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Victoria Schofield
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Wagah Border

The Nation [London] April 2002

Excerpt:

Since December 2001 the  border between India and Pakistan has been closed. But foreigners can still cross by foot. Victoria Schofield reports

Halfway between the Pakistan city of Lahore and the Indian city of Amritsar is Wagah, the border crossing between the two countries. A white line painted across the road marks the boundary, half of which is in Pakistan, the other half in India. On one side the Pakistani flag flutters proudly, on the other the Indian. At sunrise and sunset both flags are ceremoniously raised and lowered, as their respective soldiers goose step and salute. Today, the line has special significance. Ever since India and Pakistan suspended flights between Lahore and Delhi, as well as the bus sevice inaugurated in February 1999 by Prime Minister Vajpayee and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the only way to pass legally from one country to the other is by foot across this white line. And, with crossings restricted to nationals on ‘official’ business and foreigners, Wagah seems like a stage set, constructed for a play with no cast where the stage hands wait expectantly for actors who seldom appear.

The apparent ease with which one can step across the white line is, of course, illusory. Away from the actual crossing, barbed wire and search lights at regular intervals make it clear that no one gets across at random. And although in places the frontier appears only to be marked by a series of red flags, there is a dusty track, which the Pakistani Colonel in charge assured me is swept every night so that in the morning they can see if there are any tell tale footprints showing signs of illegal crossings. Further north and south, I had also to conjure in my mind’s eye the vision of Pakistani and Indian troops, positioned ‘eyeball to eyeball’ in the latest of several military confrontations since independence in 1947.

Once I had ‘checked out’ of Pakistan, I was ready to ‘check in’ to India and, in anticipation of my imminent arrival, porters hovered eagerly the other side of the white line, ready to receive my two suitcases from the Pakistani porters who had carried them thus far, as though they were passing on batons in a slow moving relay. Somehow I felt that by keeping  this tiny jugular vein of access open, it symbolised the two countries’ desire not to sever all contact. Cross border traffic may be reduced to a trickle but at least I knew that the large gates which are bolted across the border each night would once more be open on my return. And so, as my luggage disappeared on the heads of the Indian porters, I turned my back on Pakistan, stepped across the white line and walked into India.

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