MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan — Muhammad Ashraf’s eyes fill with tears, overwhelmed by grief and joy all at once, as he recounts being reunited with his family 26 years after they were torn apart by insurgency in disputed Kashmir. “My son was 12 years old when we separated. Now my grandson is 16,” he told AFP of his odyssey to see his loved ones again, bittersweet for its brevity and because it lay bare how much he missed out on. In 1990, Ashraf was serving with Indian security forces far from his family’s village, in Indian-held Kashmir near Pakistani territory, as a violent insurgency against New Delhi gathered pace. By October that year, amid reports of mass detentions and widespread torture as authorities tried to crack down on militants, Ashraf’s family fled in fear.
Along with 20,000 other Indian Kashmiris, they crossed the de facto border and sought refuge in Pakistan’s territory.
Ashraf was left behind. It was a week before word even reached him that they were gone, and little did his family realize it would be more than a quarter of a century before they embraced him again.
“The golden time of my life, which I should have spent with my family, is gone,” he told AFP.
Ashraf’s tale highlights the plight of thousands of refugee families divided by a conflict that stretches back as far as the bloody partition of India in 1947, when the subcontinent shook off British rule. Kashmir is one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints, bitterly split between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan but claimed in full by both. They have already fought two wars over the mountainous region, with no end to the dispute in sight.