This month marks the tenth anniversary of the Kargil war. What was it like reporting from the front, braving artillery shells, treacherous mountain roads, and the real possibility of death? Neelesh Misra writes...
It has stayed with me for ten years. My most searing memory of the Kargil war: young army officers passing around a love letter seized from the pocket of a dead Pakistani officer on the Mushkoh heights, soaked in his own blood. And then the commanding officer says: “Guys, easy – he was an officer like you and me.”
A young Sikh officer responds: “But why did he come to my country to fight me, sir? I didn’t go to his country.”
A massive thunderbolt announced the evening. Would it rain? As menacing clouds gathered over Highway 1A on the northern stretches of Jammu and Kashmir, several journalists’ cars had started their weary drive along the narrow meandering road, running along the raging waters of the Bhimbet Nalla. It was July 11, 1999, and we were in the last lap of the Kargil war.
We were going back to Hotel Siachen in Kargil town, looking forward to returning to our cold rooms, where we would dump bucketfuls of warm water on ourselves in candlelit bathrooms, laze in our beds full of enterprising bugs, and emerge again to sit together, sing and chat in the balconies. Would it rain, we wondered. Rain it did. It suddenly began to rain artillery shells. The withdrawing Kargil intruders had let loose a deadly Diwali – one for the road.
Dozens of shells began slamming the cliff face along the highway, setting off a spectacular display of fireworks – bombardment of a scale we had not seen directed at us even in the worst weeks of fighting. Soon cars were screeching away on the bends, drivers driving madly and dangerously to save their and the reporters’ lives. A TV network’s 4X4 almost toppled into the river, hanging treacherously by the roadside. The mountainside lit up with every blast, often just a few hundred feet away from us, and we wondered what would fall first on us – rocks, or splinters of artillery shells – lumps of fiery molten metal that could kill or maim in a second. It was a miracle no journalist was killed that night.
And it certainly wasn’t macho.
Oh at first, it had certainly seemed very macho. The media had unfettered access for the first time in what was soon to become a war. I lied to my parents though – I said I would mostly be based in Srinagar, far from the warzone.
But they would find out. Soon.
I was working then for the Associated Press, and the Kargil war had become a huge international story. Safety was important, and my boss, who knew that I was an Obsessive Compulsive Reporter, had told me as I left: “Don’t try to be James Bond.” But in the beginning, it was hard not to get carried away with the image: I and my photographer colleague had our satellite phone and blue bulletproof jackets and helmets. Soldiers wanted to compare our flak jackets with their much heavier and uncomfortable ones. Others wanted us to relay messages to their families. We did. But in the rush of adrenaline, I think many of us did not realise the level of danger we were operating in, and sometimes put our lives unnecessarily at risk. We did not realise there was a thin line between bravery and bravado.
The days were spent driving about 200 kilometres up and down the highway, past familiar faces at checkpoints. Shells would often explode not too far away, sometimes near enough for a photographer to whip out his camera and take a quick picture. Worse, our taxi was a green jeep, looking exactly like an army vehicle, and an obvious target. We weren’t suicidal – it was just that when we were looking for a taxi, we just couldn’t find any other jeep, or a willing driver. Our Ladakhi driver Ishaq was willing, but never pretended to be James Bond.
But there was one stretch where Ishaq – and every bullet-fearing driver – pretended as if Formula 1 had come to Kargil.
This was a curve about half an hour from Kargil that, even before the war, was directly in the line of fire from Pakistani antiaircraft gunners. The roadside wall of stone with massive bullet holes showed that there had been serious sharpshooting from across the frontier.
Then there was that night, at another site, when officers sat talking about their fears, their families, their childhood and their college days. We were in a camp along a small river where yaks ambled over a gunpowder-laced expanse, lacerated by firing the previous night.
Then we heard the whistling of the shells. The commanding officer asked us to leave. Shelling had started again, aimed at the very camp where we were sitting. The officer did not want to put us at risk.
As parting advice, he told us not to drive with our headlights on – we would stand out in the dark and certainly be fired at. So I held a torch on one side, our photographer Saurabh Das held one on the other, switching it off and on, for 90 kilometres of winding, treacherous mountain roads in absolute darkness, wondering if it would be better to fall into the gorge or get flattened by an artillery shell.
And then, there was the cease-fire. The intruders were to be given safe passage. Like schoolchildren coming home for vacation, we threw away our sweaty bulletproof vests, and roamed around for the first time as if we were tourists. We were at a large clearing one day at Matayen, where the army was “cleaning up”: there were a dozen small artillery guns firing away towards the facing slopes. But Pakistani artillery gunners had the capability to trace back fire to the point where it came from – and sure enough, accurate counter shelling began within minutes.
I ducked, sprawled on the ground, and finally raced to safety. The AP and AFP photographers took my picture and they appeared then next morning – in newspapers that reached my home in Lucknow. Worse, Aaj Tak had footage of me running from the shelling.
I had lied to my parents about where I was – and I had a lot of explaining to do the next day when I called my parents.
But the worst night was still to come – the night of July 11, when we were on the highway, in our screeching cars, our hearts pounding, many of us certain that we would not survive that drive.
One after the other, there was the familiar shrill whistle of the shells. Soon, just like children blowing up all their remaining firecrackers a day after Diwali, the Kargil intruders were pumping ammunition on the highway, targeting the vehicles before withdrawing.
No one talked. No one wanted to disturb the drivers. Army soldiers waved us on, just relieved to see another vehicle cross by safely. Ambassadors, Sumos and jeeps zigzagged on the sharp curves, slowing down only when we reached the town limits of Kargil – and finally entered the compound of Hotel Siachen.
I was panting, my palms were covered in cold sweat. I hurriedly hooked up our satellite phone, and called our New Delhi office. News Editor Laurinda Keys took the call. I took some seconds to become coherent. “Neelesh, calm down, first tell me: are you and Saurabh safe?” said Laurinda. “Yes, we are fine. Shaken but fine,” I rambled.
“Great. Then give me the story. What is the dateline?”