The other victims of Kargil

Print edition : July 03, 1999

For the villagers along the line of fire, it is a summer of suffering.

SIX weeks ago, the fields from Drass to Turtok were green with this summer's crop. Now all that remains are acres of parched brown stalks, the only food for the region's untended livestock. Even the few villagers who stayed on to water their fields and tend to their animals despite the unending artillery exchanges across the Line of Control have now left for safer ground. This winter, there will be little food and even less firewood for people in the desperately poor Kargil region. They are the Kargil war's other victims, largely unnoticed by a nation focussed on the military events on the mountain heights.

And this summer's war may not be the only calamity Kargil's people have to contend with. There are growing signs that the war on the mountains could leave right-wing terrorist violence in its wake, ending the peace the region has stubbornly defended through Jammu and Kashmir's decade of bloodshed.

Ghulam Ali, who lives in Drass, should count himself lucky. A government clerk in Kargil town, he has a steady source of income to make ends meet. For the moment, Ali's resources have ensured that he could provide shelter for his brother's family and other relatives who fled Drass when artillery exchanges escalated in May. Each room in his home at Sankhu, a village near Kargil that has become one of the largest centres for refugees from the entire region, houses at least five people. Government rations, though limited, have so far ensured that food is not a problem. Those who have moved in also manage to find occasional work as labourers, hauling supplies up the mountains to the Army's rear positions.

When the winter comes, however, Ali believes his ability to offer such hospitality will run out. Supplies are cut off for months and food, fodder and firewood must be stocked up to last through the bitter winter cold. "I will need my rooms back to house my goats," he says, "and to store supplies for the winter." There simply is not enough money, Ali says bluntly, to feed and shelter both his own family and the refugees. "It sounds terrible," he says, "but if I have to choose between my own children and those of my relatives, I know what my duty will be... Right now, people can even sleep in tents, but god alone knows what they will do when the snows come."

Sankhu and Minji villages are bursting at the seams, but the refugees here are among the luckier ones. Some 400 families that made their way to Leh are crammed into the District Institute of Education and Training. The ramshackle building, almost Kafkaesque, resembles nothing so much as a local prison, but it is the only available building in Leh to house such numbers. The district administration has scraped together the resources to feed the families coming in, but rations are minimal. Each family receives 5 kg of rice and oil each month. No one in the camp is entirely certain what will happen this winter. "Our houses will collapse in the winter if we don't build them up," says Tsonam Lundup from Turtok. "But we can't go back unless we have money for food and fuel, so we might just end up losing everything."

Ghulam Rasool from Bhimbat thought he had found a way to last the summer when the Army began to hire casual workers to haul loads up the mountains to its rear positions. Though most people living in the villages were at the outset scared to go anywhere near the war zone, promises of good payment and the realisation that the Army did not intend to put them even close to gunfire led many to agree to go up. But bureaucratic confusion has caused more than a few problems. "When we used to haul loads up for the Army before," Rasool says, "there was only one unit in the area and we knew which officer would pay us... Now, all we know is that our names are entered in a register. But we have no idea how much we will be paid, and when the money will arrive."

Tsering Dorje from Garkhun village has made 15 trips up the mountains with the Army. "I have no complaints about the work," he says. "I've always made a living through the summer hauling loads." Dorje's principal complaint, however, is that each trip does not yield immediate cash. "It is nice to be paid cash down when the work is done," he says. "The officials don't understand that we do not have a lot of cash in hand and have families to feed." Enquiries with Army officials, understandably tense with other things on their minds, often receive terse replies. Both Army and administration officials are doing their best to cope with the situation, but neither has any real experience in dealing with mobilisations of this scale.

Similar problems have erupted elsewhere. In the Turtok area, people living in several small hamlets close to the Line of Control have shifted to safer villages further back. They say that they wish to disperse into other hamlets on the high mountain meadows, traditionally used in the summer to graze livestock. The Army, unsurprisingly, is less than delighted at the prospect of large and unorganised civilian movement in a manner that could compromise their security. Crammed into tiny settlements, people's tempers sometimes run high. Fears that some local Pakistan Army agents are passing on information about Indian gun positions have led to raids and questioning that have turned a little ugly on more than one occasion.

Fleeing from Kargil.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

BUT the real problems for the Kargil region could well lie ahead. On June 7, the Leh Police announced the recovery of automatic weapons from a group of ten terrorists in the Turtok area. Investigations led to the arrest of 15 more, including two police constables, and the recovery of 25 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 52 magazines, one heavy pica machine gun, one general purpose machine gun, a sniper rifle, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and several kilograms of explosives. The weapons would have been more than adequate to equip a full-size insurgent group, or one of the units of Pakistani irregulars and troops holding positions on the Kargil heights. It was the first recovery of its kind in Ladakh.

The unravelling of the terror trail in Turtok began when Army officials picked up Turtok resident Ali Bhutto on the basis of reports that his brother, Ibrahim Sangsang, had brought in weapons from Pakistan. His interrogation by the Army, sources told Frontline, yielded little information. Bhutto was then handed over to the Leh Police. Further interrogation, aided by the Intelligence Bureau, threw up dramatic results. From early last year, the police learned, Ibrahim Sangsang had made several trips across the Line of Control, handing over weapons to relatives and associates in five Turtok villages. While only some are believed to have had training in the use of these weapons, the entire group was given specific instructions on where to store them for future use.

Turtok, Thang, Thyakshi, Pachathang and Chalungpa were captured by India during the war of 1971. "People from other villages fled to Pakistan because they had been told the Indians would subject them to all kinds of atrocities," Bhutto told Frontline. "But my father Ghulam Mohammad Sangsang persuaded the people of these five villages to stay on. He told them it was not right to leave the village of our birth, and that India would treat us well." Interestingly, dozens of residents of nearby Bogdang village were issued rifles by the Pakistan Army in 1971 to offer a guerilla resistance to advancing Indian troops. Few showed any interest. Three of those aging rifles were recently recovered by the Leh Police, and officials say these were used to poach mountain goats.

Ibrahim Sangsang had larger ambitions than Turtok village could accommodate. Little interested in the upkeep of his father's not inconsiderable extent of land, he spent much of his time keeping company with local Army, paramilitary and intelligence officials. There is no evidence, as some media reports have claimed, that Ibrahim Sangsang was a source of the Intelligence Bureau, although it is clear he did keep company with the plethora of security organisations active along the LoC. In 1987, Ali Bhutto told Frontline, his brother had been invited to visit New Delhi for Republic Day celebrations by the Army along with several other residents of the Turtok area.

But by 1994, things had begun to sour for Ibrahim Sangsang. He found himself embroiled in a series of legal disputes. One of them was a serious criminal case, which was filed after a dispute over the use of a diesel generator that led to a mob attack on a police post in Turtok. Under pressure, he crossed the LoC and fled to a relative's home in Skardu in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. What happened next is unclear, but Ibrahim Sangsang seems to have been contacted by the Pakistan intelligence establishment and offered a deal which he found better than the prospect of spending a long time in the Kargil jail. He returned to India once in 1996, and handed over a massive consignment of weapons. More followed last summer.

Twentyseven-year-old Rahmatullah Tshangspharu was chosen for the task of hauling the heaviest of the weapons up the mountains along the Karchan nullah. "Ibrahim Sangsang told me to bury the weapons under a rock at the top of the nullah," he says. "When I asked him what the weapons were for, he told me to mind my own business. I didn't really think I should tell the Army, because I thought I would be beaten, and anyway the money was good." Tshangspharu was paid Rs.5,000 for hiding the weapons up the mountain, and that after protracted bargaining. "I have two sisters who have to be married off and four children to feed," he said. "All that my farmland gives me is two or three sacks of barley and another two sacks of wheat each summer."

While none of those arrested at Turtok seem to have received special mission instructions, it appears clear that Ibrahim Sangsang had been tasked to create terrorist units to back the summer offensive. Poverty in Kargil could be one important reason for just why Pakistan found easy recruits at Turtok. Interestingly, the Pakistan Army recruits troops in the Gilgit area at dismal salaries. Abdul Rauf of Astor in Gilgit, 5 Northern Light Infantry trooper, killed in the battle for Tololing, drew his last pay on December 1, 1998, before he was presumably pushed up to a forward position for launching this summer's assault in Kargil. His take-home pay, eight years after he joined the Pakistan Army in 1991 at the age of 18, was as low as Rs.3,656, less a deduction of Rs. 200 under a head his pay-book records as "Compulsory IDSP". Indian soldiers receive roughly twice the pay, without adjustment for the value of the Pakistan rupee.

But reasons other than poverty could also account for the evident success of Sangsang in gathering recruits. Turtok, for example, had seen sharp rises in activities by the ultra-conservative Ahl-e-Hadis sect over the last several years. The Ahl-e-Hadis theocratic leadership has been closely associated with terrorist groups in Jammu and Kashmir, including the Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen and elements of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Minor clashes with the heterodox Shia-oriented Noor Bakshiya sect had become a regular feature of the Turtok area's political terrain. This growth of ultra-chauvinist tendencies in Turtok was mirrored through the region, paralleled by growing tension between the Muslim-dominated block of Kargil and Buddhist-dominated Ladakh.

The Turtok recoveries have come at a time when local intelligence and police officials have also been reporting steady efforts to generate support for terrorism in the Drass area, part of a larger effort to sunder Muslim Kargil from the Ladakh province as a whole. Matayin village in the Drass area saw improvised explosive devices go off in 1998, a little-noticed early show of strength by terrorist groups. "I'm deeply worried about what could come next," says Kargil Senior Superintendent of Police Deepak Kumar. "If we start witnessing communal massacres of the kind seen in the Jammu province, tensions could escalate to a point where they are difficult to manage." The Leh Police's work has put an end to Pakistan's first effort to bring terrorism to Ladakh, but more will follow.

For an already impoverished people, now brought to the edge by a war of which they are the most desperate victims, success on the Kargil heights will bring only limited respite, for they know the worst could be yet to come.

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