From Pakistan to India with Machine Gun Toting Border Guards

By Sadie Bass

Aug 3, 2009 12:19pm

ABC's Kirit Radia reports: It was after 3:00 in the afternoon when we finally approached the India-Pakistan border, well after the crossing was supposed to have closed. ABC's Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz and I hurried towards the final Pakistani checkpoint hoping to make it across and avoid spending the night in Lahore. Pakistani porters with our bags perched upon their heads led the way. Only a few hundred feet separated us from India. That and a giant Pakistani border guard with a machine gun who was walking our way. My stomach jumped as he approached us. He wore an olive drab cap and t-shirt, khaki cargo pants, and a frown. It did not look promising. After determining we were journalists he looked at us with a stern face and asked, "You want take picture?"   Martha and I were taking the unconventional route from Pakistan to India. We were reporting from Islamabad for a couple days and planned to go to New Delhi the next day where Martha would interview Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But heavy monsoon rains made the roads bad and raised fears that our flight could be canceled. Missing the interview with Clinton, which was the main point of the trip, was not an option. We had to get to Delhi. And so we drove. Our local driver Yousef sped along the highway to Lahore, across from the Indian city of Amritsar, and site of the famous Wagha border crossing. The Indian-Pakistani border is one of the world's famous tense borders, on par with North Korea's De-Militarized Zone and Israel's many borders with hostile neighbors. The Wagha crossing in particular is one of the hotspots between the two archrivals. Even today border guards from both sides perform elaborate and provocative changing of the guard ceremonies where soldiers puff out their chests and get in each others faces. But first, before we could think about the dangers along the border, we had to race to clock to get there. We departed Islamabad in the late morning after the weather looked increasingly menacing. The Pakistani capital is chock full of security checkpoints and devoid of personality, having been constructed less than 50 years ago. We left in the late morning and were glad to trade Islamabad's streets (where despite light traffic getting anywhere takes time because of checkpoints) for the open highway which was surprisingly well maintained. After passing through a short mountain range outside the capital we drove for hours through lush fields, where weathered farmers coaxed rice from paddies that stretched as far as the eye could see. Since we called a last minute audible and changed our travel plans, we used the five hours in the car to plan how we would get from the border, without our driver since he lacked a visa, to Delhi which we determined was a 10 hour drive further. Finally we reached Lahore, a teeming city where donkey-drawn carts fight for space on potholed roads with trucks, auto-rickshaws, and over laden motorcycles. At several points we found ourselves lost amid the dusty tangle of streets in what appeared to be a dodgy end of town. While most of Pakistan's violence takes place in the country's Taliban-infested areas to the west and north, Lahore has not been immune to attacks this year. Martha, whose blonde hair and blue eyes stick out in a country full of dark haired and dark skinned people, quietly decided this was a good time to put on a headscarf. Probably a good idea. We crossed train tracks, possibly the same ones where trains passed in 1947 reeking of death as Muslims flocked to Pakistan after its partition from India that year. During a frantic few days many were killed in intense violence as they scrambled to cross the border. Some trains were torched along the way. Finally, with the clock ticking down towards border closing time, Yousef turned down a street that I thought took us back to where we came from but actually delivered us to the border. We were in luck, the Pakistani side was open. There are two types of bureaucrats in this part of the world. Those that are willing to make exceptions and those that will take their sweet time not to. We ran into both. In order to pass immigration we were required to get through customs. The customs official arrived, looked at us and our multiple bags, and declared "You are hereby cleared by customs" before abruptly walking off. The immigration official, apparently satisfied with this, spent the next 20 minutes reviewing our visas before finally providing us with the exit stamps needed to send us on our way. Once we were cleared a group of Pakistani porters heaved our bags upon their heads and we marched towards the border. There were at least two more Pakistani checkpoints before we finally arrived at the border. As our passports were checked for the final time in Pakistan, our porters dropped our bags on the white line that divides the bitter enemies. A group of Indian porters picked them up and hoisted them on top of their turbans. They didn't say anything to each other but out of the corner of my eye I think they looked each other up and down before turning to walk back into their respective countries. After savoring a moment with one foot in each country we followed our bags into India.   It was interesting to note that each side told the same jokes about the other. When we got to the Indian side I didn't have the heart to tell them we'd heard that one already. One Indian customs official asked us what we thought about US-Pakistani relations. "They're too close," he opined. Seemingly satisfied that we had heard his concerns he stamped our documents and sent us on our way.   We walked through several more checkpoints and more bureaucracy before finally emerging on the chaotic Indian side of the border. It didn't look all that different from Lahore. Pakistan and India were, after all, the same country until 1947 and despite the religious and political divides they are united by similar customs and languages. There was, however, one major difference. While alcohol is officially banned from sale in Muslim Pakistan, it is available in India. As soon as we crossed into India a mob of merchants surrounded us hawking trinkets and, yes, ice-cold beer. After walking the mile-long border under the scorching sun and eyes of cautious machine-gun toting border guards, a frosty beer sounded good to me.

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