Asia
10:48 am
Thu April 19, 2012

In Kashmir Conflict Zone, The Glacier Is The Enemy

Originally published on Thu April 19, 2012 3:44 pm

In the chill of the world's highest combat zone lies the prospect of warmer relations. Pakistan's army chief said Wednesday that there's a need to resolve the conflict that has Indian and Pakistani troops facing off at frigid altitudes of up to 20,000 feet in the Himalayan Mountains. An estimated 3,000 Pakistani soldiers have died from the atrocious weather conditions since deployments on the Siachen glacier began in 1984.

Gen. Ashfaq Kayani conducted an aerial tour Wednesday with President Asif Ali Zardari of the massive landslide that buried a battalion of Pakistani soldiers in their headquarters on the glacier. In a rare encounter with reporters afterward, Kayani said the standoff is costly in many ways and called for "peaceful co-existence" with India.

The Siachen disaster has revived a debate in Pakistan over the price of patrolling the frozen area that required a transport plane, a helicopter and a bone-crunching drive to reach.

The majestic peaks are worth the price of admission, but a menace looms on the Siachen glacier: Along this northern tip of Kashmir, the emotional heart of the Pakistan-India conflict, troops from the two nuclear powers are "eyeball to eyeball" in unforgiving conditions.

Not a shot has been fired in years in this conflict, though. The main enemy in this craggy outpost 13,000 feet above sea level is the cold. More soldiers have been killed by the atrocious weather conditions — temperatures plunge to 50 below zero — than by combat.

Twelve days after rescuers descended on the icy scene of the latest avalanche, not a single person has been pulled out, dead or alive. The anguishing incident raises the question of whether the uninhabitable Siachen glacier is worth fighting for.

Rescue Efforts At Avalanche Site

Bulldozers have been operating around the clock to unearth the headquarters of Pakistan's 6th Light Infantry Battalion and the 140 souls smothered beneath a square kilometer of ice and rock.

Soldiers in snowy white down jackets swarm the area that has suddenly turned springlike and thus more prone to fresh landslides. Members of the media escorted to the area are given a primer on what to do if there is a slide: "If you listen to long blast of whistles and the shouting 'avalanche!' you have to run, that way — look at that back [rock]."

Siachen commander Brig. Saquib Mehmood Malik explains that the landslide encased the 129 soldiers and 11 civilians under 200 feet of crushed granite and ice.

"Therefore, this effort is a very, very large magnitude. And the boulders are as big as the one you can see at the back," says Malik. The boulder he points out sits like a cenotaph above the site where workers now dig.

Kayani, the Pakistani army chief, said Wednesday that the army will dig as long as it takes to retrieve the men. He also suggested that Pakistan is interested in demilitarizing the frozen installations that are costing $5 million a month and polluting the environment — pollution that Kayani said must end.

"For us, Pakistan, it is very important. You see, this is the glacier which feeds our rivers, which feeds the Indus River, which is the main river in Pakistan," Kayani said. "So we understand that physical deployment of troops in these areas, the ... environment gets affected.

"If there is no other reason, I think ... this area should not be militarized. You can't afford to be firing guns in the glacier regions. We understand that."

Freezing Conditions, Warming Relations

Depression and oxygen deprivation also play havoc with the men. Sardar Mohammad Tariq Aziz, 37, lost his toes and heels to frostbite serving on Siachen in 1999. A fellow soldier had to have his legs amputated after they both fell from their post on a moonlit night during a landslide.

"I fell into a crevice — it must have been 15 to 20 feet down," Aziz excitedly says in Urdu. "We were lying there the whole night, crying out of pain. It took about 26 hours for them to finally pull us out and get us to a hospital."

This veteran of Siachen adds that no soldier should be there.

Retired Brig. Javed Hussain says the Siachen glacier is strategically unimportant and calls the deployments for the past 28 years pointless. He says the governments on both sides must show statesmanship and negotiate a withdrawal. The agreement "could be based on demilitarization of the zone, pulling out of the forces by the two sides, with the United Nations acting as a guarantor."

With a tentative peace process under way, Pakistan-India relations are at their warmest in years. For a growing number of Pakistanis, the disaster on the frozen ridges of Siachen should accelerate that thaw.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning. The conflict we're going to talk about next surely made sense to somebody when it started, but outsiders have always found it a little hard to understand. Even the participants may be coming to agree.

NEARY: For almost 30 years, troops from India and Pakistan have faced off for possession of a glacier high in the Himalayas. It is part of their larger and even longer contest over the disputed province of Kashmir. Yesterday, the head of Pakistan's army said it's time to end the face off in the world's highest combat zone.

INSKEEP: The general called for peaceful co-existence, following an aerial tour of the avalanche that buried a battalion of Pakistani soldiers at the Siachen glacier. NPR's Julie McCarthy traveled to the site of the disaster.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: There is a majesty and a menace to the Siachen glacier. Along this northern tip of Kashmir, which is the emotional heart of the conflict between Pakistan and India, troops from the two nuclear powers square-off, eyeball-to-eyeball, in unforgiving conditions and cold.

There is no hot conflict here, though, not a shot has been fired in years. The main enemy in this desolate, craggy outpost 13,000 feet above sea level, is the cold. Atrocious weather conditions - temperatures plunge to 50 below zero here - have killed more soldiers than any combat. Eleven days after the avalanche, rescuers have yet to pull out a single person - dead or alive. The anguishing incident has raised the question whether uninhabitable Siachen Glacier is worth fighting for.

(SOUNDBITE OF BULLDOZER)

MCCARTHY: Bulldozers operate around the clock to unearth the headquarters of Pakistan's Sixth Light Infantry Battalion and the 140 souls smothered beneath a square kilometer of ice and rock.

Soldiers in snowy white down jackets swarm the area that has suddenly turned spring like and more prone to fresh landslides. Members of the media, escorted to the area, are given a primer on what to do if there is a slide

BRIGADIER SAQUIB MEHMOOD MALIK: If you listen to long blast of whistles and the shouting avalanche, you have to run that way, please leave. Look at that back. Please, leave your stuff and run to that.

MCCARTHY: Siachen Commander, Brigadier Saquib Mehmood Malik explains that the massive landslide encased the 129 soldiers and 11 civilians under two hundred feet of crushed granite and ice

MALIK: So, therefore, this effort is a very, very large magnitude. And the boulders are as big as the one you can see at the back.

MCCARTHY: The boulder he points to sits like a cenotaph above the site where workers now dig.

Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani said yesterday that the army will dig as long as it takes to retrieve the men. And he suggested that Pakistan was interested in demilitarizing the frozen installations that are costing $5 million a month and polluting the environment. Kayani said that had to stop

CHIEF ASHFAQ KAYANI: For us, Pakistan, it is very important. You see, this is the glacier which feeds our rivers, which feed the Indus River, with the main river in Pakistan. So we understand that physical deployment of troops in these areas, and the glaciers gets affected, environment gets affected. If there's no other reason, I think it is one enough good reason that this area should not be militarized. You can't afford to be firing guns in the glacier regions. We understand that.

MCCARTHY: Brutal conditions have claimed the lives of an estimated 3,000 Pakistani soldiers over the years. Many more had limbs amputated due to severe frost bite. Sardar Mohammad Tariq Aziz lost his toes and heels serving in Siachen in 1999. His patrol mate had to have his legs amputated after they both fell from their post during a landslide

SARDAR MOHAMMAD TARIQ AZIZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: I fell into a crevice. It must have been 15 to 20 feet down. We were lying there the whole night, crying out of pain. It took about 26 hours for them to finally pull us out and get us to a hospital, he says.

This veteran of Siachen adds, No soldier should be there.

Retired Brigadier Javed Hussain says the Siachen glacier has no strategic importance and being there is folly. He calls the deployments for the past 28 years pointless, and says the governments must negotiate a withdrawal.

BRIGADIER JAVED HUSSAIN: And arrive at a settlement which could be based on demilitarization of the zone, pulling out of the forces by the sides, with the United Nations acting as a guarantor.

MCCARTHY: With a tentative peace process underway, Pakistan-India relations are their warmest in years. For many, the disaster in Siachen should accelerate that warming.

Julie McCarthy NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.