Aliya Harir poses after an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Bangkok February 10, 2017. Picture taken February 10, 2017. Alisa Tang/Thomson Reuters Foundation

BANGKOK: Aliya Harir was an impressionable teenager who soaked up the patriotic propaganda from her schoolbooks and the one TV channel that served her town in the mountains of northern Pakistan. So she feared, and hated, India. "There were always rumors that India's going to attack Pakistan soon, and I was always worried: Where would I hide if an Indian soldier comes?" Harir, now 25, said as she laughed, embarrassed at her younger self. Then in 2011, she was accepted into an exchange program to spend six months at Troy University in the southern US state of Alabama.

As she settled into school, a Nepali student drove her to Walmart and brought along a friend. Exchanging pleasantries, Harir asked the friend where he was from and was shocked to find out he was Indian. "I had never thought I would meet Indians - I only thought I would meet Indians if there was a war, if the Indians came in to kill us. But the Indian I met was a human being, just like me," she said in Bangkok on the sidelines of a UN-supported conference aimed at supporting women peacebuilders.

Pakistan and India have been locked in acrimonious conflict and border skirmishes for decades, since partition and independence from Britain in 1947. The fighting and animosity infuse the countries' politics, as well as films and nationalistic TV programs. Harir's epiphany in the United States led her on a quest - to promote India-Pakistan peace by connecting children from both countries, both online and in person. Upon her return to Pakistan, Harir found like-minded people in Delhi and Islamabad and launched Aaghaz-e-Dosti, a "friendship initiative" focused on conflict resolution.

Aaghaz-e-Dosti, meaning "beginning of friendship", brings Indian activists, teachers and journalists to classrooms in Pakistan, and pairs up children on both sides of the border to be online buddies for eight-week peacebuilding courses. Harir, who now lives in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, said the initiative works with young children to counter state propaganda and negative stereotypes. "We are focused on children and young students from primary to secondary grades because that is the critical and formative stage of the development of a child," she said.

Don't eat with infidels

Harir - the second of four children in a family from the minority Shiite Ismaili Muslim sect - faced discrimination herself growing up in a predominantly Sunni Muslim Pakistan. "When this debate of Sunnis versus Ismailis came up, I used to feel ashamed. I used to cry, 'Oh God, why was I born an Ismaili?' I never discussed it with my parents. I didn't have the courage to," she said. Her father, who had lived in Australia and Britain, owned a tourism company and used to host foreigners, so one of Harir's teachers once asked her if she shared meals with "infidels".

"I started shivering. What do I answer? I have to respect him... He said, 'It's wrong. You should never sit with them, you should never eat with them.'" Raised amid prejudice, she was amazed that in the United States she made Indian friends who brought her home-cooked food and invited her to parties. The differences melted away as similarities emerged: Pakistanis and Indians love cricket and Bollywood movies, Harir said, adding that the food was the same, and even their languages, Urdu and Hindi, were similar. Then one day she fell ill and began to vomit blood. She was flown by helicopter to hospital in Birmingham and treated for tuberculosis. She stayed almost a month.

I felt ashamed

Her Indian friends drove three hours to keep her company with Bollywood movies and food from Indian restaurants. "I changed a lot. I felt ashamed," she recalled, shaking her head. Since returning to Pakistan five years ago, Harir has been to India five times, bringing groups of Pakistani students for the Global Youth Peace Festival in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh and Aaghaz-e-Dosti meetings. Last October, Harir led a group of 20 female students to India, and during their trip, tensions between the two countries escalated again.

Having learned of the student delegation, India's Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj worried about their safety and contacted Harir to assure her they would get home safely. Responding to Harir's note of thanks on Twitter, Swaraj's note of concern was retweeted more than 3,000 times. But Harir does have detractors. "People call me anti-national. They say, 'If you love India so much, go and live in India,'" she said. "Because of this patriarchal mindset, men are not used to seeing women as leaders, especially when talking about India.  People say 'Go and do your homework.'"- Reuters