spends thousands of pounds to do so, he can only survive for a week or so and then his money runs out. I say to him stay here and he can live well. He can’t make a living over there like he can here. But he doesn’t listen and wastes his money. Please take him.”
Eventually we gathered up all our passengers and after making a stop in Murree to pick up some supplies, we returned to AJ&K, and started our way up the hill down south, passing at the border post a bunch of refugees from Afghanistan, camped near the border post, sitting idly around tents, with the women dressed in colourful green costumes, their hair covered in a cloth-like cap. We stopped for a drink in a teahouse where one of our travel companions met up with some friends of his, “freedom fighters” he knows through his work with a pro-liberation Kashmir political party he belongs to. (This guy turned out to certainly be the most annoying person I had met so far, constantly asking me for a gift, as well as a visa sponsorship. About the only sensible thing he had to say about anything, unfortunately only rather early on, was his perception that it was the arms dealers who were profiting from the conflict thanks to their mates in various governments around the world who poked their noses in the region.)
We then headed out into the approaching darkness towards the small town of Paniola, roughly halfway down the province of AJ&K. Our other passenger, a Pathan who was travelling with us, checked in on the progress of his bulldozer, wise enough to pay someone else to operate it, before we pulled into the grounds of a government resthouse under renovation, walking along a treacherous path in the dark of the night to a small house up a hill where a road construction crew were basing themselves for their current road project. I, of course, was the unexpected guest of honour, and the chief recipient of many looks over a meal of bread and spicy chicken.
The next day the routine was the same again, this time waiting in a little village of Paniola, with the usual array of a post office, a police station of sorts, and small convenience stores. The further south one goes in AJ&K, the hotter and drier it gets, the local dogs certainly knowing what awaited them that day, lounging under cars, looking out hopefully for a spot of food. After a little more waiting we headed out to Rawalakot, a bigger town than Paniola, and there we waited, ate and conferenced in various spots around the town.
About ten years before, John had undertaken his first road project, leading out of Rawalakot on the way to Bagh. As the terrain in these parts is quite mountainous, a project such as building roads is arduous, with the roads literally having to be dug out of the side of a mountain in some parts. First rock must be dug out and removed, the proposed road then being smoothed out in various stages, and the relevant materials being applied to making it a tarred road, the process taking well over a year for a 30km stretch. Or something like that. John was more interested in telling me about what you couldn’t do whilst organising the project, moving from house to house as each stage of the project was completed, stuck in the middle of nowhere looking out over the road they were blasting out of rock. No more nights at the pub or at the club, meeting women and having a worthwhile conversation, but terminally stuck in a lifestyle of doing nothing slowly, much like the local inhabitants do today, at least the way we would see it. But it did at least provide employment for the fortunate few who could get the work. Those who couldn’t get work at the time were probably much like those who cannot at the present, sitting around on the side of the road, watching those being paid to work in turn watching one man doing all the work.
We passed through the town of Bagh, on the edge of a huge valley with a river struggling hard not to be classified as a steam, a wide-river bed full of sand. Its main thoroughfare was just a compilation of rocks and stones piled on top of each other (with one guy banging them with a hammer to make them smaller), its width suitable for a mini to pass through quite comfortably, but not a road to be utilising hand signals if one’s indicators were bust, not that anyone seems to use them in these parts.
Completing a sweep of the area, we climbed up a mountain pass, passing villagers sitting on the side of the road, picked up his friend and then twisted and curved back to Muzaffarabad, night falling rapidly. The trip back to Muzaffarabad took a few hours, John contemplating out loud the extended stay he would have to endure back in AJ&K, although he admitted the money would be good. But you could tell this would be slight compensation, as he mused about how we have it good in the West and how one is expected to act in his culture.
“You don’t have the responsibilities I have,” he said, following up on a point he had brought up earlier regarding the fact that he, as a breadwinner, was in a sense responsible for the rest of his family, particularly his siblings, even if they were able to earn a living of their own.
“You don’t have to care for them like I do. You can have weekends off. Here we have to work. I know, I lived there.”
We pulled into Muzaffarabad, finally, and drove up to the hotel. In my absence, a member of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had made their regular visit to the hotels in the region, checking the books. Upon inquiring at my fate, the hotel manager, who had removed my bags from my room, told them I had checked out and left. With the clock nearing ten pm I gathered my bags, said my goodbyes and left in the bus heading to Rawalpindi in the pitch black night, slightly earlier than I had wished, but longer than could be expected under the circumstances.