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Against All Odds

January 2003
Against All Odds


SAICHEN, the world?s highest and coldest battlefield, is a tribute to the commitment and sacrifices of the Indian armed forces ? it is at these desolate heights that they are tested to their extremes.

from Siachen

Here guns need to be boiled before use. Holding ammunition without gloves may glue skin to metal so hard that fingers need to be surgically removed. A drink of water means melting ice over a slow fire. And men need to double up like jigsaws in tiny fiberglass igloos when they are off duty, which is seldom.

Welcome to Siachen -- the highest battlefield on the planet, a frozen wilderness where more soldiers die of cold than bullets and artillery fire. Where hell, they swear, truly freezes over. At this point 6,300 meters or 20,700 feet above sea level, nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors India and Pakistan have been fighting the coldest war of them all.

Temperatures in this nightmare land can dip below -800 C in winters. The wind in the valley can blow at 70-80 knots. At heights, these winds take on a life of their own, and sudden blizzards or avalanches, sometimes lasting for more than a couple of days, can bury tents, shelters and weapon emplacements under heaps of snow in a matter of minutes. Biting winds moan and wail over the sheer white expanse almost at all times. Soldiers say one moment you could be walking with a man, and in the next he could vanish down a crevice. It is a veritable test of nerves and endurance.

The Siachen glacier is nestled in the mightiest chain of mountains in the world connecting Central Asia, Afghanistan, China, Iran, India and Pakistan, at the extreme northwest of India's Karakoram region. Siachen, or 'the place of roses' spans 75 kilometers in east Karakoram -- one of the longest glaciers in the Himalayas.

The conflict in this region is fought with limited means and at a huge cost of resources. Both New Delhi and Islamabad concede that fighting a war in Siachen is a hugely expensive exercise. For example, a loaf of bread worth Rs two (four cents) in the plains, becomes $4 in Siachen because it has to be flown in.

The estranged neighbors deploy some 10,000 men on the Line of Actual Control that defines India's territorial claim and is recognized by the UN. To cater to the troops, about 6,000 tons of supplies are para-dropped every year with the help of AN-32s of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the indigenous Advanced Light Helicopter that can lift itself in the thin air at this altitude and is the lifeline of the northern sector. The world's highest helipad also exists here at Sonam, at a height of 21,000 feet.

But for the strange unforgiving wonderland that is Siachen, the conflict might have been just another low-intensity border war between the world's newest nuclear powers. The combat is more a symbol of a lingering stalemate between India and Pakistan with no end in sight. 'It is like two bald men struggling over a comb', remarks Stephen P Cohen, an expert on the Indian sub-continent at the Brookings Institute, Washington in his foreword for Lt Gen V. R. Raghavan?s book on Siachen, Conflict Without End.

For Indian troops, Siachen embodies pride. It may be a most inhospitable terrain, but Siachen is as beautiful as a piece of stolen sky on earth. The ice formations on the glacier can go as high up as a mile and sometimes, the clouds seem close enough to touch.

The Indian base camp set up at the very beginning of the glacier resembles a small cantonment. The settlement houses barracks, helipads, supply sheds, satellite dish antennae, a hospital and holy shrines for the multi-religious troops.

The carpeted Indian command post headed by Brigadier P.C. Katoch is buzzing with activity. 'We have the heights,' declares Katoch with pride. 'They (Pakistanis) see nothing. They hear a helicopter and shoot. They hear artillery and they shoot. It is stupid. They shoot blindly and the terrain defeats them completely as artillery shells take a very unpredictable trajectory in such heights.'

Keeping the heights comes at a heavy cost for the Indian forces. In this cold, even machines give up. The cyclic operation of weapons becomes sluggish, lubricants freeze, and guns become brittle and break. Munitions -- especially mortar bombs, rockets and recoilless rifle projectiles -- tend to behave erratically in the rarefied atmosphere.

An estimated $350,000 to $500,000 is spent each day to maintain the Indian troops, say defense experts. Since India has the advantage of the heights in Siachen, almost everything from mouthwash to mountain guns are flown in by choppers. At times strong winds blow these consignments off track to be swallowed by the Great White.

A Squadron Leader of the 11 Helicopter Unit of the IAF -- also called the 'Nubra Warriors' (after the river which has its source there) -- says, 'every flight to the glacier is a test of man and machine.' For him, ferrying goods and the wounded is all part of a day's work. 'To fly here is dangerous. The weather takes no time to pack up, and if it is clear even for a few minutes, artillery fire from the other side can bring you down. Before touching down, we make sure that the mission is not more than 30 to 45 seconds and leave as soon as possible,' he explains.

The origin of this frozen war lies in complex geography and disputable history, an offshoot of the ownership row over Jammu and Kashmir that has claimed thousands of lives in the past two decades. Till the 1970s, Siachen was an oblivion no one dreamt of disputing.

Thus in 1978, when Lt Gen M.L. Chibber, who retired from the army in 1985, spotted Pakistanis accompanying mountaineers to the glacier, he found it as disturbing as maps printed outside India that depicted Siachen as a part of Pakistan. Pakistan appeared to be sneaking into a place that did not belong to them.

By the eighties, both armies were regularly sending expeditions to the glacier, building up tensions like never before. In 1983, India was convinced that Pakistan intended to lay siege and in April 1984, launched the pre-emptive takeover of Siachen through ?Operation Meghdoot? -- after the divine cloud messenger in a renowned Sanskrit play by poet Kalidas.

A battalion each from the Kumaon Regiment and Ladakh Scouts was airlifted onto the glacier, and a platoon onto each of the two key northern passes, Bilafond La and Sia La, just west of Siachen.

According to Chibber, no one had ever thought that military operations at these heights was even possible after summer. 'After the first snowfall we realized it was possible to stay up there all winter, without full mountain gear.'

India's resolve to stay and fight off possible intrusion came without a health warning. Troops here realize that the will to live requires much more than high morale. Sub-zero conditions have pronounced physical and psychological effects that have lately added impotency to the long list of Siachen ailments.

Even slight carelessness causes frostbite within minutes, and can lead to amputations. Prolonged isolation and confinement to shelters during snowfalls and blizzards weighs heavily on the nerves of the men. Continuous loss of fluid through perspiration coupled with reduced fluid intake makes the soldiers vulnerable to kidney failure. The air is so thin that soldiers can hardly sigh. Soldiers say even mundane chores like passing bowels is a tough exercise.

There are also ailments such as pulmonary and cerebral edema -- both caused by lack of oxygen at heights and increased activity, and are potentially fatal. In pulmonary edema, death can occur due to failure of the lungs and in the cerebral form, the disease causes brain damage if the victim is not evacuated in time.

A common ailment is high altitude sickness resulting in vomiting, headache and fatigue. The psychological effects are irritability and acute mental depression. Weeks of surviving on tinned food takes its toll on the appetite. 'Its like eating tough leather -- there is no difference between chicken and beans,' says an officer.

Having woken up to the travails of soldiers posted in Siachen, the government is now trying to address their needs. Today an average Indian soldier posted for a three-month stint not only gets an additional allowance, but is also far better equipped than ever before. Troops are rotated every three months with a monthly 'Siachen allowance' of Rs 7,000 or $140 for officers and Rs 4,667 or $ 89.34 for the ranks. An ordinary soldier is now protected by 20 layers of clothing, including Rs 7000 ($ 350) Austrian boots, Rs 3500 ($70) Finnish shirts and Rs 6000 ($120) Swiss jackets. His battle with the elements is not so one-sided now.

The troops get frequent visits from a man who has brought the mountain battlefield closer to the dry desk-bound bureaucracy in New Delhi -- Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes. A former labor rights activist, he stunned the sluggish defense ministry into action when he ordered two officials, sitting over an army request for snow-scooters, to spend time in Siachen.

The requisition was cleared in no time at all. Fernandes has made no less than 25 visits to Siachen during the last two years. The minister says he has a special affinity for the men who brave the fire and ice of Siachen, displaying spirit that no army in the world could boast of.

'It is a place where we should not even wish our enemies to land. My trips are aimed to share some moments with these gallant men and officers... I make it a point to visit the area every three months when the turnaround of troops takes place,' he says.

These visits have ensured that men up here are rarely short of supplies. The medical unit at Partapur, which treats frostbite, HAPO (high altitude pulmonary oedema) and other cold-related ailments, has an Antarctica-tested heating system. Says Lt. Col. V.P. Popli, who heads the medical unit here, 'We may suddenly get some 10 casualties, most of them hit by the weather. The staff rushes to the helipad with stretchers the moment they hear a chopper. Thanks to the heating system, we can tackle any emergency.' Popli and his team have even used jeep headlights to guide the chopper during a power cut.

A pipeline for kerosene supply at one of the most forward posts of Point Kumar is considered an engineering marvel accomplished by the army's combat engineers. 'The plan is to lay 290 km of pipeline,' explains Lt. Col. Vijayan Janardhanan of the Sapper team. 'We have already laid 121 kms, amid incessant enemy fire and in weather in which pipes burst.' There is a proposal to link some posts with an aerial cableway to key bases, which will reduce the cost of airdrops to ferry some 2,000 tons of supplies.

Life in Siachen has improved somewhat with engineers and modern technology chipping away at this huge block of ice. It promises to be a long haul unless India-Pakistan relations thaw miraculously.

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