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June 3, 1999
A dangerous drive to Drass
Mukhtar Ahmad in Drass
"No, we won't go to Drass.''
Cab drivers were unwilling to take me to Drass on Monday even when I offered them thrice the normal fare.
''You see, the war is on. Please try at some other taxi stand," said a cab driver.
Finally, after hours of persuasion, a cab driver gave in.
Driving past Gund, I could see no signs of war I had heard of in Srinagar. There was no tension in the air and a few nomads were waiting for a bus after descending a nearby mountain.
We stopped at the Sonamarg valley.
"You are going to Kargil? It is very dangerous. Only yesterday two persons came from Kargil and they narrated horrible accounts of how the shells are hitting everywhere killing people," said two bearded nomads.
We lost our way to Sonamarg, but soon reached the beautiful place and the driver pointed towards the scores of army trucks waiting for clearance to move towards Kargil.
Ten of the trucks had been fitted with heavy artillery equipment. "I had told you it is dangerous," the driver said.
We crossed the Zojila pass, and an hour later reached Gomri.
After checking our passes, issued by the defence public relations officer in Srinagar, a young army officer waved his hand. "Best of luck. Please tell your driver to be careful. You know shells can hit the road anytime," he said as the barricade was removed.
As we reached Matayan, tension mounted inside the car as we saw hundreds of trucks, tents, troops and arms and ammunition all over.
But not a local was in sight. As we turned around, we saw underground bunkers all over.
There were machine-gun posts, camouflaged artillery equipment and anti-aircraft guns.
We were allowed to proceed to Pandrass after the soldiers checked our identity cards. There were several such checkposts...
Suddenly a shell crashed into a nearby hill with a deafening thud. ''Why didn't I heed the advice of the cab driver?'' I asked myself, thinking that maybe I should return to Srinagar immediately. But we were already in Pandrass.
The army had taken over the village homes and even the school building. The locals were fleeing. We tried talking to them. Fear was palpable everywhere.
"Now you are well within the enemy firing zone. Go ahead but be careful," said an officer.
As we left moved closer to Drass, there was more trouble. The deafening sounds had sent shivers down our spines.
The two nomads were right. We were in deep trouble.
The rain of shells forced us to abandon the cab, and run for cover. We hid behind a rock and waited for half an hour, catching glimpses of Drass which was in the vicinity.
As we resumed our journey, more shocks were in store. The shelling continued, and we had a narrow escape. A shell crashed into the road moments after our car had crossed a particular spot.
The cab driver was too shocked to say anything...
Finally, as we reached Drass, a shell blasted a house....
Soon we left our cab and a local screamed, ''Duck, duck.''
We took shelter behind a bombed shop, and then crawled into a hotel. Scores of Drass residents, who had been waiting for a state corporation bus, had taken shelter inside.
"Please sit down. You should be careful. You are young, better save your lives. Why did you come here? You see, we are waiting for a bus," an old man said.
There was more shelling as we made efforts to meet the local army commander. "We are going underground," said the deputy army commander at Drass.
"I think you should finish quickly. Even this place is not safe," said the officer.
The shelling intensified. We took cover inside a bunker. There was not a soul on the highway. ''It is war, it is war,'' a soldier told us inside the bunker. The driver had ducked behind a few boulders.
''Come, we will go back to Srinagar,'' we screamed. He was reluctant, saying that the shelling should stop before we set out.
There was a brief lull and we left for Gomri, and we had a near-hit.
A soldier pointed towards the snow-clad mountains, and told us the Pakistanis were firing from the peak, which they had occupied during the winter.
He also narrated how a helicopter gunship was downed down on the mountain overlooking Drass.
"The highway is the most vulnerable. They always target it,'' he said.
Two more shells hit the highway. We could be the next target!
But the driver increased the speed, and reached Gomri soon. The car was stopped by the jawans and we were asked to wait till 1630 hours, when the road would be cleared.
The faint sound of shelling could be heard, but we were safe.
Soon the soldiers waved at the waiting cars, trucks and army vehicles. The road was open now, they said.
As we crossed Zojila, we were overjoyed. In no time we reached the Sonamarg bridge, where a signboard read, "Hope you have enjoyed the journey"!
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