In the line of fire

Published : Jun 05, 1999 00:00 IST

An exclusive account from the combat zone, where India's grim war to regain the heights occupied by Pakistani irregulars and troops seems certain to continue for a long time.

PLUMES of smoke marked the spots where Indian artillery shells were exploding on the snow-capped summit of Tololing, the spectacular 5,140-metre mountain that dominates the Drass skyline. The artillery fire had turned the snow to a scarred dull grey colo ur. Just beyond the ridge-line were improvised bunkers built by some 70 Pakistani irregulars and troops. From their commanding heights, the group had succeeded in pinning down Indian soldiers who were lower down the face of the mountain. Dozens of artill ery shells, designed to devastate the bunkers and shower shrapnel from the air, went off all afternoon, as soldiers waited to launch their final assault.

India's grim war to regain the heights occupied by Pakistani irregulars and troops is being waged along some 200 km of the Srinagar-Leh National Highway from the Mushkoh Valley west of Kargil to Chorbat La and Turtok to its east. Several thousand village rs living in areas around Kargil and Drass have fled to safer areas and continue to face immense hardships.

In Drass, buildings that were destroyed in Pakistani artillery fire.

Notwithstanding the air strikes on the positions occupied by the Pakistani irregulars and troops, which began on May 26, the battle seems certain to continue for several weeks, if not months. This Frontline correspondent, the first representative of a media organisation to reach the combat zone, spent four days travelling through the area before other journalists were allowed in by the Indian Army.

DRASS itself resembled nothing so much as a Hollywood war-movie set. When Indian artillery positions opened fire on the positions held by Pakistani irregulars in Tololing and its surrounding ranges, Pakistani guns sought to silence them. They, however, f ailed, mostly hitting the largely Sunni Muslim town. The town's shops and post office were destroyed in the first phase of shelling that began on May 14. Drass' hospital received a direct hit that blew apart its maternity ward, medical stock room and adm inistrative offices. A newly erected mortuary too was hit. Ironically, there were no casualties since the patients had fled to the hills when the first shells began landing.

Nearby villages were also badly damaged. Three houses in Bayras village were completely destroyed, prompting all the 100 families of the village to move away. In Ranbirpora, at least seven homes received direct hits.

This is the beginning of the short summer season in Drass, the second coldest place in the world, where winter temperatures can drop to as low as 60C below zero. "If we don't water our fields now," said schoolteacher Nisar Ahmad, "there will be no food to last us through the winter. Then we will die anyway." Others returned to collect what remained of their possessions or to tend to their cattle. A local shopkeeper, Mohammad Yusuf, opened his shop for a few hours to gather what custom he could from th is thin trickle of visitors.

Some stayed on stoically, having decided to brave the artillery duels. Ghulam Nabi, who fought in the 1971 war, said: "This is the worst shelling I have ever seen, but I have nowhere to run. This is my home." Others too were standing by their posts. Hosp ital worker Mohammad Yusuf was using the local ambulance to drive Drass residents who came in during the day back to their homes. "I am a government servant," he said, "and this is my job." The shelling brought out a bizarre nostalgia in some people. "Th e last time Drass saw a war," recalled 70-year-old Abdul Ghafoor, "was in 1947. There was no shelling then. We saw aeroplanes bombing the heights, but they never came near the town, which was then just a village. I remember it well, for it was the first time I saw an aeroplane."

UNLIKE Drass, Kargil town has suffered little physical damage. In 1998, Pakistani shelling destroyed several buildings and claimed 17 lives. Village homes in Baru and above Kargil have been hit, but casualties have been minimal. Liaqat Ali, 24, was kille d when a Pakistani shell burst above the field he was working in. There are, however, other less dramatic problems. Food supplies, exhausted through the winter, are running low. Little other than rice and watery dal is available, and even the black marke t for vegetables offers little other than beetroot leaves. The Army has sought to keep the road from Srinagar exclusively for military use, and only 10 truckloads of food supplies for civilians have been despatched since the fighting broke out.

There is some semblance of normalcy in Kargil during the day. Some shops remain open, selling cigarettes, tea and instant noodles to the small number of people stuck in the town. At the Saichen Hotel, which is home for the night to travellers on the Leh- Srinagar highway, Lala Ram Chand, a cloth trader from Amritsar, was waiting patiently for the road to open. Improbably, an ice-cream factory is up and running, churning out kilos of luridly coloured bars. Most families have, however, left for the relativ e safety of nearby villages, taking their belongings with them. Some labourers have found work hauling supplies up the mountains for the Army, a task for which they charge twice the normal daily wage.

THE soldiers, however, get paid nothing for war, and many of them appear to be bitter about the failure of Indians elsewhere to acknowledge the sacrifices they are making. "I know no one invited me to wear this uniform," one young officer said, "but it i s strange going back home to people who have no idea of what is going on here." At least 34 soldiers have died so far in the fighting, and 14 are missing. All but five of the 14 are presumed dead, perhaps shot on their way up the formidable Kargil mounta ins in near-impossible missions to storm Pakistan-occupied positions. Well over 100 soldiers have been injured, a quarter of them seriously. These casualty figures are the highest since the Indian Army's ill-fated intervention in Sri Lanka.

Indian troops in the Kargil sector.

13,620 is a place without a name, known only by the altitude (in feet) of the mountain on which it is perched. It dominates Kargil town and is the key to its safety from Pakistani guns. Artillery observers can, from their picket on 13,620, watch deep int o Pakistan, helping their distant detachments zero in on targets, including Pakistan's forward headquarters at Olthangthing. Indian troops captured 13,620 in the 1965 war, but it was returned to Pakistan after the Tashkent Accord. In 1971, Indian troops recaptured 13,620 after two MiG-21 jets bombed Pakistani troops on the mountain.

Soldiers posted on 13,620 have a dangerous job. Since the time the fighting broke out around Kargil, they have been under almost continuous fire from artillery and small arms. On one occasion, rockets landed just a few metres away from the earth bunkers that make up the post. Much of the troops' time is spent huddled inside the earth bunkers in freezing cold, venturing out in turns to keep watch on Pakistani pickets lower down the ridge. There is always the threat that a Pakistani artillery shell will b urst above the post. Such a hit would kill or maim the soldiers there. Moving supplies up the mountain face to 13,620 is particularly dangerous since parts of the steep climb are clearly visible to Pakistani soldiers.

Down the mountain face from 13,620 lie several Indian artillery positions hidden behind ridge-lines to protect them from enemy fire. Positions such as these appear every few kilometres from Gumri to Batalik, letting loose thunderclaps through the valleys with metronome regularity. At one position, 105-millimetre Indian field guns were going off without a break, firing up to 50 rounds in a row until their barrels turned red hot and had to be left to cool. Their targets were Pakistani guns around Olthangt hing that were firing to suppress Indian guns aimed at the positions occupied by Pakistani irregulars and troops. Artillery warfare in the Himalayas is a strange business. High-altitude winds, poor visibility and constantly changing atmospheric condition s reduce accuracy to a third of what it would be on the plains. Volumes make up for lack of precision.

Life in the bunkers.

MANY of the soldiers at Kargil have been on the front lines since 1997, since when the town has been under almost uninterrupted shelling. "I missed my own wedding three times," says artillery officer Captain Ranjit Singh. "I am still amazed that my wife didn't call the whole thing off." Soldiers at Ranjit Singh's artillery post spend much of their time huddled in dingy bunkers, living off the minimum rations that make their way up a brutal dirt track to reach their post. They, like the soldiers fighting on the mountainsides, have no chance to bathe for weeks on end. The soldiers cannot see where their shells land, but can hear Pakistani shells screaming overhead and slamming into the Kargil valley below.

Kargil has seen its ammunition dump and fuel depot reduced to rubble in this summer's exchanges. The dump was hit early in the firing, sending both the town and the 121 Brigade's headquarters scurrying into bunkers for days as shells whizzed around. Posi tions around the airstrip that is under construction and the television station have been under particularly heavy fire. Superintendent of Police Deepak Kumar's home, and that of his neighbour, the District Collector, too were shelled. On May 23, an Army vehicle repair workshop received a direct hit which set it ablaze. This shelling claimed no casualties. Six soldiers were injured a day earlier, two of them maimed for life, when a shell landed just 200 metres from where the Frontline team was.

Indian Army positions in Drass, by contrast, suffered relatively little damage. The 56 Brigade Headquarters, erected after the unit was pushed in from the Kashmir Valley to cope with the crisis, was under constant bombardment. On the night of May 23, the Brigade Headquarters' mess and an improvised temple were burned down. The ruins were still smouldering on the morning of May 24 when Frontline photographed them. There were no casualties since troops and strategic operations centres were ensconce d in bunkers some distance away. "This is what a war is all about," said Commanding Officer Amar Aul. "Perhaps the only consolation is that we know we are giving considerably better than we are getting."

In Kargil town, shops have remained closed since the shelling began.

That, however, is not enough for many junior officers. "I lost four boys on a mountain in Batalik," said one young major. "Their bodies are still on the snow. Every time we try to get them down, the Pakistanis start firing from their bunkers up the mount ains." Several officers whom Frontline spoke to bitterly described the frustrations of fighting a war where the enemy may not be attacked. "It is one thing to die in a real war," one captain said. "But this is not a real war. Pakistan has invaded us, but we cannot retaliate in the same way. Our men are being slaughtered to get back what is ours in the first place. I can't stop thinking that perhaps we will have to do this again next year, and the next."

Colonel Ajit Nair, 121 Brigade Deputy Commander perhaps understands the sentiment. In the autumn of 1988, he was posted in the same brigade as a junior officer. Kargil was then a coveted posting, free from the simmering tensions of the Kashmir Valley and shielded from the bloodbath on the Siachen Glacier. On August 22 that year, Ajit Nair led a patrol to remove mines from the makeshift road to Daru Lang, one of the last Indian positions won in 1971 on the Line of Control. Once they reached the Daru Lang heights on September 8, they found a Pakistani picket there. Attempts to conduct a dialogue broke down when the Pakistani soldiers opened fire with small arms a week later. Ajit Nair's party withdrew and called for support.

With brief pauses akin to advertisement breaks during a cricket match, the war on Kargil's heights has continued ever since. This summer, it has finally reached a climax that India can no longer afford to ignore.

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