On Kargil's icy heights, jawans braved more than one lurking enemy
"Don’t go ahead, don’t go ahead, artillery shells are landing on the road," screamed an officer as our car was puffing up the heights towards Drass in Kargil.
My first trip to the war theatre was in early-May and there was utter confusion. Unit after army unit was being pushed up the rugged heights with no clear instructions of the task at hand.
The division headquartered in Kargil didn’t know the extent of the intrusion. The corps headquartered in Srinagar was clueless and the then army chief, general VP Malik was in Poland.
"Some rats have come in. Throw them out," is what commanding officers were being told by the Kargil Brigade. In Delhi, then defence minister George Fernandes announced grandly that the ‘infiltrators’ would be evicted in 48 hours.
But the men on the ground knew there was something terribly wrong. Saurabh Kalia, a young officer who went on a reconnaissance, never returned. His mutilated body was handed over by Pakistan. Other young men lay injured in the snow for over 48 hours because helicopters couldn’t fly in for casualty evacuation.
The ‘intruders’ had the advantage of height and fired artillery shells with precision. The men on the ground finally realised the ‘rats’ were not ordinary infiltrators but trained Pakistani army regulars who had set up bunkers and dug their heels in for a long haul.
Forget 48 hours. The war lasted nearly three months. The first few weeks were hopeless. Shells exploded on the highway, the only road link between Srinagar and Leh. Infantry units tried to make their way up the ragged heights without acclimatisation, without winter gear, without maps of the area and without adequate weaponry.
Kargil was a war that had to be fought by night. It was only after dusk that men could try and claw their way up peaks 17,000 feet high without being detected. Only after dusk could they bring the wounded soldiers down, and only after darkness enveloped the barren heights could weaponry be taken up, piece by piece.
Imagine light and medium machine guns being carried up those forbidding heights. Imagine the commanding officers screaming, “open up, open up, fire" because his men are injured and the guns simply don’t fire. Why? Because there was no time to test them before lugging them up.
Imagine the enemy screaming ‘Allah ho Akbar’ and the army’s wireless sets being jammed by the same slogan. Imagine your men lying dead and many lying wounded begging for help and the enemy taunting you with, “If you have the guts, come and collect the bodies."
Again, imagine the grit and determination of the young officers who endured loss and moved up the heights, bit by bit, night after night, to finally come face to face with the Pakistani regulars.
By the time US President Bill Clinton summoned Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Washington and told him in no uncertain terms to withdraw his forces from the heights, the young officers had started reclaiming the heights.
Lest we forget: The army suffered 527 casualties in the war across the mountainous ridge lines and it wasn’t only one enemy that they had to fight.