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Siachen avalanche: Ten dead soldiers are latest in needless loss of lives on this 'bald man's comb'

Ten army soldiers, including a junior commissioned officer, are feared dead after an avalanche ripped off their post at 19,600ft in one of the world’s highest battlefield between India and Pakistan, Saichen in the northern glacier sector of the Ladakh region on Wednesday.

The army, late on Thursday, ruled out any possibility of missing soldiers being alive, although search operations will continue until the dead bodies have been extracted from the snow.

"It is a tragic event and we salute the soldiers who braved all challenges to guard our frontiers and made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty,” The defence ministry’s spokesperson in Jammu, Colonel SD Goswami, said in a statement.

“The glacier gets 35 feet of snow every season temperatures plumes to 60°C. Rescue teams are braving adverse weather and effects of rarified atmosphere to locate and rescue survivors. However, it is with the deepest of regret that we have to state that chances of finding any survivors are now very remote," the statement, added.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted:

However, from the minute the army found out about the avalanche burying the post, there was little hope about the survivors. The question, senior army officers, pondered was not whether anyone was alive, but about the challenge of finding the dead bodies.

A senior army official based in Jammu and Kashmir told Firstpost, late on Thursday that even to reach the spot, rescuers would need to spread ropes, and then stairs, so that people could walk on it. At 19,600 feet, soldiers can’t walk for more than 10 steps, “you need rest for five minutes, and than carry forward because the oxygen content is very low.”

“There are pickets, (like this one) that remains closed for five months in areas like these — we call them winter posts. If someone is sick, you have to bring him back in a helicopter. When an avalanche comes, it destroys the helipad too. If the troops are not alive, who will set up that helipad?” he asked.

The army says that reaching the post also puts “someone else’s life at risk”, and that is the reason rescue operations are conducted during the night, mainly because the threat of avalanches is lower at night.

“The worst time to go there is between 11 am and 12 pm, but now the threat is reduced, because the area has already suffered one avalanche. In any case, the army will be operating at night, because the snow is harder and the threat of avalanches is lower. But I'm afraid for them that even after reaching there, finding the dead bodies in these extreme circumstances will be a challenge,” another officer said.

This is not the first time soldiers have lost their lives in Siachen — on both sides — and it won’t be the last time. The deadly mountains buried 129 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilians on 7 April, 2012, when a massive avalanche struck the Pakistani military headquarters at Gayari, 30 kilometres west of the glacier terminus. The operation, to rescue the dead bodies, lasted for months and Pakistan was forced to invite international experts to help them in the rescue mission — which also failed to extract dead bodies for a long time. There are many dead bodies of Pakistani soldiers still missing in these mountains.

Battlefield of Siachen

Operations by the specialised teams of the Army and the Air Force in progress to rescue the soldiers hit by an avalanche in Siachen on Thursday. PTI

Operations by the specialised teams of the Army and the Air Force in progress to rescue the soldiers hit by an avalanche in Siachen on Thursday. PTI

The dispute over Siachen is the only conflict between two neighbours where inhospitable terrains have claimed more lives than actual combat. The majority of an estimated 2, 700 people, who were killed on both sides of the Saichen glacier, died not because they were fighting each other, but because of the extreme conditions in which they live — avalanches, exposure and altitude sickness caused by thin, oxygen-depleted air.

That is perhaps the reason why it is called the highest-altitude battlefield in the world. Situated in the East Korakoram range, it is the longest glacier in Himalayas at 77 kilometres in length and three kilometres in width. Both India and Pakistan spend billions in order to maintain troops — access to the area from the Pakistani side is much better in terms of road connectivity, than the Indian side. India also has to spend more comparatively because the troops are actually camped on a glacier, which is supported by a fleet of helicopters.

The Karachi Agreement, which India and Pakistan signed in July 1949, is considered to be the genesis of the conflict. This agreement demarcated ceasefire lines between India and Pakistan but stopped at a point NJ 9842. After the war of 1971, the LoC was not delineated beyond this point.

The access provided by Pakistan to climbers and mountaineers from its side to various areas led India to believe that Pakistan had snatched and unilaterally extended the LoC from NJ 9842 to the Karakoram Pass, thus eating into over 10,000 square kilometres of Indian territory.

The famous army mountaineer, Colonel Narendra Kumar, whose pioneering exploration paved way for India to take the glacier in early 1984, accidently discovered Pakistan’s “cartographic aggression” displayed on commercial American maps, while out on an expedition with a German expedition team. Colonel Kumar, in whose name an Indian post is named, found that the maps showed a line from NJ 9842 — which was the last point delineated on the LoC between India and Pakistan — drawn straight to the Karakoram Pass, instead of going north, as was internationally accepted.

After convincing his seniors, the colonel was permitted to carry out a counter-expedition in 1978. "As we reached Siachen, Pakistani helicopters were flying over us… and they were firing out coloured smoke," Colonel Kumar said in an interview in 2014. According to him, the rubbish left behind by mountaineers and climbers had convinced them that Pakistan was taking over the area. Pakistanis were also alarmed when they found cigarette packets and food packages on the main Siachen glacier; by then, they were convinced India was also trying to set up a base in the area.

Had Indian intelligence agencies not learned about an interesting shopping trip in London in 1984, Pakistan might have seized control of the entire mountain region.

"We found out that Pakistanis were buying lots of specialist mountain clothing in London," Colonel Kumar said in the interview. Later a Pakistani army officer admitted the mistake of buying from the same store as the Indians. New Delhi immediately dispatched troops to Siachen, beating Pakistan by a week. On 13 April, 1984, Indian troops snatched control of the Siachen glacier a week before Pakistan could. The race to deploy troops in extreme circumstances, devoid of any human or animal presence, started that year.

 A soldier's nightmare

Stephen P Cohen, a prominent expert on South Asian security — while dismissing the geographical importance of Siachen in a military context — once described the standoff between India and Pakistan in Siachen as “a struggle of two bald men over a comb.” It was perhaps the most fitting line, which explains the madness over a region that has only given body bags to both the nations.

Army officers and reports published over the years say soldiers suffer weight loss of around 15 kilograms every 90 days. Most of them, because of the prolonged use of oxygen masks, complain of hearing loss, eyesight and memory loss. They breath the purest — albeit scarce — oxygen, sleep in ice-caves, and endure blizzards and storms with thunderous velocity of 150 kilometres per hour that sometimes continue for weeks on end.

Soldiers need special equipment, apparel and gear to survive. Reports of people getting incapacitated due to frostbite are normal. There is not enough oxygen to light fires for even cooking purposes.

On the diplomatic front

In June 2005, when former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flew to the Siachen base camp to talk to soldiers, he said that, the “time has come to convert this battlefield into a peace mountain. It must become an example of peace wherein nobody feels any threat and there is no scope for conflict.” This came in the wake of lobbying groups putting pressure on both the countries to avoid confrontation in the mountains.

India has been insisting that the line needs to be demarcated beyond the point it was left without delineation all along the 110-kilometre-long Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) before considering demilitarisation, and Pakistan wanted to keep the status quo with troops moving to the pre-1984 position.

The tragedy that struck the Pakistani side in 2012 had triggered peace talks between two nations, but failed to break the ice.

“We are keeping men there because it is now a line of control. And the moment you demilitarise it, you will have another Kargil. Conditions are today far better for the soldiers than they were few years ago.” an army officer says.

Interestingly, as the improvement in technology and equipment has made things better for soldiers from both the sides, they have realised that the biggest problem in the area is not the altitude, but disposal of human waste.

The question people in India and Pakistan should ask themselves is why they need to waste precious human lives on what is often called a ‘block of snow’. The tragedy that took place on Wednesday could have been avoided, had there been no need to keep troops in such hostile circumstances.

Updated Date: Feb 05, 2016 09:15 AM

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