Stand-off in the peaks of Kashmir: The war on top of the world - Independent, UK
- Stand-off in the peaks of Kashmir: The war on top of
Indian and Pakistani troops face each other over the
icefields of Siachen, but the deadly cold is their
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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