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Waiting 25 days, 45 km from home

Indian films, evening matches and local warmth kept the 48 Pakistani truck drivers stranded this side of LoC going, till trade resumed last week.

Shah (in green sweater) with other Pakistani truckers and their vehicles at the Salamabad Trade Centre near the Line of Control. SHUAIB MASOODI Shah (in green sweater) with other Pakistani truckers and their vehicles at the Salamabad Trade Centre near the Line of Control. SHUAIB MASOODI

Indian films, evening matches and local warmth kept the 48 Pakistani truck drivers stranded this side of LoC going, till trade resumed last week.

Cricket and Bollywood were the two comforts that kept the 48 Pakistani truck drivers stranded on this side of the Line of Control at Uri for nearly a month going. However, as 34-year-old Tahir Hussain Shah, of Chani Bandi Sayedian village in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, some 45 km from the LoC, said, waiting endlessly in the cold, away from families, with little news on when the Uri-Muzaffarabad route would open again, made both a little less sweet.

Shah, who speaks both Pahari and Punjabi fluently, was the designated leader of the truckers. If on the one hand he held talks with officials, trying to convince them to release a Pakistani driver at the centre of the dispute that led to the shutdown, on the other, he tried to keep up the morale of the others.

“I have been driving the Bedford load carrier in Pakistan for over a decade. This was the first time I spent more than three weeks in Indian Kashmir,’’ said Shah, who began coming to Kashmir soon after the Uri-Muzaffarabad trade route opened in October 2008. At 5 pm, on February 12, after 25 days of wait, he eventually started the ride back home, expecting to be there in two hours.

Trade on the LoC had been suspended on January 15 after India arrested the driver of a truck coming from PoK that was found carrying 114 kg of brown sugar in bags of almonds. While India allowed other truck drivers that had come with him to return, Pakistan refused to take them back. It also held back 27 drivers who had gone from Kashmir to PoK with goods, demanding that the Pakistani driver who had been arrested be released. When India refused, trade was halted, stranding Shah and the others on this side and dealing a blow to what is considered one of the biggest confidence building measures between India and Pakistan.

While India allows 23 items to be exported as part of the cross-LoC trade, Pakistan lists 26. In the past five years, goods worth Rs 2,000 crore are estimated to have been traded at the Kaman and Chakanda Bagh (Poonch) crossings. Though 500 traders are registered for the trade, currently only a handful are in business as trade is run on barter. Nearly 150-200 trucks cross the border four days a week.

After trade came to a sudden halt, till they left on February 12, the 48 Pakistani truckers were confined to the premises of the Salamabad Trade Centre, 15 km from the Kaman Post. “Though we were not in custody, it was like we had been kept in a big cage,” said Shah.

They spent their nights in a room provided to them at the Trade Facilitation Centre, and had their meals in its mess. A large part of their day would be spent in the yard where their trucks stood in a long queue. Painted in dazzling colours and decorated with trinkets, a typical Pakistani truck is his owner’s pride. Keeping the trucks spotless was their highlight of their day, said Shah.

All the time the thought of his two wives and eight children waiting back home weighed on his mind, he said. The last time Shah saw them was on January 10. “I came to Kashmir on January 17, after loading oranges from Sargodha in (Pakistani) Punjab. I was to get 49,000 Pakistani rupees from the dealer.”

Many of the stranded drivers, including Shah, have relatives on this side of Kashmir, but authorities did not allow them to leave the trade centre premises. “My cousins live in nearby Uroosa village. They tried to meet me, but police did not let them in. They waved from a distance,” said Shah, whose forefathers migrated to PoK before Partition. None of the 47 has travelled into India beyond the trade centre.

Trying to defend the Pakistani driver in Indian custody, Shah said drivers didn’t know what was being loaded onto their trucks and that they were required to get a certificate from Pakistani officials before entering India. “I am sure Mohammad Shafiq Awaan (the Pakistani driver) had no knowledge about it. Who is going to risk his truck and life for a few thousand rupees?” he said.

While the arrest and the shutdown have left him bitter, Shah was all praise for officials of the trade centre and locals for their “hospitality”. “We were provided everything by them, including warm clothes.” The food was a bit of a problem as back home their meals basically comprised meat, whereas here they made do with vegetables, occasional chicken.

Custodian, Cross LoC Trade, Showket Ahmad said they spent around Rs 4 lakh on the truckers. “Initially, local cross-LoC traders paid. But the last two weeks the government bore the expenses. Everybody was concerned as some of them had threatened to run away from the trade centre.”

Almost every day towards the evening, the drivers and officials would get down to a game of cricket. To lift their spirits during the long, cold night, officials played Indian movies on the centre’s TV. Shah appreciated their efforts, but added: “We do like Indian films, but away from home, we did not enjoy them.”

It was on February 12 that Ahmad showed them a letter and told the stranded drivers that they were going home. As he packed up to leave, Shah said: “While for many of us it will be very difficult to return to Kashmir in the near future, we want the trade to continue as it is a bridge between the two divided parts of Kashmir, and between India and Pakistan.”

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