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Stand-off in the peaks of Kashmir: The war on top of the world - Independent, UK

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  • Zafar Khan
    Stand-off in the peaks of Kashmir: The war on top of the world Indian and Pakistani troops face each other over the icefields of Siachen, but the deadly cold
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 1, 2005
      Stand-off in the peaks of Kashmir: The war on top of
      the world

      Indian and Pakistani troops face each other over the
      icefields of Siachen, but the deadly cold is their
      biggest enemy.

      By Jan McGirk
      Published: 01 July 2005


      A wall of jagged spires and broad cliffs rises
      vertiginously above the hulking grey glacier. The icy
      valley floor is ridged like a washboard and pockmarked
      with greenish ponds of melted snow.

      From a two-seater Lama helicopter, you can see a few
      pockets of green wheat and apricot orchards in the
      lower stretches which dazzle like hallucinations,
      before the enormous wall of rock and ice rears up
      suddenly – the barrier between Pakistani Baltistan and
      India's Ladakh. China lies north, beyond the farthest
      crest. This is the world's highest battlefield. In the
      shadow of K2, on the stony ridges and immense
      icefields of the contested Siachen glacier,
      nuclear-armed foes India and Pakistan are locked in a
      dance of death. But another enemy stalks both sides in
      the frigid wastes: the cold that has killed more
      soldiers than bullets.

      Combat gear for Major Karim, fighting for Pakistan's
      40th Battalion of the Siachen Brigade, includes
      delicate white kid gloves to prevent his finger from
      freezing to the trigger.

      The Pakistanis and Indians on the plains are seared by
      summer temperatures nudging 50 degrees. But the
      warriors on the snowbound battlefields at the
      northernmost extremity of the disputed Kashmir
      province are clad in down parkas and white balaclavas.
      All troops on Siachen must wear at least three sets of
      gloves – kidskin, wool, then fleece-lined polyester.
      Summer temperatures can drop suddenly to minus 20C.

      Marching roped together to prevent anyone from
      vanishing down a hidden crevasse, soldiers and
      officers are continually pushed to the limits of their
      physical capabilities. After every 15 steps, they halt
      for two minutes to catch their breath.

      Since a ceasefire was agreed on 26 November 2003,
      Major Karim has not had to actually fire on any of the
      thousands of Indian troops hunkered down on the
      glacier. But in spite of this formal truce, the
      neighbours are continuing the world's most expensive
      and most futile conflict, slugging it out for 21 years
      over a 250-square-mile wedge of unforgiving mountain

      This is terrain that would challenge expert
      mountaineers, only there are no Sherpas catering for
      these climbers. A total of about 10,000 troops are
      stationed around Siachen, and India, at exorbitant
      expense, outmans Pakistan. Keeping the military
      supplied costs these developing nations the equivalent
      of more than £1m a day.

      Truce or not, the mountains echo with terrifying
      sounds that unnerve the men.

      "In our sleeping bags, ears to the ground, we hear the
      groan of the glaciers. Avalanches sound like mortars.
      The crack of a new crevasse sounds just like artillery
      fire. We have nightmares of being swallowed in our
      sleep by the ice," says Major Karim.

      The men are at constant risk from avalanches or rock
      slides if they manage to ward off hypothermia.
      Compared to the perils of rock and ice and the
      relentless cold at heights between 15,000 and 20,000
      feet, where on windy winter days temperatures can
      plummet to minus 70C, the enemy is a comparatively
      minor irritation. Even at the height of the
      hostilities, combat wounds from bullets or rockets
      were responsible for only 20 per cent of deaths on the

      Now officers take pains to acclimatise their platoons,
      who tackle the mountain in gradual stages. Raw
      Pakistani troops arrive at Gyari Battalion HQ at
      around 13,000ft. They spend at least a week at base
      camp, learning how to cope with cold and heights and,
      while trekking up the snout of the nearest glacier or
      playing cricket on the world's highest pitch, become
      attuned to the symptoms of body failure before they
      are allowed to march further uphill.

      Moving to extreme altitudes can cause brain or lung
      damage from acute mountain sickness and kill a man
      within 24 hours. Men drown in the frothy pink foam
      spewed by collapsed lungs. Insomniac soldiers
      routinely suffer headaches and hallucinations, and the
      slightest lapse, such as a dropped glove, can result
      in frostbite. After only brief exposure of the naked
      eye, snowblindness is common. Even the packmules must
      wear snow goggles above 16,000ft.

      In capricious weather, soldiers cannot rely on
      helicopters and must evacuate their fallen comrades by
      sledge. Military patrols leave long after sundown,
      when the snow firms up under ice and there is less
      risk of slides. Midnight manoeuvres are the norm.

      To perfect the "lizard crawl", one fighter tethered by
      ropes slithers down a rockface head first, firing at
      targets below while completely exposed. The cover of
      darkness is crucial against snipers.

      From the air, the panorama is exhilarating: a high
      desert of sand dunes gives way to broad rivers heavy
      with silt, like liquid asphalt. Some 27 mountain peaks
      here tower above 23,000ft – 13 of them have never been

      The place is bleak and immense – with scant
      resemblance to the busy concrete relief map, flagged
      with hand-lettered name tags, where Major Waqas points
      out strategic passes and 135 enemy outposts scattered
      across scale-model glaciers.

      Chutes of snowmelt hurtle down past the helicopter
      from the peaks for hundreds of metres and evaporate to
      mist before hitting the bottom.

      On a ridge stands a cluster of scuffed glassfibre
      igloos, originally designed to house South Pole
      scientists. Half a dozen men, smudged with kerosene
      pitch, emerge to wave at the chopper. They keep frozen
      goats and chicken carcasses dangling from a ledge,
      like a restaurant deepfreeze.

      "Only Pakistani, Indian, and Nepali pilots can land at
      such altitudes, above 6,000 metres," boasts Major
      Jawad. "But after we lost nine helicopters to
      accidents, we have orders to use the running drop. To
      cut the motor in such thin air is risky."

      One at a time, passengers are harnessed and lowered by
      cable, often whipped close to the tail rotor by
      ferocious winds. The dangling soldiers are unhooked as
      soon as their feet touch the snow. In winter, the
      snowdrifts can be neck deep.

      Following the harshest winter this century, half a
      dozen Pakistani sepoys were stranded for 11 months
      inside a glassfibre igloo on a forward outpost, facing
      off against the Indian troops who control the
      improbable heights. Deep snow and black ice precluded
      any chance of rescue, because even the nimble Lama
      helicopters could not operate in such brutal
      conditions. Whenever the blizzards abated, ice fog
      would obliterate the horizon.

      The soldiers eventually returned late this spring,
      weakened and numbed; normally, men are granted leave
      after three months' duty.

      Despite nine rounds of peace talks over 20 years, the
      pace of diplomatic negotiations to solve this bitter
      border war between India and Pakistan at Siachen is
      moving at glacial speed. Following 58 years of
      animosity, including three wars, bilateral discussions
      are very guarded, although twice the two countries
      came very close to calling off the conflict which is
      so redolent of colonial-era Great Gamesmanship. This
      month, there was tantalising talk that Siachen could
      soon be transformed into a demilitarised zone. Visions
      of a bi-national scientific research centre for
      extreme climate conditions or an adventure training
      centre for elite mountaineers have been mooted.

      Calls for reconciliation, after a flurry of border
      crossing by poets, rock bands, dance troupes, cricket
      teams, Kashmiri separatists and ordinary bus
      passengers, sound on both sides of the border.

      A fortnight ago, India's Prime Minister, Manmohan
      Singh, visited his frontline Siachen troops, huddled
      in their prefabricated igloos at 6,300m. The
      72-year-old leader announced: "The time has come that
      we make efforts that this battlefield is converted
      into a peace mountain."

      There was an immediate caveat, however. To preserve
      prestige and security, there would be "no redrawing of
      boundaries". Next, the Indian Army's chief, General JJ
      Singh, brandished a "roadmap" for Indian troop

      Sayeed Ali Shah Geelani, Pakistan's foreign office
      spokesman, said: "We have been wanting troop
      withdrawal for some time ... but things are not moving
      forward. Horns are locked."

      After so much blood spilt on the ice – a combined
      5,000 deaths among the subcontinent's most elite
      fighting units – neither side wants to be the first to
      withdraw from what they call their "frozen frontier".

      Both sides concede that Siachen – which translates as
      "wild rose" in the Balti language – is the most
      logical place to declare a demilitarised zone. If this
      plan were to succeed, it would become a litmus test
      for any lasting solution to the Kashmir dispute, which
      began to bedevil the two neighbours just two months
      after the British raj was partitioned into Muslim
      Pakistan and Hindu India.

      Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf and India's Prime
      Minister Singh met recently in Delhi and agreed that
      their new peace process was "irreversible". General
      Musharraf insists that Pakistan is anxious to "grasp
      the moment", now that the nuclear neighbours are led
      by men who trust one another. Although General
      Musharraf grabbed power in 1999, shortly after
      ordering the seizure of a 17,000ft ridge overlooking
      Indian-held Kargil and shelling a critical supply
      road, he says he is eager to settle the conflict over
      Kashmir – "the earlier the better".

      The CIA has warned for 12 years that this dispute is
      the likeliest nuclear flashpoint on earth.

      "It is silly to be fighting over this territory," Dr
      Rifaat Hussain, a military historian in Islamabad,
      declared. "It is a monument to folly."

      More on Kashmir at:

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