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Sitting in his office while students stroll by under leafy shade trees and rickshaws tut-tut on a nearby road, Khawaja Muhammad Zakariya thinks back to a tumultuous time decades ago when his country was violently split in two: the partition of India. His father hurried home one day, telling his young son they had to gather up their money and jewelry and leave their Muslim neighbourhood immediately for an uncle's house across town. "The day we moved... That area was attacked, and many were killed and injured but we had left about two hours before," Zakariya said, recalling the violence-plagued months leading up to partition. The family later left Amritsar for good, taking only the valuables they could carry, joining other families on packed trains to Lahore. The retired professor of Urdu literature in his mid-70s spoke from his office at Punjab University in Lahore, just 50 kilometres from the Indian city of Amritsar.
He was relaying his life history to a volunteer from The 1947 Partition Archive. The archive is a massive effort to collect stories from people who remember the 1947 split of the subcontinent, often referred to the largest mass migration in history. The generation that still remembers the birth of modern India and Pakistan are now elderly men and women, and it's a race against time to record as many stories as possible. "That segment of the population is disappearing really, really fast," said Guneeta Singh Bhalla, the Berkeley, Calif-based executive director and driving force of the archive, speaking by telephone. "Within the next five years the vast majority of what's remaining is going to be gone." Partition marked a massive and bloody upheaval. Hindus living for generations in what was to become Pakistan had to flee their homes overnight. At the same time, millions of Muslims abandoned their homes to cross the border into Pakistan. The hastily-arranged partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan was brokered by the departing British colonialists. Months of violence preceded the partition announcement, often whipped up by politicians or various religious and political groups jockeying for power. In the chaotic days and months following the August independence of India and Pakistan, violence multiplied as religious sentiment intensified and there was little in the way of police or military to maintain order. There are no exact numbers of people killed and displaced, but estimates range from a few hundred thousand to two million killed and more than ten million displaced.