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Displaced by partition, came to Pakistan’s home after 75 years

Lucknow, India Last month, 90-year-old Reena Chhibber Verma, regardless of her age and ailments, embarked on a journey that was impossible for many. She went to Pakistan to see her old house for the first time in 75 years.

As the colonial British left the Indian subcontinent, they divided it into two nations On religious grounds – Hindu-majority India and mostly Muslim Pakistan, which included Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan.

Partition, as it became known, forced more than 15 million people to move to the other side, the world’s largest forced migration. Riots during the exodus killed nearly two million people and the bloody history of Partition continues to strain relations between the two countries.

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Historic tensions between the two South Asian nuclear powers have largely closed the borders, leaving many longing for their relatives and even their homes on the other side of the border.

Among them was Varma, who was 15 when her family fled Rawalpindi in 1947 and is currently based in the western Indian city of Pune. Since then, she longed to return to her ancestral home in an “enemy” country.

“My eyes lit up. I couldn’t believe I was home again. It felt like I was only staying there yesterday,” she told Al Jazeera over the telephone.

Verma stressed that governments on both sides should allow people to meet easily and easily. “Because it’s true that they want to,” she said.

Varma recalls the day he had to flee Rawalpindi “as clear as day”. His parents and siblings – two sisters and as many brothers – arrived in India to start a new life. All of them died before reaching the age of 75, Verma said.

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“We had gone to Solan earlier thinking that we would one day go back home. We didn’t see it coming. India and Pakistan got divided and there was a lot of bloodshed,” she said, referring to a hill town in the state of Himachal Pradesh in northern India.

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Even though her family suffered no violence, they heard and read many stories about what happened, people they knew were being killed on trains.

“We saw our parents cry a lot. For two years, they could not accept that they would not return to their homes,” Verma said.

Reena Verma
Verma at his ancestral home in Rawalpindi, Pakistan [Courtesy of India Pakistan Heritage Club]

Over the past 75 years, Varma made several plans for a trip to Rawalpindi, but they did not materialise, although he had once traveled to Lahore as a youth.

“I’ve always wanted to see my home again. I got my passport made in 1965, but the person I was about to travel with couldn’t come and the plan was cancelled.

She renewed her passport in 2020 but the coronavirus pandemic disrupted her plans again. Meanwhile, she found the Facebook page of a group called the India Pakistan Heritage Club, which had offered to help Verma travel to Rawalpindi.

To travel to Pakistan, an Indian national must have a host family in the country. Two Pakistani men who co-founded the group stepped up to that role.

Verma had left for New Delhi last month at her daughter’s place. From there, she went to Wagah, the border transit terminal between India and Pakistan, in the western Indian state of Punjab.

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“The moment I saw giant India and Pakistan signboards at Wagah, I was blown away. It felt unrealistic that it was just a whole place for us but now there is a line and we can’t cross it whenever we want,” Verma told Al Jazeera.

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Reena Verma
Verma said that the governments on both sides of the border should allow people to meet easily. [Courtesy of India Pakistan Heritage Club]

As he crossed the border, Zaheer and Imran welcomed him on the Pakistani side and took him to Lahore where he spent three days.

He said, ‘I also have a special relation with Lahore. Before Partition, we used to go to Lahore every year, my in-laws also come from there,” said Verma.

On 20 July, she left for Rawalpindi and was greeted by the neighbors amidst the beats of the traditional Punjabi dhol, or dhol.

“I will always remember the warm welcome I received when I reached my ancestral home. The local people thrashed the drums. I never expected it,” Verma said.

A video of Swagat Verma also went viral on social media as people in India and Pakistan exchanged messages of peace and love.

Muzammil Hussain, who now lives in Verma’s former home, renamed it Prem Niwas (Love Abode) in his honour. The street where the house stood was renamed ‘Prem Gali’ (Love Street).

Hussain’s family also added a nameplate to one of the rooms in which she lived. It read: “Reena’s house”.

“I’m the only one of my family members who could see that house again and I’m not exaggerating that when I was there, I could see my family again walking, walking and sitting in the house. I saw them in every corner,” Verma told Al Jazeera.

“My dream came true. Wherever my family is today, they will be looking down and feeling happy and proud,” she said.

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Describing the house, he said that the rooms have not changed much. She could not find anything in the house that belonged to her and which she could return as a souvenir.

But he noticed a few things.

“The floor in the bedroom was made by my father and he was the same. In the sitting room, which we used to call the living room, there is a fireplace where my father had tiles made of special designs. They are still intact,” she said.

Verma said his house was one of the poshest in the neighbourhood. He said the main road near the house had changed a lot. The houses in front of his house were replaced with shops. But at least five houses on his street, including his street, didn’t change much.

Verma’s face turns aggressive as he remembers his childhood spent in this house in Pakistan.

“What happened at that time was very unfortunate and should not have happened. Yes, it was painful but we cannot remember it for the rest of our lives,” she said.

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“We must move on. The people of India and Pakistan, our cultures, clothes, thinking – it’s all very similar. There is love on both sides.”

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