The places where moments reside

Heroes: The winter warriors of Kargill

From 20,000 ft it is as if God has taken a giant white sheet and draped the world. 

Like a howling bird the army's four-seater Cheetah screeches across the sky, past Tololing, Sando and Point 5140 says quickly, "The enemy can sight us but cannot shoot us. We are beyond his striking range." 

Then swerving behind Tiger Hill, the rotors groaning as the chopper grumbles to a stop on a narrow, icy plateau marked "H" with sandbags. "Welcome to Gurkha Top," says Captain Vichar Mago, the company commander, and it's hard to tell if he's kidding. It's -30 degrees Celsius (it gets worse) and the cold is like a physical assault. 
Soldiers emerge in their heavy winter fatigues, like astronauts walking on a white moon. Their eyes flash with eagerness and it's easy to understand why. It's been 17 days since the helicopter came here, too long without a letter, their only lifeline to sanity. Faces fall, there is no mail.

Steaming tea emerges from the kitchen. In the few yards it travels to us it is freezing. The reflected sun is blinding, the wind screams, and we step on to meet the soldiers holding the top - a steep 100-m climb. The path is dotted with steel markers, and a nylon rope snaking up the incline serves as a sort of undulating banister - hold on or roll to your death. Every step is like a leap of faith, the lungs pleading for oxygen that isn't there. "Match your steps with your breath," advises Captain Mago between gasps. 
Half an hour later we're at the fighting bunker, a 6-ft by 6-ft structure roofed by steel plates and walled by sand bags. Outside, they tell us, some days the winds come purring at a velocity that can blow a soldier off the hill. 

And some days he tilts and sways but keeps standing there because just there across the hill stand Pakistani soldiers. How close? Make that shouting distance. When Bandeep starts clicking, the Pakistani soldiers audibly bellow, "बहुत फोटो खिंचवा रहे हो आज?"

Inside, the bunker is stocked with tins, chocolate, ghee, meat. A stove burns, the fumes clogging the senses, the soot blackening their pristine white clothes. No one cares, for as sepoy Dharminder Singh says wryly, "Only two things never stop here - the stoves and our heartbeats." Soldiers lie body to body, their faces burnt, cold, unshaven, exhausted, their youth ebbing away in the firelight.

It is harder too for the Indian soldier - he must man peaks between 12,000 ft and 18,000 ft, his Pakistani counterpart from 11,000 ft to 16,000 ft. It is like waging war in the Arctic, and to keep men's sanity intact, their stomachs full, their rifles loaded, required one of history's greatest logistical enterprises. In a hundred days before snowfall closed the land route to the Ladakh region, winter stocking for 212 days (November 1 to May 31) had to be completed and permanent defences constructed. 

A load of roughly 2 lakh tonnes - 10 times more than previous year - required more than 3,500 sorties by MI-17 and Cheetah helicopters. The mere construction of one fibreglass bunker on a forward post, 73 parts in all, demands 11 helicopter sorties. It is an expense so great that soldiers joke that one chapatti, flown out to them, costs Rs 40. 

But it's not the warfare that creases every officer's forehead with worry - it's the cold. "Winter management is our biggest worry," says Major-General Mohinder Puri, GOC, 8 Mountain Division, and so morning strategy sessions in his sand-and-stone war rooms deal more with cut-off posts and casualty evacuations. As a field commander at 56 Brigade in Drass puts it, "This winter we're like a newly married woman not knowing what she is in for."

He knows, you can't plan for an avalanche. 

It is why the old man cries. Tsering Norbou was a soldier once, so death comes as no surprise to him. But today it has. By his side, another soldier, Lance Naik Chhewang Spalgias, father of three children, lies coffined in an incense-filled room of his house, awaiting a local monk's customary permission for a funeral. It is his son. 
Outside, as the sun dips, the flames from another soldier's pyre light up the evening. We are standing at the sleepy, snow-bound village of Ney, 55 km from Leh, mourning two of its soldier - sons who were among five Ladakh Scouts felled on patrol. Not by an enemy bullet but by an avalanche. Softly Tsering says, "He won the war but lost to nature." 

Kargil's steep gradient and loose rocky surface makes it prime avalanche territory, and despite insufficient data already 100 avalanche-prone areas have been identified. So fragile are these mountains of soft snow that anything can trigger chaos. Just the echo of a patrol's footsteps. 
Or the sound of soldiers clearing a path. A week earlier at Shivling Post, as Naik Kamal Kishore's patrol of five beat the snow, as it is called, a 200-m wall of snow crumbled. "It came on us like a white monster. I was able to keep my head out and that saved me," he recollects. Desperate he shovelled bare-handed for hours, the frostbite on his fingers worth the two men he saved. 
Not everyone was so lucky. An avalanche rescue dog, Heera, of 18 Army Dog Unit, specially air flown to the site, searched frantically for Sepoy Kishan Ram. All it found was his goggles. When the snow melts in June they will look again. 

Everywhere it seems nature is collecting its dues, reminding men this is not a place for war. For soldiers HAPO (High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema) is a four-letter word, when an acute scarcity of oxygen triggers biochemical changes resulting in accumulation of fluid in the lungs. 
Often it arrives at night, when forward bases are cut off by snow, and choppers can't land and it takes six hours to bring a patient to a helipad. 
Most posts have HAPO bags that artificially lower the altitude, otherwise through the crackle of radio a field hospital doctor conducts therapy through the air waves. "So far, touch wood, the winter-related casualties have been highly manageable," says Major-General Puri. He is right. Yet, however often soldiers get checked and re-checked medically for high-altitude deployment, Darwin's law comes back to haunt them. 

Only the fittest - or the lucky - survive. On December 28, 21-year-old Dalip Singh Sawant, a soldier back at his post in Mushkoh after six days of acclimatisation, complained of fever and breathlessness. Before evacuation could begin, he was gone. Somewhere a young woman, who was readying to marry him, is crying. 
This is a land of no respite, a terrain that is forever challenging. The wind, the cold, is not sporadic, an irritant, it is unrelenting, a nightmare without end, an unwanted companion that refuses to leave. Nature's call in the morning is a public affair, four men hanging on to ropes, one the anchor, one the navigator, holding pots of boiling water. Except, says Major Kamlesh Shinde at Sando Post, "By the time you reach the toilet, the hot water turns into damn ice."

It is an existence that flirts with the abnormal. Shaving cream and tooth paste refuse to squeeze out unless put into boiling water. Eggs turn like golf balls, oranges have to be boiled, juice tetrapacks solidify into stony cubes, fresh vegetables are a luxury and wine bottles get uncorked due to cold. 

"We have to use a khukhri to cut salad," says a Naga soldier in Mashkoh. Chocolate, essential foodstuff, turn to steel and are softened over a stove. Soldiers from the rural areas hate them. Kid stuff they say, but officers tell them, "Hey Johnnies eat it, you're getting an officer's ration." Desperation breeds invention, something to break the monotony. When artillery soldiers at Drass threw a dinner party, the menu read like this: Tiger Hill Soup, Tololing Chicken, Mashkoh Dal, Sando Chapattis and Gun Hill Delight. 

There are no good days here. Even when the sun shines and soldiers strap on their 16-piece winter gear - "As tedious as getting dressed for a wedding," jokes a young captain - frostbite lurks close by. Every day they shovel snow, clear helipads, send out surveillance patrols, for as Colonel S.V.E. David of 56 Brigade says, "We are protecting the LoC in totality. Nothing is being left to chance." 
But only listening to the ragged breath of a superbly fit soldier, to almost hear his lungs plead for oxygen, is to understand the physical dimension of the simplest of tasks . "The rate of advance is measured by the weakest man in patrol."

On the other hand, this is an officer who has told his commanding officer that he'll only go on leave if he's assigned back to the same post!. A
 soldier at a forward post could not make it to his marriage as the chopper sent to ferry him failed to land near his post. The marriage was solemnised with his photograph.

So some men turn to religion - at Chorbat La, Sikh soldiers built an underground gurdwara using ski boards and jerry cans - while others make do with a laugh. A young newly married major holding 43 Post, bang on the LoC, called up his wife, saying, "Darling, you won't believe it but I'm ogling at Nargis, Reshma and Benazir." T
hey are the names the Pakistani heights are known by. 

A young soldier's steeliness can't hide the psychological trauma . At night soldiers say rocks look like approaching troops, others see ghosts of men who died in the war treading their bunkers. Army doctors are besieged with by men with fears of impotence. And then a major in Batalik, rooted to his reality, says, "The more isolated you are, the more alert you have to be."

It means keeping soldiers occupied, even entertained, is essential. Each battalion is provided 10 dish antennas and every word in a newspaper is scrutinised. Says a JCO, grinning: "Even the tenders get read." 

Kargill – the name now permanently etched in the memory. This post although 19 years old, published by India Today in 2000 , 6 months after the Kargill war is recreated by Memories to show instances of the same grit and determination our soldiers show 24x7 to be up there and what they go through everyday. 

Memories salutes all those soldiers up there, for us.
Heroes: The winter warriors of Kargill Heroes: The winter warriors of Kargill Reviewed by Shwetabh on 9:32:00 AM Rating: 5

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