Almost a year ago on April 7th a massive avalanche killed around 139 Pakistani soldiers stationed near the Siachen Glacier. They were buried under more than three million cubic feet of snow at Gyari sector in the war zone between India and Pakistan. In “Heights of Madness” written by the British journalist, Myra Macdonald, Siachen is described as the “world’s highest battlefield. An obscure, unwinnable war fought in the mountains far beyond the reach of ordinary men. A parable of India and Pakistan”. More soldiers have been killed by the weather and terrain in inhospitable Siachen than by enemy fire.
On April 7, 2012, most of the soldiers on the Pakistani side were indoors in the main compound area of their army post located at 13,000 feet when the fast moving avalanche/snow slide hit at 2 am. They were buried within a few seconds and there were no survivors. They say that avalanche victims have the greatest chance of survival if they are rescued within 15 minutes of being buried; but with the entire army post wiped out there was no chance of anyone being rescued any time soon. Besides, they were all buried under one square km of snow, slush and large boulders – apparently a big chunk of the glacier above just fell on them in the middle of the night. Professor Dave Petley, the Wilson Professor of Hazard and Risk in the Department of Geography at Durham University in the UK described it as an “Ice-Rock Avalanche” in his blog.
The avalanche could have been triggered by strong blizzards or even by the frequent changes in temperature caused by climate change. A study looking into the causes behind the avalanche was commissioned by the Pakistan Army and Prof Petley was invited to visit the site but his findings are “classified information” for the army only.
Myra Macdonald, the journalist who visited Gyari years before the avalanche, described it as “built on a small plateau barricaded on one side by a huge vertical wall… there was a helipad, a collection of stone huts, fuel tanks and a bunker”. Gyari was the battalion headquarters located at the base of the Bilafond glacier leading up to the Bilafond-La pass west of the Siachen Glacier. She interviewed the young officers, one of whom told her “We are fighting in the cause of Allah and if we die, we will be martyred… We are not the aggressors. They have come into our territory”. Pakistan accuses India of sneaking into the barren Siachen Glacier in 1984, while the Indians insist that the posts they have gained over two decades of war should be recognised.
Shortly after the avalanche, several foreign teams flew in to help out but their equipment proved to be useless in the slush, snow and rocks of the Siachen avalanche. The Norwegian rescue team, that had plenty of experience of searching for survivors of avalanches, also flew in shortly after the incident to help with the rescue efforts, but they warned the Pakistan Army to just let the bodies remain buried under the ice since it would not be advisable to melt the heavy packed snow due to environmental concerns.
However, the army chose to continue with the search operation at Gyari despite the harsh April weather. Ground penetrating radar teams identified points for further digging and heavy equipment was brought in by road. The Chief of the Army Staff, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who visited the area along with journalists, insisted that the operation would continue until each one of the bodies was found.“The minimum we can do is recover the bodies,” said General Kayani, on his third visit after the disaster. On a previous visit, he had said: “If we need to dig out this mountain, we will do so to get the bodies”.
Excavation by a team of over 300 soldiers and engineers continued around the clock with dozers and dumpers and finally a month after the incident some bodies were found. The operation went on and by November 25th 2012, a total of 121 bodies had been recovered. Then freezing winter weather set in and the operation had to be put on hold. By the end of April, the snows start melting in this mountainous region and the Pakistan Army says the search operation will restart as soon as the weather permits.The Pakistan Army spent all summer trying to recover those bodies by drilling, excavating and melting the ice with chemicals. A large lake was created by the rescue efforts (and the earlier avalanche which had blocked the river) and the army had to drain its water to protect the site from being inundated. According to the army’s ISPR (Inter Services Public Relations) statement, “efforts were undertaken to tackle the effects of water on the site in the shape of pondages, cutting and crevasses. The water has started draining and has resulted in the quick reduction of the water level in the lake to the tune of 27 feet”.
The construction has disturbed the area so much that it is no longer safe for habitation and it is probably quite risky for the soldiers and engineers to continue excavating the site in the coming months. The army might be proud of its tradition of not leaving a man behind regardless of the cost, but a year after the tragedy it does not make any sense for the operation to go on.
Calls have been made by former soldiers (who have served in Siachen) to let the martyred soldiers stay on in Siachen. Perhaps a memorial could be made instead at Gyari to honour those who died. Drilling and digging further into the area, which is surrounded by glaciers, is not only dangerous, but it is clearly taking a heavy toll on the landscape. Already, environmental experts are saying that heavy military presence is speeding up the melting of the massive Siachen Glacier, which is the longest glacier in the Karakoram Mountains and the second-longest in the world's non-polar areas. This could have far reaching consequences on the local climate of the region.
According to Pakistani water expert Arshad Abbasi, the Siachen Glaicer is not melting because of climate change, but because of the military conflict on the glacier. In his view, “The reports with legitimate data confirm that Siachen is melting simply because of army presence. Whosoever claims it is because of global warming, let them conduct an independent audit by a panel of creditable glaciologists for the International Court of Justice so that the responsibility of the 32 years-long adventure can be fixed, which has caused colossal human, financial and environmental loss. Civil societies of both the countries, and world community at large, ought to take this case to demilitarise the third polar cap of the planet”.
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