On Thursday, 19 Indian Kashmiris, mostly elderly and wearing green commemorative caps, defied separatist threats and crossed the metal bridge - painted neutral white for the occasion - hours after 31 Pakistanis walked into India to reunite divided families.

 

"I can't control my emotion. I am setting foot in my motherland," a tearful Shahid Bahar, a lawyer from the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Muzaffarabad, said.

   

On both sides, they were hugged and kissed by relatives they had not held for decades, or in some cases, ever.

   

"It's for the first time that I have seen my uncle," Noreen Arif, an adviser to Pakistani Kashmir's prime minister, said, bursting into tears and hugging him as he stepped off the bridge.

 

Threats fail   

 

Attacks by Muslim rebels who threatened to turn the buses into "rolling coffins" scared off some passengers but failed to derail one of the most significant and emotive steps in South Asia's unsteady peace process.

 

India's prime minister flagged
off the service from Srinagar

"The caravan of peace has started," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said as he sent off the Pakistan-bound bus in front of a crowd of thousands braving freezing drizzle at the Lion of Kashmir stadium in Srinagar, summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir.

 

"Nothing can stop it."

   

Separatists tried, firing two rifle grenades at one of the Muzaffarabad-bound buses soon after it left. But no one was hurt, the bus was not hit and did not stop.

 

Defiant mood

   

Two separatists staged an attack on a fortified government complex housing the passengers on Wednesday just a few hundred metres from the Lion of Kashmir stadium.  The passengers, however, escaped unhurt.

 

Separatist threats had created a deep sense of unease but also defiance among Kashmiris determined to see families reunited.

 

"Pakistan and especially President General Pervez Musharraf have helped us open this door"

Manmohan Singh.
Indian Prime Minister

"A door has opened," the Indian prime minister, in his trademark blue turban, said, speaking from behind bullet-proof glass.

 

"Pakistan and especially President General Pervez Musharraf have helped us open this door. This is the beginning of a new phase. Violence is not going to solve any problems."

   

"The Line of Control could fall like the Berlin Wall," Sharif Hussain Bukhari, a retired Pakistani judge going back after 55 years to see his sister and cousins, said.

   

The service, which will run only twice a month, is a small concession for families separated by conflict since 1947 but also carries hopes of a big boost to a cautious peace process.