The Kargil War may have brought the region into focus, but the inhabitants of Drass in Kashmir have been forgotten since. From harsh climate to arid landscape, they face a large number of issues....

“Everything is fair in love and war” — this legendary saying brings two extreme emotions at par but when it comes to remembering them, the parity ends there; people may forget love, but never a war! Residents of the isolated Drass Valley that came into limelight by extensive media coverage during the Kargil War experience it day in and out. The valley and the town of the same name suffered the most during the three-month long conflict at the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan in 1999. In the 13 years since, it is still only the war that everyone remembers. The inhabitants of this valley and a handful of visitors are the only ones aware that there is a lot more to Drass than the war.

Located 140 km away from Srinagar, Drass valley in Kargil District is often described as the “Gateway to Ladakh”. As one leaves behind Srinagar, moving ahead on the “dangerous” Zojila Pass (3505m), the fear of dizzying heights is forgotten in the magnificent beauty of the region. Also known as the ‘Treaty Road’, this pass has a history of its own with intrepid traders and explorers having used it in the past to traverse the Great Himalayas en route Ladakh, Tibet, Central Asia and China. Since then, generations have come and gone, boundaries have emerged and dissolved, but its importance in connecting Kargil to the rest of the world remains unchanged. Also unchanged are the difficulties its people face while crossing this pass. In the winter, when the entire region gets snow bound, the hardy people of Drass will continue negotiating this formidable pass by virtue of their mastery over it.

The harshness of nature is apparent in every form in the valley. From harsh climate to arid landscape, the inhabitants of the valley deal with it, themselves being rough and tough. Formed by the Drass river, which originates from the Machoi glacier near the Zozila Pass, the Drass Valley has extensive willow groves along the river side. Situated at an altitude of 3,300 m, this town has the distinction of being the second coldest inhabited place in the world, after Siberia. The mercury may drop to as low as 40 degrees Celsius. Come November and the region’s communication with the outside world will be cut off for six months, thick sheets of snow will cover the brown and ochre mountains, bringing the entire Kargil district to a standstill.

But before the valley goes to sleep, the six summer months are full of hard work for its people preparing for the harsh winter days ahead. “There is no starting or finishing line to our tasks of preparing for the winter. We stock up piles of wood, dung, coal, wheat, onion, dried vegetables, pulses and oil, so that we don’t face shortage of these items in winter. We hibernate in our small mud houses,” says 45-year-old Sajjad Hussain, a local from the valley.

The outcomes of such low temperatures are not limited only to restricting people to their homes, but are sometimes dangerous. Heavy snowfall blocks the roads and the entire pass becomes inaccessible. In case of a medical emergency, it becomes really difficult to take the patient to the doctor, assuming they are available in the health care centres. The hostile conditions of the region usually chase away teachers, doctors and other government officials who dread being posted in such difficult areas.

Another problem is the absence of electricity. Extremely low temperatures cause the diesel and water to freeze. “We cannot use our vehicles before ten or eleven in the morning as the fuel freezes at night. We burn wood and light stoves under the fuel tank to bring it back to liquid state,” says Najumul Huda, a young activist from Kargil.

Even the telephone wires are snowed under by avalanches — thus snapping the region’s connection with the outer world. Indian Army personnel lend a helping hand to the locals during the winter months. They share a cordial relationship as in tough times they both are dependent on each other. Be it the roads or schools, they bring together the communities in order to provide them not only with new means of livelihood but a sense of participation. (Charkha Features)