Sun, Jul 13, 2003 - Page 5 News List

India-Pakistan bus service resumes

THE GUARDIAN , LAHORE

A Pakistani woman greets her daughter-in-law, center, after her arrival on the Delhi-Lahore bus at a bus station in Lahore. The first Pakistan bus destined for India in 18 months headed for the border between the countries on Friday, carrying passengers anxious for reunions with relatives and peace hopes of both nations.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Sultan Mehmood was one of the first in the queue for his bus ticket this week.

It cost him US$20.60 and was guaranteed to take him on a 539km journey from his home city of Lahore.

But even though the 14-hour trek to New Delhi may not be the most arduous available on Pakistan's bus timetables, the symbolism of the international express was lost on few who watched it depart on Friday.

The bus service is the first direct contact between citizens of Pakistan and India in 18 months and brings with it the fragile hope that the two impoverished nuclear powers can finally resolve their differences.

"It is a problem of politics, not of the public," said Mehmood, 37, an electronics technician. "The Indians are good people, there is very little hatred. It's only a small minority on each side who are radical extremists and who have made a problem for all of us. Most people don't want to fight."

The symbolic overture of the new bus journeys -- a luxury express, the Sada-e-Sarhad, or Call of the Border, left New Delhi for Lahore an hour before -- should now be followed by other small thaws in frozen relations: train connections should restart, direct flights are likely to resume and rival embassies should be returned to full staffing.

The actions may be slight but they represent a huge advance from a year ago when India and Pakistan were on the brink of their fourth war. More than one million troops were deployed on either side of the border at full mobilization. Western diplomats now say they believe the subcontinent was then within a whisker of another conflict.

Tickets for the bus service went on sale on Monday and in Lahore several seats were sold in the first minutes. Most were bought by Pakistanis eager to travel back to India to visit relatives left behind during the vast migrations that followed independence in 1947, when the subcontinent was partitioned and Pakistan was created as a homeland for Muslims.

These divided families, perhaps more than most, recognize the cost and the futility of the five decades of rivalry and posturing that followed.

Yet despite the obvious goodwill, the journey is still littered with obstacles. When the bus crossed the border photographs were forbidden and the passengers had to report to the police on arrival.

Indian police searched the coach with sniffer dogs and frisked the passengers before it crossed the "zero line" into the country.

Their visas will limit them to particular cities. Officers from Pakistan's intelligence agencies kept a conspicuous eye on prospective passengers as they queued to reserve seats in the lobby of Faletti's Hotel in Lahore.

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