The ink-stained veil of night lifts slowly as the car makes its way through silent streets towards the airport. It is not yet dawn, I have slept only a few hours between one journey and the next, and my heart races with anticipation as I watch the sun rise over the Margallah range on a late summer morning.
Having taken this flight from Islamabad to Skardu many times over 25 years, I have learnt to look for clouds lining the top of the Margallah mountains – if pilots can find a window in those clouds, the plane would wind its way amongst the world’s highest peaks and land safely in the high altitude desert-valley of Baltistan’s administrative headquarters, Skardu.
I peer through the window at the clouds and wonder whether I will be lucky today. Then I shut my eyes tight and say a prayer under my breath, for a safe journey, one which shall take me to the end of the earth, the top of the world, to the place of wild roses: Siachen, the world’s highest battlefield, a place where roses grow only in the fertile soil of one’s imagination.
It is still early when the flight lands in Skardu, the plane gently setting itself down like a large bird of prey descending upon a startled animal. In the air I can sense the coming of winter.
The light throws gentle shadows upon the sand dunes in this high altitude desert landscape, cradled by mountains which appear to be sleeping behemoths, their massive presence awe-inspiring yet reassuring, as if someone was watching over you.
I am met in the arrivals lounge by Major Shumaila, PRO to the Headquarters of the FCNA stationed at Gilgit. Major Shumaila is the first woman officer in the Pakistan Army from Gilgit-Baltistan and has travelled to Skardu from Gilgit to meet me.
Comfortably ensconced in my room I unpack and prepare for the journey to the north-east ranges, as close as possible to the Line of Control which has sparked so many conflicts in the past 68 years of our existence. I study the maps I have printed out, looking for the places where I expect to land in this rugged, inhospitable terrain.
These are just tiny dots in the huge mass of rock and snow and ice, reminders of our own insignificance in the natural order of things. I shudder to think of what life for our troops must be like in temperatures which fall below minus 40 degrees Celsius, even lower with the wind chill factor.
I have placed my fur-lined boots and ancient woolen duffle coat with its hood at the foot of my bed, taking care to remember my leather gloves and beret. I know it shall be infinitely colder where I am going, and I say a silent prayer for a safe journey, and another one for the safety of the people I have come to greet, to talk to, to learn from, to write about.
It is not every day that one gets the opportunity to travel to bases where the snow never melts, where the skin is burnt black by the sun, where the mere touch of bare metal against bare skin can tear the flesh.
It is not every day that one meets the men who have lived and fought at the world’s highest battlefield, one which apparently has no strategic value but which has claimed the lives of 3,000 Pakistani and 5,000 Indian army men since 1984.
The Siachen glacier is the great Himalayan watershed that demarcates central Asia from the Indian sub-continent, and that separates Pakistan from China in this region.
The largest non-polar glacier, Siachen is also referred to as the third pole, stretching to a length of 70 km long and flowing from an altitude of 5750 meters to 3620 meters above sea level. Lying in the eastern Karakoram Range, just east of the Saltoro ridge line, Siachen’s ownership is at the root of a conflict which costs Pakistan and India billions of rupees a month to fuel.
The absence of a boundary line beyond the “dead end” of the Line of Control occurring at NJ9842 has led to the existence of a contested space in an area where no humans have ever lived, or would wish to live, or could live for protracted periods of time even if they wanted to.
Described as a disagreement between two bald men fighting over a comb, this war is more about national egos rather than national interests.
Was it not time to revisit this battlefield and question the value of this war where lives have been lost purely due to the extreme weather, where ecological changes could be leading to disaster in both countries, one worse than what either country’s foreign policy envisions?
In 1949 the “Karachi Agreement” and the 1972 “Simla Agreement” presumed that it was not feasible for human habitation to survive north of NJ9842. Prior to 1984 neither India nor Pakistan had any permanent presence in the area.
The conflict began in 1984 with India launching Operation Meghdoot during which it wrested control of the Siachen Glacier from Pakistan and forced the Pakistanis to retreat west of the Saltoro Ridge.
India has established control over all of the 70 kilometres (43 mi) long Siachen Glacier and all of its tributary glaciers, as well as the three main passes of the Saltoro Ridge immediately west of the glacier—Sia La, Bilafond La, and Gyong La. Pakistan controls the glacial valleys immediately west of the Saltoro Ridge.
According to one source, India gained more than 1000 square miles of territory because of its military operations in Siachen, the source for the 80km-long Nubra River, a tributary of the Shyok, which is part of the Indus River system.
The volume of the glacier has been reduced by 35 percent over the last twenty years. Global warming and military activity have been cited as the main reasons for the receding of the glacier.
On the map the feet of the mountains are like the claws of gigantic creatures reaching out to devour whatever they can overpower.
The ridges and crags are the bones of these claws, the many rivulets and tributaries flowing down from melting glaciers are the veins and arteries of this creature which lives in the far north, watching us, waiting to destroy all those who dare to venture forth into its frozen lap.
At Keris the Shyok River flows into the Indus, a grand meeting of glacial waters rushing down from the barren slopes of the Karakoram.
The road turns south towards Khaplu, and the helicopter flies over the hamlets of Ghawari, Kharfaq, Daghoni Balgar and Barah until we sight Khaplu, a picturesque town nestled in the lap of the mountains, an oasis of stately poplars, their leaves turning gold with autumn’s first chill. But we continue towards another range of these magnificent mountains, the Saltoro, following the Saltoro and Ghyari rivers, flying over the town of Farowa and the hamlets of Dunsam, Konith, Mandik, Palit and Haldi.
Cautiously, the helicopter begins to set itself down onto the helipad at the Battalion Headquarters of the 14 NLI (Northern Light Infantry) based at Goma and commanded by Lt. Colonel Ali who has accompanied us in another chopper.
This is just a brief stop before our onward journey to Gyari Sector. I look out towards the base and wonder at the courage it takes to live in an area which appears to have been hewn out of rock, literally.
Many of the men serving with the Northern Light Infantry are from Gilgit Baltistan, and would be familiar with living at altitudes unbearable for most of us living in the south. But even these hardy mountain men cannot endure for prolonged periods of time the harsh temperatures at the further posts towards which we are headed.
Since the inception of the Siachen Conflict in 1984, the Pakistan Army has lost 3000 men, while the Indian military has suffered 5000 casualties, not in battle, but due to the severe winter.
Apart from the human cost, the Pakistan Army spends vast sums per day to keep these men at these posts, while the Indian army reportedly spends twice, in some places ten times this amount.
Tons of food items, medicines, fuel and more are transported by road and then by horse or donkeys and mules, eventually being carried on the backs of porters who bind 70 kilograms of goods to their backs and climb to the furthest posts at altitudes of 21,000 feet where every breath is more precious than the blood which flows in their veins.
We have taken off again and as we gain altitude I see the little lake formed by a glacial stream flowing past the base at Goma. Two ducks swim in the turquoise water, another one dives in to feed on fish, as if all was well on earth and God was in Heaven.
This image stays with me as we proceed to the site of the tragedy of 2012 at Gyari where 140 men, troops, officers and civilians serving in support capacities, perished, buried alive by the massive avalanche which destroyed the base camp of 6 NLI.
My heart is still as we descend, its rhythm beating almost inaudibly in my ears as I imagine the last moments of the martyred in this imposing landscape of unforgiving austerity.
Colonel Ali accompanies us to the site where Major Zeerak presents us a detailed brief on the tragedy which occurred on the night of April 6 and 7th, 2012, at 2:30 am, when all men at the base were fast asleep.
Suddenly, with no warning, huge rocks and tons of snow and ice swept down from the mountain at a distance of 4.2 kilometers and covered the base with 40 million cubic meters of glacial mass in an instant. The average depth of the debris which buried the camp was between 40-60 meters.
All men, 124 of them soldiers, three officers, and six civilians, embraced martyrdom within moments; no one had a chance in the face of nature’s colossal power.
Rescue operations started the same day.
The Pakistan Army was assisted by German, Swiss, Norwegian, American and British teams of experts. Earth-moving and other heavy equipment was quickly moved up to the site of the avalanche and rescue efforts were immediately put into effect.
However, the dense and deep layer of glacial debris hindered all efforts, and despite the commitment and untiring diligence of the rescue workers, it took forty-three days to cut through the debris and hit the ground of the Gyari base. On the forty-ninth day the remains of a shaheed were found, and on the fifty-first day 140 men were declared martyred.
Major Zeerak stood behind a dais alongside which stood a large board with photographs of the base as it had been. I could see several jeeps in that photograph, men standing alongside the vehicles, some small stone huts, and a larger one in the foreground.
Now, as we sat on what appeared to be a platform made out of stone and earth, built at the site of the officer’s living quarters, I could see only the remains of that unprecedented natural disaster.
Nothing remained of the base; wooden markers and flags marked the places where men spent their time while serving at Gyari, two numbers on each wooden slat signifying the number of bodies recovered and those still missing.
I said a prayer in my heart for all these men and their families as tears welled up in my eyes, imagining what it must have been like for loved ones to receive news of this catastrophe. I had met several widows of these men serving with 6 NLI, I had embraced them as they had sobbed, reliving the profound shock of their loss, and I had wiped their tears, kissing their cheeks and those of their children.
As I stood and looked out a massive boulder measuring 120 by 80 feet, brought down by the massive avalanche, I said a prayer for those who had been a part of the rescue and search operation, able men who devoted night and day to seeking out signs of life from what now appeared to be nothing but a graveyard of rocks and sand.
A flag of our country had been placed on top of the boulder; green and white fluttered in the breeze, and I strained to hear the sound of birds, any sign of life, any sign that living things can survive despite the terrible things that lurk in the folds of the mountains which stand before us like sentinels in a desolate landscape.
We sat facing the glacier which seemed to be watching us with eyes hooded beneath dangerous crevices. The surface of this massive formation of ice, rock and moraine was grey, mottled here and there with streaks of melted snow frozen into icy walls.
For eighteen long months the search and rescue teams continued to fight the elements, the harsh winter, and all odds. Using 53 pieces of equipment and 56 tons of explosives, the teams drilled 113,275 bore holes and executed over 3000 blasts in order to remove the debris and search for the remains of the martyrs.
During this period the flooding of the Gyari river made the operation even more difficult, and engineers had to work towards diverting the course of the river in order to complete the task at hand. Digging through the hard granite required immense effort, which was constantly thwarted with landslides and shifting substratum soil which also led to the drifting of the bodies buried beneath the massive mountain of rubble.
That this tragedy occurred in April is significant: with increasing temperatures, the snow and ice on the glaciers begins to melt, causing these large moving masses to shift their weight, dislodging the many rocks and earth that form the base of the glaciers.
Colonel Ali points to the mountain behind us and gives a sense of the height of the debris heaved onto the base by the movement of the glacial mass. I look towards the dark streaks staining the rock where rivulets had formed from melting snow, and wonder at the wrath that was evoked by these forces of nature which we have tried to tame over millennia.
It is to the credit of the then Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani who, arriving at the site of the tragedy immediately, called for the resolution of the Siachen Conflict, citing Siachen as a difficult front for both the countries, calling for a bi-lateral troop pull-out from the area.
General Kayani had said we should spend less on defense and more on the well-being of the people and development. He felt that the country would be more secure and stronger if development was taking place and the people were looked after.
“The focus should be on the welfare of the people and every country should do this,” he had said.
These significant words were an echo of the statement made by India’s former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who said on June 12, 2005.
“How long shall we allow such conditions to prevail? Now the time has come for us to make efforts to convert this battlefield into a peace mountain.”
Indeed, it was time to convert conflict into scientific investigation and endeavor on the part of both countries, before it was too late for the over one billion people living in the subcontinent, vulnerable to hunger, poverty, disease, and the latest scourge: climate change.
It is time to leave Gyari, but not before we offer fatehah at the beautiful memorial built to the martyrs of Gyari. I stand alongside Colonel Ali, Major Zeerak and Major Shumaila and we fold our hands in prayer, remembering that we are but mortal, that the breath we inhale may be the last one, that the air we breathe may bring with it terrible tragedies as we fight on many fronts in our conflict-ridden world.
As I walk around the memorial, I hold my breath as I read the words of Lieutenant Colonel Tanweer’s daughter Mariam who wrote a poem to her martyred father:
Jab barf se uthhtey jaen ge
Hum jaldi laut kar aenge…
(When we rise from the snow
We shall soon return)
Sunlight falls on the slopes of the mountains and blinds one with a dazzling glare. It is not possible to keep ones eyes unprotected here, at this altitude with the slopes permanently covered with snow and ice.
We have arrived at Ibrahim Sector at an altitude of 19,000 feet above sea level. High up on a crag two blue tents are perched on a narrow ledge, yet another post, another thousand feet higher than where we have landed.
Colonel Faisal has instructed me to fill my lungs with oxygen from a cylinder provided in the helicopter even before we land in the soft snow of the Hasrat glacier lying in the folds of the Saltoro Ridge.
The Saltoro Ridge originates from the Sia Kangri in the Karakoram Ridge and the altitudes range from 5450 to 7720 meters (17,880 to 25,300 feet.) We have entered the land of glaciers and crevices by flying over the Gyong La at 5689 meters (18,665 feet).
Below us are huge tracts of moving masses of ice and snow and rock, glaciers which feed the rivers which, in turn, feed our crops and feed humanity.
The glaciers are like massive brush strokes painted by a giant who commands this land of mountains. No one lives here, except for the legendary Paris and their consorts, the Deo of ancient, mythological times.
We have come to visit the thirteen men serving at Ibrahim Post, commanded by Captain Rao Mukaram Hayat, a young officer from Bahawalpur.
As Colonel Faisal sets the chopper down I see three large dogs playing in the snow – I am fascinated by this sight: two golden haired dogs and a darker one, frolicking in the snow as if that was their playground. These must be sniffer dogs trained to seek out men fallen into crevices or buried beneath the snow. I was to later meet their canine colleagues at the Goma headquarters where fourteen of the finest German Shepherds were being trained for the same purpose.
I alight from the chopper cautiously, mindful that the snow is several feet deep and that crevices lie hidden all around us. From the chopper I had seen two men in snowsuits, guns held at the ready, standing at the edge of what appeared to be a ridge or a crevice.
What had startled me was the rope that tied them together, a precaution taken when guarding the treacherous terrain which serves as home for these brave men. If one of them took a false step and fell into a crevice, the other one would be in a position to seek him out, and to rescue him. It was an arrangement that tied both men to the mutual interest of survival.
Perhaps all of us should have that rope connecting us so that when one of us falls, the other can pull us up – is that the way to save humanity from destroying itself, by building such connections, visible and otherwise?
I am careful with my breathing, concerned that I could collapse by hyperventilating, or that the lack of oxygen in my lungs could cause memory loss. Aware of the risk I had taken with an ailing heart, I calmed my breathing to a slow, deliberate rhythm, measuring each step as if it was a question of life and death.
Indeed, living at this altitude has led to serious illnesses, to amputations due to frost-bite, to burns which eat the flesh, to heart attacks which claim the lives of the young. I had to take this trip in order to understand the peril faced by each of these men and their colleagues posted further up the ridge.
I had to meet these brave men, soldiers and officers, cooks and porters, men who lived in an inhuman environment, whose families received an odd call once in a while informing them of the welfare or otherwise of their loved one.
Captain Rao leads Major Shumaila and I up the slope to where the men await us. All of them are in white snowsuits, their boots protecting their feet from frost bite and goggles protecting their eyes from snow blindness.
Major Shumaila wears the parka provided for her, and I am pleased to see that she has worn the extra pair of boots I had carried, “just in case.” I make my way through the snow laboriously, praying that I would not pass out and make an utter fool of myself.
I am assisted by Captain Rao and a walking stick, and reach the flat area designated for our tea time break. A table fashioned out of a carton or a trunk and covered with a colorful tablecloth is laden with freshly fried pakoras, samosas and potato chips.
Two bowls contain fresh chutney and raita, and bottles of soft drinks poke their heads through the snow while tea is poured into delicate cups. I have no words to express my awe as I look around myself at these men who have not seen their families or been near anything familiar for several months, and yet have produced a tea fit for a queen.
How do they manage at this altitude to even light a fire?
How long does it take to melt the snow for tea?
How often can they afford to bathe?
What do they eat, and how often do they speak to their families?
What happens when one of them falls ill, or is injured?
Have any of them ever lost the will to survive here, in this wilderness where no man dares to get lost for fear of never being found?
Captain Rao answers my questions patiently: it takes several hours to melt the snow in order to have drinking water, so bathing is out of the question. Food is stored in a special stone hut, carried by porters assisted by mules and donkeys.
Beyond Ibrahim Post only porters can carry the supplies as it is impossible for pack animals to climb further. (across the Line of Control I believe mules are given shots of rum to encourage them to climb impossible heights, deluding them with a sense of false courage).
I meet the porter who had arrived the day before – he is a small man, from Astore, dressed casually in sweat pants, a t-shirt and a jacket open at the chest. Paid between rupees four hundred and one thousand per day, he will climb up to the furthest post at 21,000 feet, seventy kilograms of supplies strapped to his back.
I look at his face, a young man, his skin burnt black, a smile playing on his mouth, and I wonder at the strength packed into his small frame, and the resolve carried in his heart. He doesn’t think much of the work he does – it is all part of his own survival in a world where war costs not only human lives but billions of rupees a year, money which could be spent on the welfare of young men like our porter from Astore.
I finish my tea and walk with Captain Rao up to the slope where the soldiers stand on guard, guns held ready. As we proceed slowly towards the several winterized tents and the storage hut, I am directed to look up at the sky where a white fleck flits in the air.
I am not sure what I am looking at – I had not expected to see birds at this altitude, though there were four ravens flying around the storage hut, I am quite sure, unless I was hallucinating due to the lack of oxygen. Captain Rao tells me it is not a bird we are watching, in fact, we are being watched by a drone flown by the “enemy” across the ridge the moment our chopper must have been spotted.
I think of the futility of this war, of the costs incurred, of the need to constantly be vigilant, to ward of attacks in the middle of the night, to survive the freezing temperatures, to continue to believe in the value of war as a tool to settle conflict. And in my mind I imagine the lives of millions of my fellow citizens who do not have clean water to drink, adequate health care, access to education and justice, or even a nourishing meal twice a day.
Could our warring countries not put these resources and our imagination to better use?
Was there not a need to reconsider the hatred that fuels these conflicts, putting the welfare of our people before “strategic” considerations of the security apparatus?
For what good is the state if the nation is uncared for? If children die for want of nourishment and drinking water and medical aid? If women cannot choose the number of children they want to bear, if men cannot find meaningful employment?
Could the current visit to Siachen of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi lead to an awakening of consciousness and the conscience or will it, as is more likely, in fact deepen the divide and embolden hawks on both sides?
Will Kayani’s olive branch be abandoned on the unforgiving heights.
I talk to the men at Ibrahim Post until it is time to go – many of them are from Punjab and had never seen snow in their lives before coming here. Put through a rigorous process of acclimatization and training in Skardu, Youching and Goma, these men spent an average of 8-10 weeks at these posts, guarding our frontiers which are marked by a tenuous line drawn on a map across a white wasteland.
Once their replacements are ready, they make their way slowly back to the headquarters at Goma where the Combined Military Hospital takes care of any medical needs and where the barber cuts their hair and shaves them, readying them for re-entry into the world.
I have seen that barber shop at Goma HQ – it is like any other salon in our beloved country, complete with barber’s chair and mirror, a collection of after-shave lotions and creams, posters of handsome young men sporting dashing hairstyles, and a vase carrying red plastic roses placed on a shelf with pride.
Just outside the officer’s living quarters at Goma, another profusion of red blooms bursts forth on a bush of wild roses, Sia-chen in Balti, a name give to a place on top of the world, at the end of the earth, that place of absence and longing, a place which has carved a space in my heart where I keep the image of two ducks, three dogs, four ravens and many brave men safe, etched into the velvet of my eyelids, engraved like a soldier’s badge of honor.
The writer is an environmental and anti-war activist. She is the author of “No Space for Further Burials”, based on the American presence in Afghanistan, and is currently working on a third novel titled:
“An Abundance of Wild Roses”
By Ahmed Yusuf
A soldier talks about the struggles that he faced on the world’s highest battlefield
It wasn’t until a young Captain Aamir Raza*embarked on a hike to his post in Siachen for the first time that he realised the number of unknowns that hid in every crack and crevice at the world’s highest battlefield.
“The climb to the post was about three hours, and we were walking in a single file with a d-ring connecting the first man to the last. The incline was 80 degrees or so. We were literally hanging by a rope when the enemy started firing at us. As it is, oxygen supply is difficult at that altitude — and so, we were simultaneously battling three factors to get to our destination: terrain, oxygen and the enemy.”
Now serving as a colonel, Raza is more conscious of Siachen’s matrices of the unknown: “Nothing prepares you for Siachen; the terrain and topography are the greatest unknowns when you reach there. Imagine slipping into crevice, hundreds of feet below the surface. That happens more times than you can imagine, because no one can master Siachen’s terrain.”
It wasn’t as if Raza was not prepared for what was coming; all officers who are sent to Siachen undergo a two-year training to acclimatise them to the harsh climate that awaits them — as conventional wisdom goes, battling weather is the toughest battle of them all. “It is brainwashing of sorts; the training battle-hardens you, it toughens you up, it teaches you to cope and bear, and it makes the human body adapt to everything that is thrown at it.”
But training in a controlled environment is a world apart from what awaits officers in Siachen.
“We had an officer from Lahore, who was returning from his post to the camp. There was an avalanche at the time they were changing, midway between the post and the camp. The officer fell into a crevice and perished.”
Then there are injuries that aren’t even visible.
“In Kargil, there were a number of cases of psychological damage — the enemy dropped napalm, they resorted to heavy shelling, even artillery fire. There were times when you had to brave artillery fire for six to seven hours. It was war. But soldiers are human too, it takes its toll on them when they see their colleagues die before them or when they helplessly stare at their comrades’ bodies getting charred in front of them,” Raza says.
The sombre realities of Siachen are in stark contrast to the “thrill” of serving at the highest battlefield in the world. As a young captain, Raza was still a bachelor when he first went to Siachen. He was posted there for about six months, along with 30 others including two other officers. “I used to tell myself, ‘Not everyone will ever be able to do what I am doing here.’ It gave me immense confidence.”
Call it the exuberance of youth, but a young Captain Raza didn’t care much for dying on the frontlines either — the army, he says, takes care of its martyrs’ families in a way that honours the dead. He was posted near the Line of Actual Contact (LAC), before the Line of Control and the international border with India.
“I remember going to Gilgit first on a bus; it took me 16 hours to reach there. On the way, I was looking at things as if I was looking at them for the last time,” he says. Once he reached the battalion headquarters, he was told that it would take another five days for him to reach his post, via a stopover at the base.
The base is constructed in such a way that it is shielded from enemy, but the hike to the post is all on foot and usually without any help from porters. Once at the post, the harsh ways of life in Siachen became routine. “Whenever there is a blizzard, soldiers catch the snowflakes and store it away in jerry cans. Often you
are in a situation when you can spot an enemy picket through the peephole of a loo, and you are merely sitting there and praying that they don’t start shooting at you while you are still on the makeshift pot.”
As Raza describes, the living conditions are terribly testing: food does not cook properly because the kerosene burners (makeshift stove) never finds much heat, many lose their diets, there isn’t much water — either to drink or to clean yourself with, and a looming fear of an enemy attack is constant.
“Running tap water becomes a sight for sore eyes. Whenever I return to camp, the first thing I do is to turn the tap on again. At the post, we are forced to mix some form of powdered beverage into the water, because in its original shape, the snowflakes that we save are not fit for drinking.”
But for officers serving in Siachen, it becomes imperative to keep any and all fears to themselves. Raza describes this as part of ensuring morale and spirit among the junior cadres or the soldiers: “Trust is based on how officers set examples for those who they are supposed to lead. The rapport between an officer and his subordinates depends on this — at a place where everything is about survival, people will only fight for you if you set the right kind of example.”
Whether they realise it or not, putting up a facade of bravado in the face of war tends to change the core personalities of those defending the borders.
“Sometimes, and specially in times of war, we do insulate ourselves — it becomes difficult to shed a tear or two even at the passing away of a loved one. One does feel things, but then it is all about patience and fortitude.”
*Name changed to protect identity and privacy
The writer tweets @ASYusuf
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 2nd, 2014