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The Rediff Special/ Amberish K Diwanji
Like a Hundred Suns Exploding
It was an occasion that will stay in memory forever. A visit to the artillery positions even as the 130 mm guns were pounding away at enemy posts at least 25 to 30 kilometres away.
It happened on the night of June 15, 16, when three journalists and myself set off for the Batalik sector. Due to a truck turning turtle on the Leh-Kargil road, we were delayed for about six hours, and hence what was to have been a one-day trip became an overnight sojourn.
About 90 kilometres from Leh comes the village of Khaltse, where the road bifurcates with one going down towards Kargil and the other going upwards to Batalik. Our Tata Sumo was the lone vehicle to turn towards Batalik, the rest of the army vehicles and civilian trucks, most carrying supplies to the warfront, heading for Kargil and Drass further away.
The quality of the road, nothing great anyway, deteriorated even further. It is a narrow single vehicle metalled road and every time another vehicle comes from the other side, one of the two drivers has to find a wide spot to park his vehicle and allow the other to pass. The only vehicles that pass by us are army vehicles -- jeeps, jongas, pick-up trucks (popularly called one-tonner), and trucks.
We reached the company headquarters camp at a forward post in the Batalik sector, just about 15 to 20 kilometres from the Line of Control, late in the evening, with sunset barely an hour away. It is here that we hear the distant thunder of shells being fired from India and of Pakistani shells hitting Indian soil.
The roar of the shells is faraway, but as an army officer tells us, should one land nearby, it is the end! Only a day earlier, a shell had landed very close, scaring the wits out of everyone.
After the officer was convinced of our bona fides, he told us about a gun position in a gorge between two mountain heights. We drove towards it. By now it was dark (2100 hours), our vehicle moving slowly along the tortuous road replete with hairpin bends and sharp bends. A wrong turn and we would plunge towards the Indus river flowing to Pakistan.
The artillery firing by now is much louder and it lights up the entire mountainside. From the fact that the noise is so loud, we realise we are near our destination. We are by now learning to make out one of our shells being fired to one coming from the other side.
At the landmark that we were given, which leads to the gun position, we stop our Tata Sumo. An army patrol in a jeep pulls up behind us and questions us. After checking our identity cards, the soldiers are very friendly, asking us for information of what is happening in distant Delhi.
When we tell them that we are keen to go up the mountain side to see the artillery firing, they warn us that our Tata Sumo might not make the steep gradient, lacking a four wheel drive.
So three of us (one dropped out) hitch a ride in an army one-tonner, a hard, bumpy ride up a path that is worse than the metalled road we have just left. Suddenly, the peaks give way to an open land -- we have reached the army camp (2200 hours).
It is pitch black. No faces can be seen, only darker forms and silhouettes made out. Above the stars twinkle but offer no light. Alighting from the truck, we strike up a conversation with some jawans, telling them we'd like to see the artillery firing. They lead us towards the junior commissioned officer. In the dark night, we move gingerly, a false step could mean a fall and sprained ankle.
Then an artillery gun goes off, and we nearly jump out of our skin, something that continues to happen. The noise is so loud, so piercing that I doubt if anyone can ever get "used to it." When a 130mm artillery gun fires it is like hearing a million crackers go off simultaneously.
At night the effect is electrifying. There is a blinding flash, like as though the sun has just exploded, lasting for less than a second, which means for a few seconds afterwards, our eyes have to readjust to the night. The noise is deafening, and later my ears began to hurt.
Each time an artillery gun fires, the mountains echo with the reverberations of the shell as it shrieks through the sky, zipping to a distance of 30 kilometres. Where the shell lands, it explodes into a thousand hot splinters.
One such splinter can kill a man or severe limb from body. Said an artillery soldier, "Within a radius of 60 metres, it is devastating and up to 90 metres, it is dangerous." If from where we fire it sounds so awful, I can only shudder at the thought of how much worse it must be where it lands!
The jawans seem completely oblivious to the shelling. "We are so used to it that if we don't hear it at night, we can't sleep," said one laughingly. But doctors will tell you of the long term effects such noise can have. Yet, our jawans do not complain, they do their job.
The night we reach, the jawans are busy placing the shells in trenches dug into the ground. "If one Pakistani shell lands here, given all the ammunition here (hundreds of shells in crates were visible, many more, I am sure, must have been present inside the numerous tents) this entire place will go up," said a jawan. It is not the best of information to hear.
Only the soldiers manning the guns have earmuffs. Without such muffs, the soldiers would go deaf. Slowly, I go towards the 130mm gun that is blasting away at enemy positions, but keep a distance. The gunners are immersed in their work, shooting away.
Everytime a gun is fired, a huge cloud of smoke goes up and an acrid smell rends the air. Yet, our brave jawans, eyes smarting, ears hurting (despite the muffs), nose assailed by the burning smell, continue with their work -- receiving instructions over the wireless and firing away.
These are the men who have ensured that the Pakistanis have not come beyond five kilometres, and these are the men, along with the fearless infantry, who'll drive away those not wanted in India.
Nearby, a Bofors gun (155mm) is being readied. My colleagues and I hope that we would see this great howitzer in action. A jawan informs us that the observation post has noted the enemy position that is to be hit, but has asked them to hold fire.
It is the OP that will direct fire, barking orders over the wireless. In the end we were unlucky not to see the Bofors being fired, though we were later told that it had been fired after our departure.
Bofors is the hero. Said a jawan from Bihar, "If we did not have Bofors, they might have reached Srinagar by now!" It may be an exaggeration, but it reflects the esteem the gun is held in. Bofors has a computer to locate the target, hence the aim is extremely accurate... and devastating.
Each shell is 46 kilograms. Its range in the high mountains, say the jawans, can go up to over 40 kilometres, which means we outdistance Pak guns. Also, Bofors guns barrel can go up to 73 degrees, while the 130 mm can only do 45 degrees. This high trajectory means that the Bofors shell can be kept behind high mountain peaks and yet target the enemy successfully.
Soldiers mill around us, asking us news and how long the war will continue. They freely express their opinions on teaching Pakistan a lesson. "Saab, why are we always allowing them to trouble us and get away. Give us the orders we will capture Lahore," said a jawan who hails from Uttar Pradesh.
We spend about an hour in the field. There is no officer around, clearly reflecting the shortage of officers in the Indian army. Yet, it is not a major constraint.
The JCO in charge is a Muslim from Kerala, a no-nonsense man, who is busy barking orders and ensuring that work continues. Jawans say they get sleep for four hours, if they are lucky. Some are busy patrolling the area.
I strike up a conversation in Marathi with a driver who hails from Belgaum. He has only 15 days of service left and is eagerly waiting to return home to his wife and two small sons. Language creates a bond -- one of my colleagues is busy speaking in Malayalam and Tamil to the jawans who are happy to hear their own tongue.
It is time to go. The JCO warns us that we cannot walk down since we are in civilian dress. "There are night patrols who might shoot first and ask questions later. This entire area, down to the main road, is out of bounds for civilians," said the JCO. He then arranges for a truck to drop us.
My new friend from Belgaum is driving a huge six-wheel Scania truck. The truck, which has no gears, slowly begins it descent. At each sharp curve, the truck is reversed and moved forward again. This huge truck cannot turn sharp bends in a single movement.
Tonight, the truck is empty. When the driver carried up the Bofors gun, or when he carries it down the treacherous path, it is much more difficult. Drivers such as he are specialised, and every unit has a few of them. Only they can drive the truck trailing a Bofors gun.
When we reach the place where we had left our Tata Sumo, we were startled to find the vehicle missing. It was parked nearby, inside an army camp which houses engineers. We were to find out that an army patrol had stumbled upon the vehicle and did not like what it saw.
Out of the black sky, the Tata Sumo driver and the journalist who stayed behind experienced six rifle barrels suddenly staring them in the eye! "Who are you? What are you doing here? This is a restricted area," said grim voices in the dark.
The journalist (we were later told by the driver) identified himself in a quavering voice, showing all his identity cards. Only then were the guns lowered and the two asked to go into the camp at the foot of the mountain. But here, life was great.
The two of them came across two majors who invited the duo for dinner. It was while they were having dinner that we arrived. The majors then invited us for dinner and spoke about how much they missed their wives (both were married recently!). Yet, when they will go home to see their wives, they have no idea.
Later, we stayed the night at the camp. Tired, we dozed off despite the regular "crrracckkk" followed by a deep echo of the 130mm firing away. The Bofors sounds slightly different. After experiencing a night that I'd never forget, I joined millions of Indians who slept soundly even as our brave soldiers stayed awake guarding our borders and our lives.
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