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Troops battle winter on LoC

By Praveen Swami

A view of the Gurkha Post, 4,950 metres above sea level, on the Line of Control in the Dras sector. — Photo: Praveen Swami

GURKHA POST (Dras, Line of Control), March 8. Gale-force winds blasting across the Marpo-La pass have brought the temperature to minus 30 Celsius and the visibility is down to zero.

For the next two hours, Army jawan Sudhir Desai will stare out at the blank expanse that stretches out to the Line of Control. It is unlikely that Pakistani troops will be insane enough to launch a winter assault at 4,950 metres across 20 feet of snow when the least movement might turn into an avalanche — but armies do not take chances. No one will bother to bring him a mug of tea; it would turn to ice long before making its way from the cook-house, just a few dozen metres away.

Although India and Pakistan started observing a ceasefire in December, thousands of soldiers like Desai remain on high alert at high altitude posts across LoC. Altitude, cold and snow have always claimed more lives here than Pakistani artillery fire. Two men from the unit replaced by the 17 Maratha Light Infantry at the Gurkha Post died last year after an avalanche buried their Fibre-Reinforced Plastic hut. None was killed in months of relentless Pakistani mortar and artillery fire.

For jawans like Desai, soldiering in the high mountains is an act of sheer will: will unmatched by soldiers anywhere, except perhaps the troops of Pakistan's Bhaluch Regiment, across the valley on Marpo-La. "I had never seen snow until October," says Desai, the son of a Mumbai factory worker made redundant when Khatau Mills shut down a decade ago. His parents, now tenant farmers, grow peanuts near Sangli, in Maharashtra. "My dream is to buy a little land of our own," he says, "so that my parents do not have to struggle as they do, and so that my sister can have a decent wedding."

During his time at the Gurkha Post, Desai will have little contact with his family. Avalanches have severed the fixed line that connects the forward post with the satellite phone facility at Sando Post, the base camp that feeds forward positions. Helicopters bring in mail and fresh food, but only if the weather permits. Fresh food is the most welcome gift, a relief from healthy but tasteless canned rations stocked during the summer. Each flight, carrying a maximum of 100 kg, costs Rs. 79,000 an hour. "Keep these carefully," says Havildar Deepak Waikare, passing a box, "they are the most expensive matches you'll ever use."

Posts where helicopters cannot land, because the snow is too deep or the LoC too close, pose special problems — and not just because troops must survive only on tinned food. For the 17 Maratha Light Infantry's commanding officer, K.S. Rajagopalan, the isolation sometimes presents horrible ethical dilemmas. "The father of one of my troops has passed away," he says sadly, "but should I tell him what has happened, knowing I have no way of getting him off his post until snow conditions are better? I've done what I would have liked my commanding officer to do if I was in his position. I hope he will understand when I give him the bad news."

Great effort goes into ensuring that bad news does not flow from the Gurkha Post to families waiting down in the plains. Each day, soldiers are subject to what is called a "feet-and-fingers" parade, a thorough check for frostbite. Tests are also conducted for High Altitude Cerebral Oedema, the leakage of blood plasma through capillary walls that pushes up pressure in the skull to fatal levels, and High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema, the constriction of lung capillaries that leads to victims drowning in their own body fluids.

"Men are often reluctant to report life-threatening symptoms at posts which cannot be reached by helicopters," says Nikhil Bhardwaj, who left a comfortable hospital job in Bangalore to serve in the Indian Army. The reason is simple: troops know their brothers-in-arms may attempt ground evacuation across the snow, which could lead to dozens of lives being lost to save one.

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