Like thousands of Kashmiris, Khan found himself living on the front line of what would become Asia's most bitter conflict when the U.N. drew a Line of Control through Kashmir in 1949, dividing the disputed Himalayan region into Indian and Pakistani parts. Because the Line of Control also split the area around Khan's village of Uroosa, he was cut off from all but his most immediate family. The divide deepened in 1989, when separatist rebels, incensed at India's heavy-handed rule of its only Muslim-majority state, began an uprising in the meadows of the Kashmir valley to the east. India suppressed the insurgency with an iron fist and reinforced its border with hundreds of thousands of troops; Pakistan sent money first to support the separatists and then to bankroll bands of jihadis who were determined to claim all of Kashmir for Muslim Pakistan.
For his part, Khan hasn't seen or spoken to his Pakistani relatives since he was eight. But a cease-fire announced in November, and an agreement last week by India and Pakistan to begin peace talks in February, have set him dreaming of a reunion. "It will be a new beginning," says Khan. "My family will meet once more, and life will start in our valley again." In his isolation, cut off in a war zone that until last month the Indian army kept off-limits to all but a few farmers, Khan cannot know that his relatives, whom TIME has tracked down, left Kashmir a year ago. At their new home in Rawalpindi, it emerges that the reason for their departure is as bad as any Khan could have imagined. Khan's 21-year-old nephew Mohammad Jaffer Khan says his father—Khan's brother—never got over their separation and died heartbroken a few years back. Then, last year, the family quit their home in the valley after Indian shelling killed a cousin, blew in their windows and doors, and left their village of Chakoti a ravaged wasteland, where machine guns have raked every wall and shrapnel covers the ground. Jaffer says he hopes his father found peace in death. "We buried my father near the border," he says. "So the wind from his country will blow over his grave."
But the history of Indo-Pak negotiations is a chronicle of failed diplomacy, particularly when it comes to Kashmir. Many diverse interest groups have a stake in what happens in the territory, and emotion often shunts reason aside. In India, following recent state-election victories by his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, Vajpayee is riding high, but he might have to face down party hard-liners who see the talks as a concession to Pakistan. In Pakistan, the élite supports Musharraf's moves, but it's a harder sell with militants, lower-ranking military officers and ordinary Kashmiris. "You've got to remember that two or three generations of Pakistanis have been taught that Kashmir is theirs by right," says a Western diplomat in Islamabad. "That's going to be difficult to overcome."
There are other signs of potential trouble ahead. Former Prime Minister of Pakistani-held Kashmir, Sardar Muhammad Abdul Qayyum Khan, is concerned that Kashmiris have been excluded from upcoming negotiations, undermining the legitimacy of the talks. "They agreed that Kashmir was a central issue," he says, "but they did not mention the centrality of the Kashmiris in making any decision." And there are questions, too, about Musharraf's reasons for seeking peace. Some observers say that although he had been considering rapprochement with India for some time, his decision to drop support for Kashmiri militancy was cemented by the Christmas Day attempt on his life—the second in two weeks—which was apparently made by graduates of Pakistani-sponsored militant training camps in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Quaid-I-Azam University's Hussain notes: "Musharraf was saying, 'Look, these guys are going to oppose me in any case, and I am forgoing all the benefits of normalized relations with India, so let's take them on.'"
While a handful of militants, unwilling to fight on without state protection, have been selling their AK-47s and SUVs in the markets of Pakistani Kashmir, others like Abu Khalid, a veteran of one tour in Indian Kashmir, are vowing to continue. "Jihad is our Islamic duty," he says. "Nobody can stop us, not even Musharraf. If Musharraf stops our food, we will not die of hunger. God will arrange it from somewhere else." In fact, argues Ajai Sahni, of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, Musharraf's pledge to end support for the militants could encourage a surge in violence, especially when the snow has melted in the spring. "If they don't act," he says, "the jihad is over."
But of all the uncertainties dogging Kashmir's peace process, perhaps the biggest is whether a land so soaked in blood and suffering can ever move beyond the past, regardless of what is decided in New Delhi or Islamabad. Between 35,000 people (India's figure) and 70,000 (Pakistan's figure) have died in the violence since 1989, largely in the Kashmiri valley. Moderate Kashmiris warn that the past few years in the valley have seen a rapid spread of the hard-line Islamic faith of Wahhabism—the chosen creed of Osama bin Laden, among others—in an area previously dominated by the moderate Sufi tradition. Yasin Malik, 38, a former militant commander who now campaigns for peace and independence, warns that Kashmir's latest generation of militants might simply refuse to give up the gun. These young insurgents are not fighting for a cause, says Malik, but to avenge "a murdered father or brother, or a sister who's been gang-raped. It's much more difficult to stop people like this."
Although Malik insists all Kashmiris would find "psychological healing" in a just peace "in which their aspirations are addressed and accommodated," for some it's too late. Mogli Begum Sheikh, 45, is the matriarch of an extended family living on a small holding just north of Srinagar that counts no less than 10 widows and 24 orphans in its ranks. Since 1995, when Indian soldiers shot dead Sheikh's nephew Ali Mohammad Sheikh, who was a militant, 17 male family members and one female have died at the hands of both soldiers and separatists in an orgy of reprisals and counterattacks. On one occasion in 1997, a group of unidentified gunmen marched seven of the family's men from their homes in the middle of the night and executed them in a nearby field. Today there is only one male adult in the entire family of 40. Asked about the coming peace talks, Sheikh cries out: "Why should I care? There's nothing for me in any of this. I lost my husband; I lost my eldest son; what good can any of this possibly do me? Let Kashmir burn."
Watching the jade waters of the Jhelum flowing into Pakistan below, Uroosa villager Khan says his anger wore out long ago. What remains is a debilitating sense of a life gone by, unused and unexplored, as if, he imagines, he had spent all his years in jail. "All my life," he says, "I've thought to myself 'Why did this happen to me; why was I born to see this tragedy?'" Khan now wonders if he will be able to adapt to a wider world should peace come. Will he get along with a family he won't recognize? Will he handle the disruption that will come to Uroosa if the nearby road from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad reopens? Will he ever be able to sleep through the night or hear wind rattling his windows without thinking the Indian army is knocking on his door? The prospect of change has brought another fear. "I'm starting to breathe freely, and the pressure has begun to lift, and I'm coming alive," Khan confides. "But suddenly I'm thinking, 'Don't hope too much. We've been here before, and gone back to fighting.'"