- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 12, 2002

WAGAH, at the India-Pakistan border Mohammed Rafiq was recently caught between two countries poised precariously on the brink of war when he crossed the only legal passage along the 1,800-mile India-Pakistan border the Wagah crossing.

"Both sides are anxious," said Mr. Rafiq, 40, a British textile salesman who was born in Pakistan and had just returned from a business trip in India. "People kept stopping me on both sides to ask what they were saying on the other, but the attitude was the same neither wants war."

India and Pakistan have amassed their largest concentration of troops along the Line of Control in the disputed territory of Kashmir since their last war in 1971, and the two countries continue to exchange mortar and machine-gun fire in the region.

Last month, the government of Pakistan arrested more than 100 members of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, two of the biggest Islamic parties in the country, which the Indian government accuses of leading attacks across the border into India, including the Dec. 13 assault on its Parliament in New Delhi.

But the arrests did not appease the Indian government. In late December, it halted air, train and bus service to and from Pakistan in a diplomatic move to further pressure the Pakistani government to crack down harder on armed militant groups.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee failed to defuse the current crisis when they attended the annual summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Katmandu, Nepal, and both sides appear braced for battle.

But people living along the Wagah border, where razor-wire-topped fencing dividing India and Pakistan stretches into the horizon, said they hope the tenuous situation between their countries does not escalate into war as each day passes without a peaceful settlement.

Nervez Singh, a 30-year-old rickshaw driver in the Indian village of Attari, a mile from the Wagah border, said his business has plummeted because fewer people cross the border as the crisis worsens.

"Nobody wants to come through here anymore," said Mr. Singh, who usually earns $5 a day driving people to and from Wagah.

It was his main source of income to support a wife and three young children, but now he earns less than a dollar a day. "Our daily bread has been taken away."

Pakistani customs records showed that only 17 persons exited Pakistan at the Wagah border during the first four days of January, with 19 entering from India. Customs officials on both sides said that 40 to 50 persons normally cross the border at Wagah daily.

Abdul Latif, 42, who runs a concessions stand and a book kiosk on the Pakistani side of the border, is experiencing similar hardships.

"I was making $30 or $40 a day, but now only $8 or $10," said Mr. Latif, who recalled that the 1971 India-Pakistan conflict similarly dragged down business. "I was helping my father run this stand during the last war and it was the same then."

The threat of conflict in the region has impacted far more than just the economy.

Kaipl Singh, 51, who is not related to Nervez Singh, is one of 19 million Sikhs living in India who cannot cross into Pakistan to visit Sikh shrines that were erected there before the 1947 partition of India to create a separate nation called Pakistan.

"I last visited some of the shrines in November, but now it is difficult," Mr. Singh said, speaking through an interpreter. "What can we do in the present situation? We do not want war, but we are powerless."

But patriotic pride on both sides shadows the calls for peace, which might partly explain why the two have not resolved the dispute over Kashmir, and have fought three wars in the past 50 years.

This pride is visibly displayed at the ceremonial closing of the border gate, which takes place every afternoon in Wagah.

The atmosphere at the ceremony, which was attended by approximately 300 people on each side during a recent weekend afternoon, is like a college football bowl game.

A large green-and-white flag with a white crescent moon was waved in the stands on the Pakistani side, as chants of "Allah is our God" reverberated across the border to the Indian side, which answered in unison with "India is our homeland."

Iram Khokhal, an 18-year-old accounting major at Punjab University in Pakistan, said that she and her family moved five miles away from their home in Wagah to Lahore because of security risks in the area.

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