Army Today

Standing Guard where Swallows dare

By Lakshmi Salgame © Sunday Herald - 30 January 2005.
At altitudes of over 15,000 feet, inhospitable terrain and near arctic conditions, the Jawans of the Indian Army are in constant battle with loneliness, laced with mental and physical fatigue, doing all it takes to make their country proud. Lakshmi Salgame salutes their never say die spirit

Often inaccessible, uninhabitable or of no apparent value; yet people and states still fight to possess it – high altitude mountain terrain is where just the swallows swirl. Even birds don't risk it that high. Long, bloody wars have been fought, and are being fought, for mountain real estate located between 10,000 feet (3050 meters) and 23,000 feet (7015 meters). Over the past fifty years, high-altitude combat has raged in different parts of the world - Africa, Asia, and South America. Be it the Chinese who invaded Tibet, or the British troops who fought Mau-Mau separatists in the Aberdares Mountains of Kenya, or the Peruvian government who hunted for the Sendero Luminoso guerrillas in the Andes Mountains throughout the 1980s; they have had one thing in common - the overwhelming altitude made extremely bitter by variant weather. Back home, India and Pakistan have been engaged in perhaps what is the longest drawn high altitude battle in military history.

A pair of swallows weave a maze in the air. They dip and swirl in playful gay, as do Ram Kishan's variant emotions. He's come a long way from home – from the plains of Bihar to the towering heights of the Himalayas. Reminded of his children playing in the courtyard back home, his eyes swell with tears. As the swallows rise and twirl displaying joy and mischief, his mood shifts. He thinks of how proud his family is of him. If there is any thought that shadows him through the day – it has to be about his family back home. From happiness and pride, to thought and introspection, in tandem with those swallows, his mind is restless. Besides his fellow mates at 13,620 (a forward post along the Line of Control), he hasn't seen a different human being in a long time. Poised at an altitude of over 15,000 feet, with brown barren rocky peaks and endless hills in all directions, November heralds a different reality. Water frozen in the bathroom, the ordeal of bathing turning to a nightmare, a depressing white blanket all around, cracked lips and chill planes, reduced appetite, even delightful chocolates (issued as part of ration) seeming rock hard and inconsumable! The higher reaches in Drass have already received their first snowfall mounting to around 8–10 feet of snow at places. Scenically picturesque, blanketed by fresh snow, as tall peaks dot the area – the only hitch being all those tall peaks have a bunch of humans locked up there for the harsh winters ahead (extending up to three months).

Forward posts along the Line of Control in Drass are mostly termed winter cut-off. Practically all ration and necessity is stored up during the summer months, and in winter, mail and other communications are air dropped through periodic chopper sorties. Men stay up there cut off from the rest of the world with only thoughts and memories for company and entertainment. The confinement is killing, as weather conditions make it unliveable in the already hostile terrain. A day in their lives, and I realised something uncommon and off the mundane track – depressing weather, deteriorating mental state and yet their morale ceased to be low! What kept them going? Why were they there? My mind was flooded with questions. As Surendra summed it up for me, "I am not alone. There are thousands of jawans like me and it's after all our job." Along the Line of Control in northwest Kashmir, the Indian Army battles not just a untrusting neighbour but even more wayward and hostile weather conditions that makes the battle worse. Jawans and Officers alike manage with frugal resources and rarified air, thus qualifying to be one of the toughest armies mastering the art of ground combat at high altitudes. As our Jawans cope with in inhospitable terrain and near arctic conditions, their life is anything but a bed of roses: thin air, depressing barren brown surroundings, loneliness, laced with both mental and physical fatigue.

Getting Up There Is Fun

A group of men are sitting cozy inside a warm bunker cherishing their last few days amid people. For the next morning, they have a long climb ahead of them. They have to ascend to an altitude of 17,000 feet in the vast barren landscape of Drass, Kargil District. Almost through with their acclimatisation, they are roaring to go. All personnel undergo an acclimatisation program to accustom them to their new environment and to improve their respiratory and cardiovascular systems. As one of the doctors explain, "When a person travels to an altitude of 8000 to 10,000 feet (2440 to 3050 meters) or higher, the changes in pressure and available oxygen cause physiological changes, which attempt to ensure that the body gets enough oxygen. During the acclimatisation phase, the body accumulates additional red blood cells which help transport needed oxygen. Soldiers are put through a phased acclimatisation at varying altitudes."

During this period, they undergo daily physical conditioning and learn mountaineering, rock climbing, rappelling, and mountain survival. Yet, all the training, cannot substitute for experience in the mountains. Casualties due to health problems and tough terrain have constantly bothered the Indian Army. Experts agree that an acclimatised soldier is still not an experienced mountaineer. Some armies, such as the Italian, believe that 10 years is not too long to produce a truly capable, experienced mountain warrior. For a soldier whose life revolves around those mounted walls of stone around him, access to medical aid is not something he is worried about. "There have been instances wherein we have carried people down at midnight," confesses Babu Lal, adding "We have most of the medicines with us. They are numbered. So when we have a problem, we call the doctor and he tells us what to take." An officer at the post adds, "The doctor in the unit keeps touring the posts to check general health."

Home Away From Home

A tough night. Awake all night, the first ray of light for the morning brings fresh energy and enthusiasm. As they ready for their morning cup of tea, the air is pungent with hope. Who knows, the day might spring up some surprises – may be a letter from home, or a chance to make a phone call, or a colleague who returns from leave after visiting his home, or simply any news from home. Interestingly, all their hopes are looped with home. As Jhabrmal articulates, "News from home makes us very happy. We crave to hear anything about home." Put through the toughest phase of their life and service in the Indian Army, these close knit families of the jawans constantly battle with the ghost (loneliness) every minute.

Chilling to the Bone

Perched on high ridges, rocky cliffs, rugged terrain, they lead a life of least comfort, minimal reward yet high satisfaction. Restricted in a four square foot area, breathing soot-thick air (generated by the bukhari – an indigenous heating device), it's only their minds that gallivant at will. "In the winters, the temperature at this place dips to minus 60º Celsius. I had never experienced such cold earlier," says 24-year-old Thambi Durai from the hot and sultry coastal state of Tamil Nadu. During the winter, most forward posts at high altitude remain cut off from the rest of the world for three to four months. These are supposed to be the most excruciating months.

A logistic nightmare

Ration, fuel (kerosene) etc. is stocked up for the winter during the summer itself. Water for daily use comes from melted snow, entertainment means playing carom board and cards, letters and other necessities are heli-dropped by the routine maintenance sorties, communication is mostly in place as telephone lines are buried underground. As Surendra Vikram adds, "Movement is also very difficult. The area is prone to avalanches and snowstorms. Life comes to a halt. Mentally it is very challenging to cope with the winter months." Newspapers reach about five to six days late. Neeraj is quick to add, "We made a sweet dish and celebrated India had won against Australia in cricket 6 days later." Letters remain their only hope. Strange is it not? In the e-age today, to see a group of people treasuring letters was heartening. What happens when none of this reaches them for a long time? Ramesh was first to reply, "We read all the letters and newspapers again and again. What else to do?"

In the lighter vein, Mohammad Abbas shares an interesting anecdote. "Once during the winter, our post was cut off for a long time. Even communication lines were off. We waited in despair for somebody to arrive. The weather was bad and even choppers never came by. Even our cigarette stocks were finished. We got desperate. Finally we filled tea leaves in paper and smoked them to satisfy our mind." At high altitudes, catering to daily needs is a logistic nightmare – for here vehicles lose 20 to 25 per cent of their rated capability and use up to 75 per cent more fuel. As Surendar Vikram explains, "We can use the generator continuously only for two to three hours. After that we have to switch it off for a while." Generators and vehicles are often diesel-powered, but standard diesel engines lose efficiency at 10,000 feet (3050 meters) and eventually stop functioning altogether because of insufficient oxygen. Lubricants freeze; altitude and weather limit helicopters; the odds are many.

Festivals & Celebrations

"This year's Holi, we were all very upset, we couldn't go home. So we played Holi with turmeric powder, wall paint, and shoe polish," says Hari Ram, a soldier at a forward post. Birthdays of their loved ones, anniversaries, festivals and celebrations, a soldier lives without them all. Over time they device innovative ways to cope with them as well. It's seven in the evening. Most of the men at the post have gathered for the evening pooja. This is perhaps the biggest gathering of the day - the most cheerful part indeed. They pray silently; for their safety, for their loved ones, and thank God for the passage of a calm day. Since the cease-fire, life has changed considerably for these men. The fear of being shelled upon is less. But there can be no let up in vigil. Guarding our forward-most posts along the Line of Control, they are truly aware of their responsibility. Observing for movements across the border, recording and reporting them to seniors several times of the day is a part of their job.

The Smiles Don't Fade

Biting cold, gusty winds, thin air, intense solar and ultraviolet radiation, deep snow, raging thunderstorms and blizzards which could cut off contact for a week or longer, heavy fog and rapidly changing weather, avalanches and rockslides – high altitude regions are not for the faint-hearted. Here's where even trees don't grow, let alone animals survive; physical conditions are far more dangerous than enemy fire - where superficial bullet wounds can turn fatal. Over each step you take, the threat of falling, breaking your bones, succumbing to internal injuries looms large. Some of the frequent fatal consequences of work at high altitudes include acute mountain sickness, high altitude pulmonary oedema, and cerebral oedema, frostbites and hypothermia. Sudden weight loss, sunburns caused due to increased ultraviolet exposure, snow blindness are some of the other problems. Despite the hardships, our Jawans are motivated. The smile on their faces, spreads a cheer at these heights and they continue to make the country proud.

Home Army Today Standing Guard where Swallows dare