| A policeman catches hold of quake survivors trying to cross the LoC in Titrinote, about 180 km east of Islamabad, on Monday. (Reuters)
Chakan da Bagh (Poonch), Nov. 7: The opening of the Line of Control today turned into an embarrassment for Pakistan, with its earthquake victims making a dash for Indian soil and its police firing teargas and shooting in the air to beat them back before both country’s media.
The Chakan da Bagh point was opened to allow Indian trucks to deliver aid to the other side, but many of Pakistan Kashmir’s villagers ' disgusted at bungled relief efforts ' seemed to believe they would be better off at relief camps or relatives’ homes in India.
Shortly after military trucks from both sides backed up to the “zero point” around 10 am, a large crowd of villagers marched towards the line from the Pakistani side, Titrinote.
“They just assumed that since vehicles from the Indian side had crossed over, they could cross over, too,” an officer at army headquarters in Delhi said.
When the crowd realised it would be stopped, there were wild scenes. Young and old ' even fathers with children in their arms ' ran towards the LoC, chased by Pakistani policemen who grabbed them from behind and beat them with canes.
“Let people cross,” some of the villagers cried as teargas shells burst around them. “What we want is freedom.” Many raised a slogan: “LoC tod do (tear down the LoC).”
One villager, Azhar Mushtaq, said: “We want an independent Kashmir. We don’t respect this border.” Finally, the police fired in the air to break up the crowd.
Both countries had announced that Kashmiris must wait a few more days before they could cross the LoC, since the Diwali and Id holidays had delayed the processing of their documents.
But either the message wasn’t properly broadcast on the Pakistani side, or PoK residents, who had faced the brunt of the October 8 earthquake, seemed to have run out of patience. Aid organisations have reported shortage of food and tents in PoK with the winter just days from setting in.
As relief delivery resumed following a break forced by the protests, even those waiting patiently till now found reason to be angry.
Some 22 Indian trucks were lined up to unload flour, rice, sugar, tentage and medicines ' but it was obvious that the Pakistani trucks that would pick the stuff up were too small.
One officer said it took about three Pakistani trucks to accommodate the cargo unloaded by two Indian trucks. Also, the Pakistanis hadn’t arranged for enough vehicles. Villagers who had gathered to receive relief grew frantic when they saw the Pakistani trucks leave without taking the full load of relief. This sparked another abortive dash for the LoC.
The northern command has informed army headquarters that soldiers at Chakan da Bagh heard villagers on the other side shout slogans against the Pakistan army.
Sardar Abdul Hafiz, a PoK villager, said one reason for the quake victims’ eagerness to cross over was the desire to meet their relatives.
“We want the Pakistani and Indian governments to ease restrictions to let people meet,” he said. “We don’t need sugar, flour or rice; we just want to see our dear ones.”
Indian foreign ministry spokesperson Navtej Sarna said: “We are aware of reports of a large number of people wanting to reach the relief camp that we have set up at Poonch near Chakan da Bagh. We understand the sentiments of the people who had gathered at the LoC and their desire to meet their relatives and avail of or offer relief to one another.”
The Pakistan army later explained that the villagers had to be teargassed and caned because minefields hadn’t been cleared on the Pakistani side and they feared casualties.
After the day’s business was over, both sides made the usual noises. “It’s a historic day and mental barriers are crumbling,” said Jammu divisional commissioner B.R. Sharma, who handed over the relief goods to Pakistani official Sardar Mohammad Farooq.
“It’s a golden letter day in our history,” Farooq said. “Not only this point, we want the entire LoC to open so that the people can cross over freely and meet each other.”
Asked how the people felt on the other side, he said: “They want to cross over and kiss the soil.”
Abbas Khan, a lawyer from Poonch, was luckier than most. He could meet his cousin Jehangir Khan for a short while, separated by the white ribbon stretched along the LoC as a symbol of peace.