Into the Valley of Death: The Siachen Conflict
On April 18, the commander of the Siachen Brigade, Brigadier Saqib Mehmood explained the magnitude of the tragedy that had befallen Gayari base camp of the 6th Battalion of the Northern Light Infantry (NLI) on the early morning of April 7. He was speaking to media persons who had been specially flown to the disaster-hit site.
We learnt that the base camp was 700 x 500 meters in length and that it now lay somewhere beneath rubble – i.e. 200-250 ft of snow, ice and rock. Its original area could be only identified through yellow flags. The area that was now covered by the snow slide after the avalanche was 1 x 1.2 km and was identified by green flags.
While talking to the pressmen, the Brigadier clearly got emotional. He said, “I will be here till my last soldier is retrieved.” The same day, army chief Kayani echoed the resolve that the buried men would be found, whether it took the army six months or six years to find them.
The Gayari camp was raised back in 1988, on a somewhat level ground between glorious snow-capped mountains. At 13,000 ft it lies at the site of one of the oldest mosques in the subcontinent. The 700–800-year-old mosque built by Shah Ali Hamdan is now also lost, along with the 139 people that the ISPR identified as present in the camp at the time of the avalanche. A base camp serves as the life-line for the posts that come under its control and which rely on it for their food and armament needs. Hence, the list of the 139 people men who lost their lives is a who’s who list of the soldiers stationed at the camp along with those who provided the requirements for their daily needs.
The infantry division stationed there comprised 150 men. Apart from the three officers heading the camps, junior commissioned officers, havaldars and sepoys, the missing list also includes porters, clerks, canteen supervisors, cooks, waiters, sweepers, a carpenter, a barber, a masseuse, a few dhobis and even a tailor. Eighty-eight of these men were married.
According to BBC Urdu, the list may have some inaccuracies since the names were collected on the basis of daily attendance in the register. However, it is reasonable to assume that some men may not have been physically present at the site on the day of the disaster. For example, an ISPR officer that I spoke to said that the subedar, who plays an important role in the unit, survived because he had gone up to another post to check on the soldiers there. A few others who were injured or unwell were convalescing elsewhere, and a few more were perhaps absent from the site for other reasons. The ISPR is checking the corps to identify survivors. “There is always a chance of at least one or two survivors,” said the officer.
Within two hours of the incident, a post near Gayari informed the brigade headquarters at Goma that something was wrong. They could not communicate with the base camp below. Lt Colonel Shahid Abroo, the commanding officer at Goma was the first to reach the site with his patrol. To his horror, the track leading up to the base camp could not be accessed. There was snow everywhere. He hiked up, only to discover that Gayari no longer existed.
Currently, 503 people, including 425 military personnel and 78 civilians are digging, mowing and making their way through the snow mass in the search-and-rescue operation launched by the army at Gayari. Twenty-five engineering machines such as dumpers, dozers, excavators etc. are at hand. Sensors and ground-penetrating radars, life-detecting kits, heat radars and a thermal imaging camera have been used in the course of the operation. Swiss and German rescue teams have come and gone. US and Norwegian Red Cross teams are on site. Yet, to date, not one victim has been located, not a single corpse retrieved.
The Northern Light Infantry (NLI) is full of unsung heroes from one of the most backward and impoverished areas of Pakistan. “They are the bravest and most courageous of the lot,” said a former commander of the Force Commander Northern Areas (FCNA). People from the Northern Areas were first selected by the British in 1889 to form a ‘Levy Force,’ which was later reorganised as the ‘Gilgit Scouts.’ After partition, they were part of a corps, then a separate corps and then an ‘infantry unit.’ After Kargil, they were finally given the status of a ‘regiment.’ Members of the unit have been honored with four Sitara-e-Jurats, four Tamgha-e-Jurats and six Tamgha-e-Basalats.
Most of the current NLI is from Gilgit-Baltistan. According to ISPR, out of the 139 buried under the snow slide, 68 were from the area (34 from Gilgit; 24 from Skardu and 8 from District Ghangche). When NLI was not a regular infantry unit, only people from the Northern Areas were inducted in it. Now since it is a regular battalion, soldiers from other areas are also taken. Nonetheless, the majority of the NLI’s ranks still constitute locals under ‘Extra Regional Employment,’ since they know the area well.
Brigadier (retd.) Ahmed Bilal believes that people from the area are better suited to the job since they are biologically more attuned to the environment. The 58-year-old is currently chief operating officer of the FSS at Fauji Foundation. Sitting in his office at Chaklala, Rawalpindi, he says, “Since people of the Northern Areas live and grow up in a high-altitude environment, their blood is thicker – they have more red blood cells. A normal soldier becomes breathless after scaling a few hundred steps; these people do not. They have larger lungs and slightly bigger hearts. So that is a biological advantage, because they have a greater blood-pumping capacity. Additionally, since they are raised in that environment, they have developed skills that make them psychologically better equipped to deal with it.”
Life in the villages of Monat, Rajpoth, Athmuqam, Derik, Teru, Kahari, Niat, Marapi, Gohar, Thalay, Thagas, Ghangche, Umal, Wazir Pur, Khar Kolahar, Goth Mehrab, Chamba Gali, Talu Broq, Kunais, Hochy, Kafful, Parshing, Pabbi, Biskar, Gulsher, Haspapa, Narsher Ali, Agzan Khel, Qadir Chak Laskari, Miani, Chak 84, Samro Road, Khawaspur and Mahni is as foreign to the people living in the cities of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad as perhaps outer space. Most of us have never heard of these places. These villages are where most of the soldiers of Gayari base camp came from. They are places where life in the army (as a cook, a cleaner or a sepoy) is better than anything else on offer. In these isolated hamlets, there isn’t much hope for any well-paid, steady employment. Thus, the army is the best employment option available, because of the popular perception that the army takes care of its own.
Over the years, many successful operations have been conducted by the NLI. Members of the unit took part in the famous Chumik Operation of the ’80s and the infamous Kargil Operation in the ’90s. Yet, although they are considered good enough to be sent to the battlefield, often to die, they are not considered good enough to rise in the ranks in the units stationed at Siachen – let alone anywhere else – and certainly never to lead. This is the impression I got from Brigadier (retd.) Bilal who said matter-of-factly, “To attain a higher rank, there is a natural maturing period. These men are not very highly educated. There are senior officers all over Pakistan. You could be commanding 15,000-20,000 soldiers even in a desert. But it’s like Pakistan at the time of Partition – the army was not what it is now. [Similarly] since the NLI were just made a regiment, it will take time for the soldiers [to reach officer level].”
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