Written By: Feryal Ali Gauhar
t is still early when the flight lands in Skardu, the plane setting itself down gently like a large bird of prey descending upon a startled animal. In the air, I can sense the coming of winter. The light throws gentle shadows upon the sand dunes in this high altitude desert landscape, cradled by mountains which appear to be sleeping behemoths, their massive presence awe-inspiring yet reassuring, as if someone is watching over you.In the arrival lounge, I was received by Major Shumaila, Public Relations Officer (PRO) at Force Command Northern Area (FCNA),
who is stationed at Gilgit. Major Shumaila is the first woman officer in Pakistan Army from Gilgit-Baltistan and had travelled to Skardu from Gilgit to receive me, bringing along with her on the long and difficult journey, her young daughters Eeshal, Nanny, and Ateeqa. These four females would give me company while I waited in Skardu for the helicopter to fly me to Goma, and then onward to Gayari Sector where I wished to offer Fateha for 140 martyrs of the terrible tragedy which hit that base on April 7, 2012, burying the entire camp in snow and rock more than 50 metres deep.
Major Shumaila had organized my meeting with the families of Gayari Shuhada, the next morning. That night, I sat out besides the lake at Shangrila and tried to imagine how difficult it would have been for the families to receive news that your loved one had been buried alive and that he would never return. I watched as the birds flew home to their nests, their silhouettes dark against a luminous sky the colour of ripe apricots and peaches which blush with the warmth of summer. It was autumn then, and the trees were bare, the fruit already picked and consumed or dried for the long winter. What was it like for the wives and children, the parents of these men who never came home?
Coming to Skardu is like coming home, in a strange, deeply felt way. This is where my late mother chose to spend the last twenty years of her life, caring for the many mothers and children who would visit her health centres in Skardu and Hussainabad, many of them severely anemic, most of them malnourished, poor, clad in second-hand clothes bought off the numerous carts parked in the crowded bazaar. For twenty years my mother came to know these women and their families, and came to hold them in the highest esteem for their serenity and dignity in the face of so much hardship. I wondered if I would witness for myself that same quiet grace when I met with the widows the next morning. I knew that I shared a sense of loss with them, having grieved at my mother’s sudden death in her beloved Baltistan, receiving her mortal remains in a casket which had to be transported through landslide and roadblocks along the world’s highest highway. In my heart there was certain stillness, a certain acceptance of the terrible things which scar us, against which we, mere mortals, have no power.
The air carried with it news of snowfall on some far mountain peaks, and I gathered myself and my belongings, tearing myself away from the lakeshore reluctantly. The day had ended, but a journey still lay ahead, for which I needed to prepare, for this was a journey like none other that I had ever taken.
Her Limpid Eyes
“When my father left I did not know I would not see him again”, Ambereen, not yet twelve years old, speaks like a woman with many years woven into the fabric of her young soul. “He put his hand on my head and said: ‘Apna khayal rakho – (look after yourself)’, and then he left. We never saw him again. And he left us to look after ourselves, since his father, my Dada, asked us to leave soon after we heard the news of his death…”
Ambereen is perhaps the most beautiful little girl I have ever had the privilege to meet. Her eyes are like a lake, the waters calm and limpid. She holds onto her aunt’s hand while looking straight at me, unfaltering, unwavering, trusting. Ambereen lives with her aunt in Shigar while her mother lives in Skardu, looking after the other three children, all boys, now attending the Army Public School in the headquarters of Baltistan. I ask Ambereen what she wants to be when she grows up. Without a moment’s hesitation she says: “A doctor with the Army Medical Corps…I want to make sure that our beloved soldiers return home to their families and never die unattended, wherever they may be posted to serve the country.”
Ambereen’s father, a sepoy in a Northern Light Infantry (NLI) battalion, died in the massive avalanche which destroyed the Battalion Headquarters of 6 NLI at Gayari, a barren desolate place now, a veritable graveyard for the dreams of 140 men, both civilians and military officers and soldiers. There were thirty families in the room with me, widows and their children, gathered together to share their stories, their suffering, their dreams and their aspirations. I learnt from the women that when a soldier dies, his family is informed by members of the unit, sometimes accompanied by an officer, who bears the Shaheed’s personal belongings and hands these over to the family. I was told of the moment when the news of the many deaths in these treacherous mountains came, of the disbelief, of the inability to accept that their loved one shall never return. One of the women told me that her husband had come home to condole the death of his friend. He left the village after three days, leaving his fifteen year old wife with his aged father. He never returned, and the day his wife was informed of his death, she delivered their child, a boy, who would never see his father!
There were many stories, of widows who had to leave the homes of their in-laws since they were now considered a burden on the meagre resources of the family. There was the story of Ruqaiyyah who had to take her five children from her in-laws home in Shilding to Skardu after her father-in-law took the money paid by the Pak Army on her husband’s death, leaving her with nothing. She remembered when the soldiers, accompanied by a subedar came to the house and handed over her husband’s personal belongings in a trunk and a cheque. Nine months after that day, Ruqaiyyah was asked to leave and to make her own way through life. Her youngest was a month and a half, her eldest ten.
I turned to the ten-year-old boy, Mehdi Ali, and ask him what he wants to be when he grows up. He is shy, and almost inaudible, so I move closer to him in order to hear his response. He says that he wants to be an officer, or just a soldier, like his martyred father. I stare at his pale face and then look at his small hands, the skin cracked and dry. I look up again and see the tears welling in his eyes, and I turned away, for the grief carried in this little boy’s heart is more than I can bear.
With a heavy heart I returned to my room and prepared for the journey to the north-east ranges, as close as possible to the Line of Control (LOC) which has sparked so many conflicts in the past 68 years of our existence. I studied the maps I have printed out, looking for the places where I expect to land in this rugged, inhospitable terrain. These are just tiny dots in the huge mass of rock and snow and ice, reminders of our own insignificance in the natural order of things. I shudder to think of what life for our troops must be like in temperatures which fall below minus 40 degrees Celsius, even lower with the wind chill factor. These are temperatures that were spoken about with horror just last year as the “polar vortex” hit the northern hemisphere and froze even the breath rising from our lungs. Why is a war being fought over masses of ice and snow and rock in a place where no one has ever lived and thrived in the history of humankind? The answer can be best sought from the country that initiated and imposed this conflict.
I had placed my fur-lined boots and ancient woolen duffle coat with its hood at the foot of my bed, taking care to remember my leather gloves and the beret I have had since I was a university student in Montreal, Canada, several decades ago. I struggled with the choice of cameras, wondering if my small steady shot camera would suffice or whether I should lug the larger digital single lens reflex camera with its 300 mm zoom lens. Convinced that I would be weighing myself down with an extra, unnecessary burden at altitudes where each step requires the careful calibration of breath, I reluctantly put away the larger, more sophisticated camera and turned down the covers, snuggling up against the chill on my first evening in Skardu. I knew it would be infinitely colder where I was going, and I said a silent prayer for a safe journey, and another one for the safety of the people I had come to greet, to talk to, to learn from, and to write about. It is not every day that one gets the opportunity to travel to bases where the snow never melts, where the skin is burnt black with the sun, where the mere touch of bare metal against bare skin can tear the flesh. It is not every day that one meets the men who have lived and fought at the world’s highest battlefield, the world’s largest non-polar glacier which apparently has no strategic value but which has claimed 3000 Pakistani and 5000 Indian Army men since 1984.
According to one source, India gained more than 1000 square miles of territory because of its military operations in Siachen, the source for the 80km-long Nubra River, a tributary of the Shyok, which is part of the Indus River system. The volume of the glacier has been reduced by 35 percent over the last twenty years. Global warming and military activity have been cited as the main reasons for the receding of the glacier. It is time to take stock of human and environmental loss and to wage a war against war itself.
But before I took this journey, it was important that I met the families of those who never returned, buried forever in the snows which cover the treacherous slopes of these, most magnificent mountains.
Feet of Clay
On the map the feet of the mountains are like the claws of gigantic creatures reaching out to devour whatever they can overpower. The ridges and crags are the bones of these claws, the many rivulets and tributaries flowing down from melting glaciers are the veins and arteries of this creature which lives in the far north, watching us, waiting to destroy all those who dared to venture forth into its frozen lap.
The helicopter left Skardu at the appointed time, Major Shumaila had left her toddler with Ateeqa at a relative’s home, and we were airborne by 10:30 a.m. Lieutenant Colonel Faisal was assisted by Major Rizwan in piloting the chopper, part of the ‘Fearless Five Squadron’ based at Skardu. We followed the Indus River as it winds its way past Hussainabad where my late mother had set up a centre for the health care of mothers and children. I tried to find it from the helicopter – it was located at the edge of the road leading towards Kargil, branching off towards Shigar once it crossed the Indus. I followed the Skardu-Kargil road, a snake winding along the Indus and dipping south with the bend in the river, the “Lion River”. We were soon to arrive at Youching where Brigadier Liaquat Mehmood looks after the deployment of his men to the posts along the LoC with India.
At Keris, the Shyok River flows into the Indus, a grand meeting of glacial waters rushing down from the barren slopes of the Karakoram. The road turns south towards Khaplu, and the helicopter flew over the hamlets of Ghawari, Kharfaq, Daghoni Balgar, Barah until we sighted Khaplu, a picturesque town nestled in the lap of the mountains, an oasis of stately poplars, their leaves turning gold with autumn’s first chill. Behind us was the town of Saling at the mouth of the Hushe River valley. If we continued north into that valley we would come to the Masherbrum peak, located in the Ghanche District of Gilgit Baltistan. At 7,821 metres it is the 22nd highest mountain in the world and the 9th highest in Pakistan. But we continued towards another range of these magnificent mountains, the Saltoro, following the Saltoro and Ghyari rivers, flying over the town of Farowa and the hamlets of Dunsam, Konith, Mandik, Palit and Haldi. Cautiously, the helicopter began to set itself down onto the helipad at Goma – the battalion deployed in that general area was an NLI regiment and its Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ghulam Ali was accompanying us in another chopper.
I looked out towards the base and wondered at the courage it takes to live in an area which appeared to have been hewn out of rock, literally. These men are here to fight a war, one which was waged on Pakistan and the one we could do without, and on the face of it, they seemed to be living in this wilderness as if it was the most natural thing to do.
Many of the men serving with the NLI regiment are from Gilgit-Baltistan, and would be familiar with living at altitudes unbearable for most of us living in the south. But even these hardy mountain men cannot endure for prolonged periods of time the harsh temperatures at the further posts towards which we were headed.
For survival here, not mere equipment is necessary, but essentially the courage, motivation and hard professional training of Pakistan Army. “Our soldiers are trained to live and fight where the eagles fear to tread”. to be continued…