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Back to school: B for blackboard, not bomb

Dec. 10 (Reuters): A is for AK-47, B is for Bomb, C is for Curfew — that is how children in disputed Kashmir learnt the alphabet for many years.

Two weeks after guns fell silent on the front line between India and Pakistan, hundreds of war-weary children living near the highly militarised region are returning to regular schools to resume an education interrupted by years of shelling.

“Earlier, we used to attend school for one or two hours once or twice a week because there was a lot of shelling going on,” said Rehan Ahmad, a nine-year-old in the tiny town of Tangdar in Indian Kashmir.

“But since Id, we have been going to school every day. And we hardly need to use the underground bunkers at home.”

The children of Tangdar are not alone.

Life is slowly returning to normal for thousands of Kashmiris who were trapped for years in the crossfire as India and Pakistan exchanged fire every day across the 740-km Line of Control.

The simple things that most people in the rest of the world take for granted are what delight Kashmiris most.

“Opening my shop daily.… It is a dream come true,” said Mohamed Shamim, a grocer in Tangdar, nestled amid lofty snow-covered peaks about 190 km northwest of Srinagar. “It is such a good feeling, I can’t explain.”

In November, the 28-year- old Shamim was hurt by an artillery shell fired by Pakistani troops that slammed into his grocery shop, gutting it completely.

A nervous calm has returned to the area after India and Pakistan declared a ceasefire on the Kashmir front line in efforts to rebuild confidence.

The town of Tangdar faces Pakistan-held Kashmir and has been a frequent flashpoint.

“Death and destruction was a daily routine,” said Qazi Abdul Majid, a politician in Tangdar. “This was a ghost town before the ceasefire. Only shells would land here and there.”

Now, the signs of normality are everywhere.

In neighbouring Teetwal, constables repair a damaged police station in full view of Pakistani troops across a stream, the Kishan Ganga.

“It was damaged by Paki- stanis eight years ago. We only started repairs after the ceasefire,” said police officer Abdul Gani. “I’m witnessing such calm in the area for the first time.”

Government offices had also started functioning properly in the last 10 days.

Not too far away, men and women work in maize fields among grazing animals on the banks of the shimmering Kishan Ganga, which the Pakistanis call the Neelam.

“I know pain and I know what peace is. I pray every day for a permanent ceasefire,” said Reshma Jan, who lost her son in a lethal artillery duel between Indian and Pakistani troops in 2001 that killed a dozen villagers in a single day.

After the ceasefire, life also seems to be returning to normal across the stream in Pakistan-administered Kashmir where women collect water while traffic trundles by.

“Peace or ceasefire is the most beautiful experience for us,” said Abdul Rashid, a teacher.

“The children of the two schools recognise each other but cannot play together,” he whispered, pointing towards a school across the river where children stood in prayer. “We can live life now, and they can, too.”

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