I just can’t sleep. Not since the landslide/avalanche carrying hundreds of thousands of tonnes of rock and mud and snow 1 km long, 1 km wide, and 80 feet thick, overwhelmed a whole battalion headquarters, burying alive 138 soldiers and civilian workers. I toss and turn, and ask myself how it would feel if the roof of my room fell in on me. I think about those poor young men, brave and selfless young men and I weep.
My mind goes back in time, to when I commanded fine young men just like the ones who lie in the snowy wastes of Siachen. God, how I abhor the name ‘Siachen’, as I think about No. 2436392 Sepoy Azam Ali, formerly of Gurgaon, now of Jaboka, Tehsil and District Okara, my faithful batman who just ten years ago (and 38 and 35 years respectively, after he and I left the Army) put his arm around my little Zainab then six years old as he saw the driver lose control of the car and head straight into a tree, saving Zainab but breaking his own arm in three places.
I think about No. 2436365 Sepoy Mohammad Ashraf, formerly of Hissar, now of Sindh, who cut his own leg to the bone as the result of his bayonet coming loose chasing a wounded rabbit that I had shot for the men, as fresh meat was hard to get across a four hour supply line in the height of summer when as a subaltern I was posted with my platoon in Kheri, Bajwat. As we were bandaging his leg he saw the blood drain from my face and said, despite his own excruciating pain: “Saab aap ja kay lait jao, mein theek hoon.”
I think of all those fine soldiers, and then as I toss and turn again, begging for sleep, I let out a choice curse for those who have put at extreme peril the lives of the thousands of Pakistani and Indian young men by ordering the occupation of the icy wastes of the glacier and the area that surrounds it, India leading, for the original sin in Siachen was committed by India; and Pakistan following close behind. Shame on you, the lot of you.
Anyone been to 16,000 feet even, where it is hard to eat, breathe and sleep, let alone the 22,000 feet where troops are stationed for a large part of the year? A nephew was posted there some years ago and told me of the physical difficulties faced by the troops which are too graphic to write verbatim in this family newspaper. Suffice it to say that having difficulty in breathing is a minor problem, the most basic bodily functions are difficult (in some cases impossible) to perform.
Quite frankly, I don’t care a solitary damn about Trig heights and Lines of Control and Areas of Influence and AGPLs (Actual Ground Position Line) when it comes to the lives, no less, of young Pakistani men. And young Indian men too, who find themselves in like quandary. What I really care about are their families: fathers, mothers, wives, children, sisters, brothers, and their welfare and care which, ultimately, lies in the hands of these young men who are so callously put in harm’s way by their commanders.
We are here talking only of the massive one-off death toll as a result of the landslide/avalanche. How about the many hundreds of Pakistani and Indian soldiers who have died over the 28 or so years that this madness has been going on: from the cold, pulmonary and cerebral edema and a host of other beasties; losing limbs to frostbite; falling down precipices, and so on. We have to note that both sides do not publicise these figures: I guess because it takes away their macho auras. Well, shame on them.
The most criminal part of this whole Siachen thing is the devil-may-care attitudes of our bureaucracies, both civil and military, both Pakistani and Indian. From what I know, the politicians would rather see the end of this most tragic tamasha sooner rather than later. I personally know of one such initiative that almost succeeded: Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi came so close to an agreement during his stop-over visit on his way from Moscow to Delhi in 1989 that Ms Bhutto asked Vai Ell (aka Yusuf Lodhi), one of the finest cartoonists ever, to do a cartoon on Siachen that would be presented to Mr Gandhi on his departure the next morning.
I was PIO at the time and it fell to me to present the rolled up and beribboned cartoon along with the album of photographs of his visit that the PIO presents to all visiting dignitaries at the steps of the aircraft.
As I was presenting it to the Indian PM with the words, “Excellency, a special gift to you from our Prime Minister”, Ms Bhutto said, “Let’s see it, Kamran”. I opened the ribbon and showed the cartoon. It depicted high mountains in the background with a bearded mullah and a Hindu priest on either side of them and Benazir and Rajiv in the foreground. They are both saying: “Let’s leave them behind and climb the mountain.” I quote this from memory; Vai Ell is long departed from this world (RIP, my friend) I so wish I had kept a copy. Mrs Sonia Gandhi might still have the cartoon: I respectfully urge her to share it with the world.
In the event, however, one of these young Prime Ministers was kicked out of office and one was blown up by a suicide bomber. I have to say that if the recent tragedy does not work as a catalyst to stop the madness, nothing will. How apt is this description of the conflict over Siachen: “Two poverty-wracked nations engaged in a costly standoff over an uninhabitable patch of mountain and ice.”
Do something, gentlemen on both sides, or is it the case that the trade in military gear and equipment for use at high altitudes is rather lucrative?
Damn you, Siachen.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 13th, 2012.