A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

In this Sept. 1947, file photo, hundreds of Muslim refugees crowd on top of a train leaving New Delhi for Pakistan. (AP)
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Updated 22 January 2020

A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

  • Will give migrants a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes torn apart by partition of 1947

NEW DELHI: Sparsh Ahuja and Ameena Malak grew up listening to their grandparents narrate stories of the partition from 1947.
Ahuja’s grandfather, Ishar Das Arora, was 7 years old when the Indian subcontinent was divided into two by the British, creating India and Pakistan. 
More than 14 million people were displaced at the time, and about one million perished in the fighting that followed.
Arora moved from a Pakistani village, named Bela, to Delhi after living in several refugee camps and escaping the violence.
Meanwhile, Malak’s grandfather, Ahmed Rafiq, moved from the Indian city of Hoshiarpur to Pakistan’s Lahore.
Now in their 70s, both the grandparents yearn to go back home and see the places where they were born and spent their childhoods. 
However, the constant uncertainty in the relationship between India and Pakistan and their old age has made the task of visiting their respective birthplaces extremely difficult.
To fulfill the wishes of their grandparents, and several others who yearn to visit their ancestral homelands, Ahuja and Malak decided to launch Project Dastaan (story).
“What started as an idea for a student project last year at Oxford University became a larger peace-building venture,” Ahuja, the director of the project, said.
Project Dastaan is a university-backed virtual reality (VR) peace-building initiative reconnecting displaced survivors of partition with their childhood through bespoke 360-degree digital experiences.
Backed by the South Asia Programme at Oxford, it uses VR headsets to give these migrants, who are often over 80 years old, a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes. It shows them the people and places they most want to see again by finding the exact locations and memories that the survivors seek to revisit, and recreates them.
“It is a creative effort to start a new kind of conversation based on the direct experience of a now-foreign country in the present, rather than relying upon records and memories from the past,” Ahuja told Arab News.
He added that Pakistan-based Khalid Bashir Rai “teared up after his VR experience, and told us we had transported him back” to his childhood.
“At its heart, the project is a poignant commentary on its own absurdity. By taking these refugees back we are trying to highlight the cultural impact of decades of divisive foreign policy and sectarian conflict on the subcontinent. This is a task for policymakers, not university students. In an ideal world, a project like this shouldn’t exist,” Ahuja said.
Other members of Project Dastaan — Saadia Gardezi and Sam Dalrymple — have a connection with partition, too. Gardezi grew up with partition stories; her grandmother volunteered at refugee camps in Lahore, and her grandfather witnessed terrible violence as a young man.
Dalrymple’s grandfather had been a British officer in India during the twilight years of the British Empire. So scarred was he by the partition that he never visited Dalrymple’s family in Delhi, even after 30 years of them living there.
“I think Dastaan is ultimately about stripping away the layers of politics and trying to solve a very simple problem: That children forced to leave their homes, have never been able to go back again,” Dalrymple told Arab News.
Ahuja added: “The partition projects are a peace offering in the heart of hostility. It is an attempt at creating a wider cultural dialogue between citizens and policymakers of the three countries.”
The project aims to reconnect 75 survivors of the partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh with their childhood memories, when the subcontinent observes 75 years of partition in 2022.
Project Dastaan is also producing a documentary called “Child of Empire” that will put viewers in the shoes of a 1947 partition migrant, and will be shown at film festivals and museums.


Afghan government airstrikes kill 24 civilians – witnesses

Updated 15 min 51 sec ago

Afghan government airstrikes kill 24 civilians – witnesses

  • Sayed Ramazan in northern Kunduz province is Taliban controlled
  • Villagers say initial airstrike targeted a house belonging to a Taliban fighter

KABUL: Government airstrikes in the north of Afghanistan killed 24 civilians, including children, and wounded six others, witnesses told The Associated Press on Sunday.
The two witnesses contacted by the AP said that most of those killed in Saturday’s airstrikes, which struck the village of Sayed Ramazan in northern Kunduz province, were civilians. The Khanabad district in the province where the village is located is Taliban controlled.
The Afghan Defense Ministry, however, said the airstrikes killed 30 Taliban fighters, but added an investigation was being held into claims that civilians were among those killed.
The airstrikes come as Taliban and government-appointed negotiators are meeting for the first time in Qatar to discuss the future of Afghanistan and an end to decades of war and conflict.
Villagers said an initial airstrike targeted a house belonging to a Taliban fighter, whose home doubled as a check post that stops and frisks people to ensure they are not connected to the government. The explosion set fire to a nearby home, trapping a family inside, said Latif Rahmani who witnessed the airstrikes.
Speaking to the AP by phone, Rahmani said farmers and villagers ran to douse the fire and rescue trapped family members inside when a second airstrike hit, killing many of them.
Rahmani, who said he was working on his house at the time of the airstrike, warned his neighbors against running toward the burning buildings for fear of a second airstrike.
“I yelled at people and told them not to go because maybe there would be another bombing, but they ran to help and to put out the fire,” Rahmani said.
A second witness in the area, Kalamuddin, who like many Afghans uses just one name, said the lone Taliban fighter living in the house that was initially hit had been killed. He said five children were among the 24 civilians that had been killed.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid condemned the airstrikes and said the Taliban had no military operations in the area at the time of the airstrike.
The United Nations has harshly criticized both sides in the conflict for the relentless killing of civilians in Afghanistan’s protracted war.
The peace talks in Qatar are part of a US brokered deal with the Taliban that will eventually lead to US withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.
In early July, Afghan national army personnel fired mortars into a busy market in southern Helmand, killing 23 people. The Defense Ministry is still investigating the incident.
Also Saturday, at least six rockets were fired at NATO’s Resolute Support base in southern Kandahar. No casualties were reported and no one claimed responsibility. NATO said in a statement that if the Taliban were behind the rocket fire, it could jeopardize the US peace deal in which the Taliban have promised not to attack US and NATO forces.