Against the backdrop of rolling forested hills where thousands of Indian and Pakistan soldiers guard the Line of Control – the de facto and recently volatile border that cuts through disputed Kashmir – about a dozen Indian trucks have crossed into Pakistan-controlled territory on a muggy summer morning.
Trucks are parked so that their cargoes of mainly bananas – but also tamarind and medicinal roots – can be unloaded onto a covered platform. In a nearby building, drivers lounge on benches – some have kicked off their shoes and are fast asleep, and others chat under the watchful eye of a nearby Pakistani policeman. Earlier, eight Pakistani trucks with shipments of almonds, dried dates and prayer rugs crossed in to Indian-controlled Kashmir.
In an improbable trade between two nuclear-armed countries that routinely exchange deadly gunfire in this heavily militarized zone, an enterprising group of several hundred Kashmiri traders separated by the Line of Control are trying to send a powerful message: more trade – not militancy or conflict – is what Kashmir needs.
But the trade that started five years ago to much fanfare on both sides of the Line of Control and raised hope in a new era of prosperity and peace has instead led to complaints about trade barriers, questions over why the trade is not being allowed to flourish and worries about a return to militancy.
To trader Mubarak Awan, years of conflict and militancy have stalled economic development and hurt ordinary Kashmiris. He accepts that in this trade, which can be as volatile as the region and downright quirky, he will lose money. But he has his eye on a different goal.
"We see that the path for trade has opened and we don't want it to close completely. Rather than see the path close, we want things to improve and become bigger," said Mr. Awan, who sends up to four trucks a week across the Line of Control and says he envisions a day when Kashmiris, with an identity card in hand, will be allowed to move freely through the entire region.
Pakistan and India have fought two wars over the disputed territory, from 1947 to 1948 and in 1965. In 2003, the two countries agreed to a ceasefire that ended more than a decade of deadly artillery exchanges and gunfire. But India continues to accuse Pakistan of not preventing militants from crossing into Indian-controlled territory to carry out attacks. Pakistan denies aiding militants.
To spur along a peace process, Pakistan and India agreed to a historic bus service that got underway in 2005 and reunited Kashmiri families divided by the Line of Control. In 2008, a zero-tariff trade in a list of 21 specific items started.
But trade is still hobbled. From the start, it has been based on a barter system. Traders rarely meet each other and when they do it is under the supervision of a dozen police and security agencies. They also only get to see their purchase once it is arrives across the Line of Control and there is no way to settle disputes over goods.
"It's the strangest kind of trade – there is nothing like it in the world," said Farooq Ahmed Qadri, who lives in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, and was among the first to jump into the new trade.
"If we send chilis from here, when it arrives there they say it's not good quality," he added. "Cumin comes from there, and people here say it's no good. ... We need green chilis, they send turmeric. We need tomatoes and they send onions."
The result: "They lose money, we lose money."
According to studies published by the international aid agency Mercy Corps and the Kashmir Institute of Economics, annual two-way trade volumes represent 8 per cent of what could be a $1-billion potential trade. That trade started stalling after 2010. Around the same time, trade items started being cut from the list of 21 allowable products.
Many traders believe governments on both sides are not interested in sustaining or growing the current trade.
Pakistani bureaucrats and army officers see trade as part of an "Indian agenda," said Ershad Mahmud, a Kashmiri and executive director of the Centre for Peace, Development and Reforms. The fear, according to such experts, is that normalizing trade and travel will weaken Pakistan's claim over the entire Kashmir region beyond the third it currently controls.
A sputtering trade could spell more than just economic troubles for the region, say traders. Many ex-militants are trying to run profitable businesses trading across the Line of Control.
"We were heading towards a peace process; the thinking changed," said Hilal Pirzada, a trader who fled Indian-controlled Kashmir 21 years ago to train as a militant in Pakistan-supported camps. He warned that frustration over a lack of economic opportunities could allow militancy to flourish once again. "It doesn't take long for it [militancy] to get restarted."