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Siachen – the world’s highest battlefield

Submitted by on March 6, 2010 – 1:07 pm2 Comments

The mercury at Siachen falls as low as -67o F. Left unattended for 15 minutes, boiling water turns to ice, as the blood in your veins slows down, leaving your hands and feet numb and clumsy. The cold makes its way through your heavy snow jacket causing you to shiver constantly. The lack of oxygen  at 20,700 ft makes you feel faint. The unending cover of thick snow blinds you, as the sunlight bouncing off it burns your eyes. You scream but there is no sound. The blanket of snow acts like a thick layer of thermocol and all you can hear is silence.

Welcome to the Siachen Glacier, the ninth circle of hell, which lies in the Karakoram range of mountains at the border between India, Pakistan and China. The glacier is  the foremost symbol of India’s 25 year bitter disagreement over ownership of Kashmir. At a given time, India deploys around 5,000 soldiers manning about 80 posts at the glacier.  But it is the inhospitable climate in Siachen that has claimed more lives than gunfire. Over the past 25 years, nearly 4,000 soldiers have lost their lives at Siachen. However, it is hypothermia, altitude sickness and frost bites that have claimed nearly 65% of the casualties.

India’s dispute with Pakistan over the ownership of the glacier arises due to the unclear territorial demarcations on the map beyond a grid point known as NJ 9842 located at the base of the Saltoro mountain range.

Pakistan being an international flashpoint of terrorism and being dubbed as the new Afghanistan, has made it imperative for India to protect its borders in the north. India’s control of the glacier puts it in an advantageous position to defend its territories in Kashmir. Not much has been written about the war at Siachen, as it does not involve civilian casualties. Yet this lesser known war is one of its kind and probably one of  the toughest ever fought by the military.

In this part of Kashmir it is said: “The land is so barren and passes so high that only the best of friends and fiercest of enemies come by.” Ironically, Siachen is a Balti word, meaning land of wild roses, but in reality the place is a barren, icy cold dessert with crows as the only living creatures giving company to the troops.

“We had one post where three soldiers were at approximately 20,000 ft. The post was a vantage point in between two rocks, where only one man could sit at a time while the other two could only lie down. The person who was sitting had to cook in the same position and at night had to make sure that the entrance was kept clear of the snow, or they would find themselves buried under, the next morning” said  Major Ranjit, an officer from the Indian Army.

At a height of only 8,000 ft below Mt. Everest, Siachen is the world’s biggest glacier outside the poles. Toothpaste freezes in its tube and soldiers are advised not to bathe during their tenure at the glacier. These everyday tasks are considered luxuries, since it is physically impossible to provide such facilities for troops at these high altitudes.

Frequent storms and blizzards make daily activities like walking seem a like a Herculean task. Before their posting at the glacier, the men are given a rigorous training on all aspects of glaciated warfare including physical and psychological survival aspects.

“The cold is unimaginable and because of the lack of oxygen, you tire extremely fast” said Wing Commander Gurjeet Singh from the Indian Air-Force. “Sounds hardly carry because of the thin air, and it is exhausting to even shout. Your sense of perspective is severely restricted, as you live in a white world with barely any horizon, at the best of times”

“Conditions are totally primitive. There are no toilets on some posts. Life is, indeed, tough in this icy desert. Nothing decomposes. Not even the body wastes. The soldiers defecate and urinate in the same snow they are forced to depend on for drinking water” added Wing Commander Singh.

The idea of engaging in combat at these heights is implausible. If your bare skin touches a gun’s metallic trigger, it sticks and can be torn off. Yet under these conditions soldiers are left to stare and shoot at each other across the line of control.

“We are fighting two enemies and the weather is our worst enemy” said Major Kumar, an officer who had spent time at the glacier. Snow survival techniques are an important part of a soldier’s training for the glacier and all soldiers are trained at the Siachen Battle School before their tenure at the glacier.

“It is mainly fighting the environment more than the enemy. One step away from the beaten track may take a person down thousands of feet into a bottomless crevice” said Wing Commander Singh.

The human body continuously deteriorates at such temperatures and soldiers lose up to 44 lb of weight. Young soldiers return home after their three-month tenure with grey hair, shriveled bodies and sunken faces. They often suffer from memory loss, lung problems and a total loss of appetite.

Desperate conditions call for innovative solutions: “We love newspapers. Not to read but to wrap around our fingers and legs. They trap the warmth beneath the gloves we wear and reduce the wind chill factor,” remarked a soldier at the glacier. It is under these extreme conditions that troops spend their three month tenure, under the lingering fear, that every moment they could be centered in somebody’s gun sight.

However, there is a sense of pride amongst the soldiers. Clad in white camouflage uniforms they are aware of the impending danger and have their blood groups written on their coats.

“It is the dignity and honour of the regiment which is of utmost importance to a soldier and it inspires him to triumph over his enemies” said Wing Commander Singh.

Above all, patriotism and a fierce sense of possessiveness about one’s territory keeps the soldier’s blood gushing through his veins and willing to undertake any task at the glacier. Camaraderie at its best, with big smiles on their faces, the soldiers power on day after day combating the enemy at 20,700ft. 

Original publication date 30 July 2009.

Isheeta Sumra

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