We were supposed to go a week before, but torrential rains stopped almost all traffic and had the ceremony cancelled. I calculated that I would be able to visit just before my departure from Pakistan. So here we are, in a car with a big Pakistani guy who arrives exactly on time, and does not speak a word of English but still radiates the typical Pakistani friendliness. When we are close to Wagah, the last town before the border with India, we pick up a one-legged bearded guy with a flag and dressed in a green outfit who obviously is a friend of our driver. His name must be Nasir, which is written in big capital letters on the back of his clothes. We pass checkpoints, and eventually, park the car, from where there is still a ten minute walk to reach the border. High above us, we see a Pakistani flag fly the sky, and in the distance, a stadium with smaller flags on top. Our one-legged friend is gone when we go through a final security check (in 2014, a terrorist detonated a bomb killing 60 people here) and walk the final stretch, past posters about the bravery of the Pakistan Rangers who defend the country against the nighty neighbour.
The previous months, tensions between arch rivals India and Pakistan have increased further, as always over the situation in the Kashmir region, so I expect tight security and a tense situation. I could not have been more wrong. When we arrive in the semi-circular stadium, we are surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd, we see people pose for selfies with Pakistan Rangers in their uniforms with their amazing hats, everyone taking pictures to their liking of the armed guards, walking up to the very border fence. On the other side: a much bigger stadium, also semi-circular, with INDIA written in big letters over it, and the inevitable Indian flags everywhere. On the inside of the Pakistan stadium: a large picture of Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. Vendors selling Pakistani flags, and people, young and old, with flags painted on their cheeks. Then, our one-legged friend comes out, and performs a stunning dance on one leg, while carrying a huge Pakistani flag above him. He makes daring gestures towards the Indian side of the fence while he hops and turns and the Pakistani crowd loves it.
Others join in, and then we see the Rangers on the balcony of the stadium, starting to chant as long as they can on one breath. Simultaneously, the Indian BSF (Border Security Force) soldiers do the same, giving the impression of a competition. The crowds go crazy, and cheer and jeer as loud as they can - trying to make more noise than the larger Indian crowd. Guys dressed in green and white incite the audience to make even more noise with gestures and shouts. Meanwhile, I now understand why these soldiers are extremely tall: their lungs are simply bigger, so they can chant longer. The Rangers come down, and march towards the border, kicking their legs as high up in the sky as they possibly can. This, too, is a competition with the Indians. The fence is open now, and there definitely is a choreography between the soldiers of both countries. Then, they slowly lower the flags, simultaneously, fold them, and march away with their nationalistic symbol. The fence closes, the ceremony is over. When I walk away, I am at a loss. What did I just see? Are these two nuclear powers, at a brink of war for decades? What about the choreographed show we just saw? What about the cheerful atmosphere on both sides of the fence, as if it was a theatre show. It felt like seeing a soccer match, with the field divided by a fence, and the fans sitting on either side of it, shouting as hard as they can. At the same time, it gives me hope, it leaves the impression that these people are brothers, that real war will not happen, that as long as this show is performed every day, war might not be around the corner. Expect for extreme rainfall. Indeed, ever since the ceremony was first performed in 1959, it has only been cancelled a couple of times because tensions were too high. It is dark when we drive off, and after picking up my bag, I am on my way to the airport, on my way home.
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