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Fear of war grips Pakistan-administered Kashmir

As tensions rise between India and Pakistan following weeks of violent clashes in India-administered Kashmir, many fear the conflict may escalate further. Naomi Conrad reports from Pakistan.

For a brief moment, talk turned to the soap dispenser in the bathroom of the wood-panelled office of the speaker of the legislative assembly of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, a mountainous region where small houses balance precariously on the steep, green slopes towering above the river that meanders through the valley: The brand was, after all, "Cashmere Moments."

Had Shah Ghulam Qadir deliberately chosen this soap dispenser? He shrugged and smiled briefly.

Then it was back to talking war.

There was, Qadir said, "a real danger of war" between Pakistan and India. "Mentally, we're ready for anything."

DW met Qadir this Friday during a media trip organized by the Pakistani Institute of Strategic Studies, a government-affiliated think tank in Islamabad.

Tensions rising between India and Pakistan

The visit came at a time when tensions are high between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part.

The region has been disputed ever since partition in 1947, and the two nuclear powers have fought three wars over it.

Now, many fear, yet another one may be looming on the horizon after gunmen attacked an army base in India-administered Kashmir, killing several soldiers. Immediately after the assault on Uri base, many in India blamed Pakistan for orchestrating the attack - an accusation that Pakistan was quick to deny.

India has long accused Pakistan of supporting separatist movements in Kashmir.

Crackdown in Kashmir

Seated behind his huge wooden desk festooned with two small green flags - one for Pakistan, the other for Kashmir - Raja Farooq Haider Khan dismissed any Pakistani involvement in the incident. "What I can say with guarantee is that no one could cross from this side (Pakistan-administered Kashmir)."

The border was too heavily guarded, he said. Haider Khan, a quiet, almost shy, self-proclaimed "scholar of history" who peppers his talk with historical references, holds the title of prime minister of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, but readily admits he is not recognized as such by the international community.

Instead, he pointed to India's security services, RAW. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he said, needed to garner popular support ahead of regional elections. The Indian security services, he said, "can do anything."

It's a belief shared by many in Pakistan who are quick to see their neighbor's alleged nefarious dealings behind their country's woes. 

Haider Khan called on the West to put pressure on India to back down, for both sides to be demilitarized and talks to be held.

'Can't guarantee peace'

"We don't want war with India at any cost," he said. But, he added, if Indian security forces continued their crackdown, he could not guarantee peace. Should war break out, many in Pakistan-administered Kashmir would be quick to cross the Line of Control (LOC), the heavily guarded ceasefire line separating the two parts of the region, to join the fight.

A busy market in Muzzafarabad

Muzzafarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir

He was referring to the heavy-handed measures imposed in Indian-administered Kashmir, which has been under lockdown ever since violent protests erupted following the killing of a separatist leader, Burhan Wani, on July 8 by Indian security forces. Ongoing clashes between protesters and soldiers have claimed dozens of lives.

Kashmir is under a strict curfew imposed by the state government: All lines of communication across the LOC have been down for over a week, according to Mumtaz Khan.

Fear for relatives on the other side of the LOC

The softly-spoken 29-year-old, sporting a crisp, white traditional shalwar kameez, works at a small workshop set up by the Kashmir Development Foundation, which - with the backing of the Pakistani government and private donors in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait - supports refugees from Indian-administered Kashmir.

They, like Khan, fled across the LOC as violence erupted in the late 1980s.

But many still have family on the other side and, according to several refugees whom DW interviewed, life was increasingly difficult there. Their relatives on the other side, they said, were unable to leave their homes, and struggling to find fresh supplies and medicine.

Ashraf Jan, a 62-year-old whose brother still lives in Indian-administered Kashmir, told DW she was praying for peace. But she was hopeful, she added, that "Allah will make things happen."

Others, were less hopeful. In a small, bustling market in Muzaffarabad, the region's capital, Mohammed Asad, who works in a shop, told DW he was extremely worried by the situation: "Anything can happen anytime."

Nuclear escalation?

Back in the workshop, Mumtaz Khan shook his head when asked if he thought there might be an outright war:

Mumtaz Khan, refugee from India-administered Kashmir

Mumtaz Khan thinks nuclear war is unlikely

"Both countries are nuclear powers, so if one side attacks, there will be retaliation." And that, he said, was an option no one would consider.

Haider Khan, the region's prime minister, agreed: "We don't want Pakistan to go for war. Look at Hiroshima, look at Germany after the Second World War: We don't want to see the (Kashmir) valley turned into a ruin."

But, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, war is not the only topic: 19-year-old Atazoz Hassan said Kashmir and the fear of war wasn't really something he discussed with his friends.

They preferred, he said, to talk about girls.

 

Naomi Conrad's visit to Pakistan was financed by the Institute of Strategic Studies, based in Pakistan.

 

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