One cold morning in the winter of 2015, I visited the Manakpayan refugee camp on Srinagar Road in Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Pakistani part of Kashmir. The road would have led me straight to Srinagar had it not been for the barbed wire-fence that splits Kashmir into two.

The camp is a scattering of colourful sheds on mountainsides, one of several that host thousands of refugees who have come from the other side of the heavily militarised Line of Control over the years. Many came in the 1990s, some for arms training and others to escape the crackdown to quell the armed uprising in Jammu and Kashmir.

The access road was destroyed in the 2005 earthquake, so you need to take a chairlift across the river Jhelum to reach the camp.

Most people in Pakistan do not know about the camps, not least because many of the refugees stay hidden in the folds of the city landscape, surviving the icy-cold floors of their mostly one-room makeshift shelters on government doles. Most of them belong to divided families; they have left behind mothers, sisters, brothers, spouses and children on the other side.

Liaquat, who is in his mid-40s, came from Kupwara about 25 years ago. “Our entire mohalla, consisting of about 80 families, left and came here,” he said. He had been arrested a few times and accused of being an operative for Pakistan. “I kept telling them I had no links with Pakistan but they arrested me and some other boys from our village and held us for a week. They interrogated us and tortured us.”

After one such arrest, Liaquat managed to escape and sneaked into his village in the dead of night. He woke up his neighbours and told them they had to escape if they wanted to live. Over 200 people crossed over with Liaquat that night. But his own mother and sisters could not for they lived in a village some distance from him and his brothers and were surrounded by the army. Liaquat said he had no choice but to leave them behind. It would be nearly a decade before he spoke to his mother again.

Bridging the divide

For years, families like Liaquat’s had no contact with each other. It was only after the 2003 ceasefire that they found a way to connect. As the cross-LoC shelling, which had been relentless throughout the 1990s, stopped as a result of the ceasefire, the divided families would travel to the Neelum river, also known as Kishanganga, for a fleeting glimpse of their relatives across the river. The 20-foot wide river serves as the Line of Control in many places and people would come from all over Kashmir and sit by the water and talk to their sons and daughters, mothers and fathers.

“We all got together at Keran village, which is right on the Line of Control,” Liaquat recalled. “I called my mother and told her to come with my sisters. She was so overwhelmed to see me she tried to jump into the river…and fell. I was trying to jump in, too. So were my five brothers. But the authorities and ordinary people held us back.”

Such reunifications continued for a few years, becoming more common during winter when the river becomes more narrow. However, the visits did not come without hurdles. People were required to set up a time to meet in advance and often had to travel great distances, only for their voices to be drowned by the roar of the river. They would catch a few words, yelling back across the river for clarifications, asking their family members to repeat again and again the big and small details of their lives they were missing out on.

People travelled to the Line of Control to speak with their relatives across the Neelam river. Image credit: Reuters

Phone calls from the Indian part of Kashmir to the other side are barred. While calls can be made from the Pakistani part, costs are high and network connections often poor and unreliable.

The growth of the internet and social media platforms, therefore, brought great relief to the divided families. Facebook and WhatsApp came to be used to exchange pictures and details. Skype calls were made to hear and see relatives.

Liaquat told me when I visited the Manakpayan camp that his sisters frequently sent him pictures on WhatsApp. “The house I lived in was burnt down during the crackdown but my walnut orchards are still there,” he said. “We also have land in another village, where my sisters live, where I left them. And they sent me pictures of that house. It feels good to be connected.”

A digital border

Now, this connection, too, has been interrupted. The Indian government last week banned 22 social media sites in the Valley, including Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter because they were apparently being “misused by anti-national and anti-social elements”. The ban is seen as a reaction to the circulation of recent videos and posts depicting abuses by Indian security forces.

Although the internet has often been blocked in the Valley in recent years, the latest ban on social media is being criticised as a violation of basic human rights. Freedom of speech has received a blow as has the freedom of human connection. The ban not only prevents Kashmiris from highlighting their state of affairs and engaging in healthy debate and discourse, it also prevents them from reaching out to others, whether within the Valley or across the Line of Control.

The ban has also evoked a strong reaction in the Pakistani part of Kashmir. Jamaat-e-Islami and other political parties staged a protest outside the Press Club in Muzaffarabad on April 27. The next day, refugees came out to rally against it. They criticised India’s policy of cutting people off from basic communication channels in a globalised and increasingly connected world. They complained that social media was the only way for them to learn what was happening in other parts of Kashmir, and to stay in touch with their relatives.

As a result, Liaquat has again been cut off from his family. Meeting by the Neelum river is no longer advisable given the escalation in tension since the Indian army claimed to have carried out “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control. Ceasefire violations have become all too frequent. A conversation by the river can cost one’s life.

Anam Zakaria is the author of The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians.