The soldier was looking through his bunker across the river. Usually it was a fixed gaze on the enemy soldiers but that day was different altogether. His bunker was near a footbridge and well concealed. The footbridge was constructed a few years ago and was used for occasional moves during border flag meetings between the opposing armies. The bridge gave a desolate and abandoned look for years. But then something changed in the capitals of two warring countries and it was decided that the bridge could be used as a meeting point for the local population living across the river. The river called Neelum at this point lay as a border between the two armies. Initially referred to as a Ceasefire Line, it was later named as the Line of Control between the opposing armies. The soldiers called this area Teetwal Sector of Kashmir. Just across the river lay the villages of Chitterkot and Dringla. These villages were not of much significance to the soldiers on this side of the river as their gaze was mostly fixed on the soldiers deployed across. However, sometimes they were alarmed and pained as they could see the soldiers across the river cordoning the villages, searching houses, and often beat the men, women and children. The men were usually herded to the military camps and that was the end of the story for the soldiers on this side of the river. They felt the pains of their kinsmen but they could not do much most of the times. The air of hostility prevailed all around after such incidents took place.
However, that day was different as civilians of both the sides were allowed to move across the river, meet the divided families and finally move back to their respective homes. At that particular moment the soldier was gazing on this side of the river. These peoples were his own and they all had gathered to welcome visitors from across the river. For few it was a spectacle amusing enough to consume their time and attention. The soldier then noticed an old woman holding hands of a young girl. Staying near the bridge for a while, both were descending down to that part of the river where it was narrow. People across the river at this point could see each other’s faces a bit more clearly, could shout to communicate as much possible, and few dared to throw their letters duly tied to small stones. Few along the river waved their hands in circles to each other with tears in their eyes. This was a local gesture of showing love to the other person. They all were blood relations but the river had divided them. The water had become thicker than blood at that point of time and land for the people of Kashmir. The old lady stumbled on those rocky boulders many a time but managed to reach the riverbed. Almost lost in the scene, the soldier had to take his eyes off as movement on the footbridge from both sides had started. There he saw many heart-shattering emotional scenes of tight embraces, weeping eyes and muffled voices of pain and joy. Human love and miseries both were at display in this mountainous place called Teetwal Sector.
The day was reaching to an end, and by then the soldier had finished his duty. Instead of taking rest, he moved out of his bunker and walked to the bridge. He was looking across the river and saw the people still busy in using those improvised methods of communication. Once tired, they sat on the rocky boulders but constantly gazed at each other. He guessed that they all must have wished for wings to fly across the river and meet their loved ones, but then every man’s life does not possess wings of fortune for following the dreams of love and union. The soldier then noticed the old lady and the young girl sitting on a rock. They appeared somewhat tired, dejected and worn out. While others were still busy in communication, he saw them getting up and started moving towards the bridge. He waited for them out of curiosity He also managed to gather some water and biscuits for the two from his fellow soldiers. It was ironic but he had noticed the estranged, aloof and somewhat threatening behaviour of soldiers across the river. Whereas this side of the river exuded an ambience where soldiers and people appeared one. He moved a few steps downwards and asked the young girl to move aside and held the hand of the old lady who reminded him of his mother who had died a few years ago. On reaching near bridge site, he offered them chairs, water and a few biscuits. The girl did not speak but the old lady showered a stream of prayers amidst tears of love and oneness. The tale told by the old lady was full of sufferings and pains of separation. The young girl who appeared like a red rose with glowing cheeks uttered nothing but throughout the narrations, her wide eyes remained filled with tears. The soldier looked towards the girl, and then to the river. The water and tears had become one.
A young girl of fifteen years, had to flee her home. Her father, mother and elder brother had gone to a nearby town of Tangdhar. One of their close relatives had died and it was customary to stay for a few days with the bereaved family. Her father and mother had moved the girl and her younger brother from Dringla village to their uncle’s home in Chitterkot for a few days. The residents of Chitterkot and Dringla were aware of the uneasy situation in Kashmir due to the ongoing Independence Movement. The all wanted to get rid of their old ruler and wished to join the newly independent country of their kinsmen, called Pakistan. The new country was a dreamland for all of them. But the news of their ruler getting military help from foreign rulers was disturbing. Kashmir was burning for years and it had finally revolted. The volunteers from these villages had also joined the freedom struggle. Their uncle was aware of the situation, but none had expected that the enemy soldiers would reach their village in the dead of night. Their uncle’s family took both the bewildered brother and sister along and disappeared in the thick forest. The next day early in the morning they started scaling the high mountains towards the west. They had a few relatives in the nearby villages of Nauseri and Balgran. Their ultimate destiny was the town of Muzaffarabad where they expected to be safe from these invading soldiers. They never knew this would be beginning of an unending journey of plight and separation. Soon their uncle was able to find the narrow mountainous path that twisted like a snake. In Nauseri, they came to know about their own soldiers advancing towards their village to stop the invading army. The little girl and her brother prayed for their success and early union with their family that was left behind. But the wait became longer and longer, and the two often wept remembering their family and home. Each day the young girl saw her uncle and brother going out at dawn and returning at sunset. It was not easy to sustain life at refugee camp but then life sometimes leaves no option but to struggle and survive. Their lives, sorrows and dreams all mingled up with survival instinct with each passing day. Life might have continued with same desolation, but after a few years, war broke out between the two countries. Her uncle and brother both joined the freedom fighters, went to liberate their homes and never returned.
The life had few more twists for her; she married a man from the refugee camp who was much older than her. The man could survive only a year after the birth of their only girl. She prayed that the girl would be fortunate enough to see the union with her family, land and people.
One day the old lady came to know that people would be moving across Neelum to meet each other. She too had come there with her young girl with a hope to meet someone of the beleaguered family. While sitting on those rocky boulders along the riverbed, the old lady managed to ask the men sitting across the river about her father, mother, and brother. Her father and mother had died years ago, and the brother had shifted to a relative in nearby village. The old lady knew in her heart that her mother and father must have been dead by then, but still she never accepted it. On knowing this, she for the first time felt orphaned and had wept loudly and bitterly on those rocky boulders of River Neelum.
The soldier remembered her dead mother and found it hard to conceal the mist in his eyes. He took both of them to the road that was leading to Nauseri.
The soldier continued with his duties in that bunker for many months afterwards. It became a routine for him to receive people from both sides of the bridge. His heart felt attached to the people from the two sides and often pained for them. He could see people putting garlands on their near ones, sending gifts, letters and other small things of utility. It was most amusing and touching to read messages on the trunks and boxes. The poor hearts took the help of poetry and prose to convey their love and greetings in the most innocent way. People from both sides also kept communicating while sitting on the rocky boulders on the narrow part of the River Neelum. Few were lucky to send their letters across with the help of stones, and many saw their affectionate words drowned in the merciless flow of Neelum. The old lady and the young girl often came there carrying misty dreams and hopes of reunion. The old lady had managed to find a few childhood friends who had now turned into old men and women. She asked them to tell her brother to come to this side of the bridge someday. She wanted to hug him and weep for her dead mother and father. She also wanted to invite him to attend the wedding of her daughter which was to be held in the coming March.
The soldier once off from his duty, often met and talked to the old lady. The young girl was always quiet but he could read her eyes. Those wide black eyes gave a message of hope and life. Sometime she waved at him while disappearing to the road bend that took them back to Nauseri.
However, few incidents led to the change of fortune and the meetings at crossing point were stopped. The two sides started exchange of firing and the situation became tense and grim. He saw the soldiers across the River Neelum firing at civilians moving on the road. This firing on the civilian population stopped the day’s movement. However, people did travel in small groups on the road after disembarking from the buses and wagons at a safe distance. This continued for few months and the soldier almost forgot the old lady and her young daughter. But one early morning while it was still a little dark, he saw them coming towards his bunker. They managed to reach him quickly. The old lady was exhausted and about to faint. He quickly offered them a cup of tea. They handed over two invitation cards. The young girl’s wedding date had been fixed for the coming Sunday and the old lady wanted him to attend the wedding. She never had a son, had lost a brother, father, and her uncle. There was no trace of her lost brother. She wanted the soldier to be present as a male member of her family. The soldier enquired about the second invitation card. The old lady told him to throw it across the river with the hope that someone would pick it up and hand it over to her brother. The soldier told him about the futility of the effort but the old lady insisted in a manner that left him with no option but to agree. There was nothing in that gesture but traces of love, hope and connectivity. She never wanted to forget her lost ones: her father, mother, brother and relatives. The soldier then understood the emotions of deep love, pain of separation and burdens of survival defined by life. He assured them that he would throw the invitation card across, and would also attend the marriage. He then told them to hurry it up and go back before the sunrise. The old lady kissed the soldier on his forehead, and started moving on the road back to Nauseri.
The soldier could see them walk safely only for a few meters when suddenly the soldiers across Neelum started firing on the road as well as at his bunker. The old lady tried to run back but fell on the road. The young girl could not leave her mother and bent down to pick her up and get back to the safety of the bunker. The old lady was unable to get up and walk, and the young girl struggled to drag her. This was the moment that the soldiers across Neelum picked their movement and fired a burst of bullets on the two stranded women. They both fell down on the road again, never to get up. The soldier rushed to them under intense firing from across the river. He managed to reach them and dragged them behind a boulder. The old lady was already dead, the young girl soon to follow.
The soldier returned to his bunker. He had a job to perform. He gazed across the river.
The water in River Neelum was no more blue.
(The writer is a traveller and student of human history. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)