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The Rediff Special/Amberish K Diwanji

On an icy ridge, sipping sattu, ready to move in for the kill

E-Mail this feature to a friend Major Sonam Wangchuk was looking relaxed in a pale brown kurta and khaki track suit trousers and greeting visitors with a warm smile. Save a sunburnt face, there was nothing to show that this young man had just come through a fierce battle, winning a key ridge for his motherland.

His incredible show of bravery has won him a commendation from the Chief of Army Staff, General Ved Prakash Malik, the first for an individual in the ongoing Kargil 'war'.

The 35-year-old Ladakhi, granted leave for a few days to spend with his wife and child, was at his tastefully decorated house at Khakshal in Leh.

The peace and quiet that surrounds his house is beautiful -- trees line the road leading to his house, in the neighbouring houses, women are busy farming in their backyards even as one of them directs us to his house which lies adjacent to a stream running by.

It is a far cry from the booming artillery guns and sniper fire, the freezing cold and harsh wind up in the mountains where he was just a few days earlier.

I apologise to the major for impinging on the precious time he has with his family but the soft-spoken Wangchuk just brushes it aside. "No, no, you are not disturbing me at all," he said, but admits that he could be called back any time. "I am on leave for about a week, but one phone call can change all that," he said.

Later, after the interview, he and his gracious wife Padma, would insist that I partake lunch with them and refused to take no for an answer. Wangchuk has been on leave since June 16, missing his son's second birthday on June 11. The living room is full of birthday greetings for little Riggyal who plays on his father's knee.

Wangchuk became a hero when, on May 31, he and his men from the Ladakh Scouts captured a key ridge bang on the Line of Control held by Pakistani soldiers. This 18,000 feet high mountain ridge falls in the Chorbat La sub-sector of the Batalik sector.

Well-armed Pakistani soldiers were sitting in the middle part of the S-shaped ridge, in a saddle between two peaks, overlooking the entire region.

Major Wangchuk, who has experienced Siachen and was therefore a natural choice in Batalik, reported to the front on May 26. He was at a Border Security Force base camp called Handen Brok, from where patrols are sent out, fully equipped. Handen Brok is the last stop before the Line of Control.

Wangchuk describes what happened from May 29 to June 1. "My platoon comprising a junior commissioned officer and 28 men were told to establish an observation post on the Line of Control when from afar we saw about 2000 to 3000 men about six to seven kilometres beyond the LoC, east of Chorbat La. We were totally surprised because our headquarters had assessed that there was no activity in this region," he said.

"In fact, when my men climbed the peaks on May 29, we saw no activity from our OP, which is somewhere on the eastern side of the ridge.

"Now, on May 30, a part of my unit, comprising my JCO Naib Subedar Thondup Dorje and NCO Havildar Sonam Ringzen, along with two men carrying a light machine gun climbed up again, they saw 12 to 13 tents just beyond the LoC in a bowl. They were housing almost a company (135 odd men). Moreover, they also saw two to three chaps climbing up the ridge from the other side. My JCO shot them dead, confirming that they were Pakistanis. But there were other Pakistanis up on the ridge some distance away, too far to fire upon. This was around noon.

"My JCO informed me over the radio, and I in turn sought permission from my headquarters to move ahead with a party. Then I immediately took my remaining 25 men and literally ran in the two feet deep snow up the mountainside. It was a distance of eight kilometres and I covered it in two-and-a-half hours. In the bargain, five men and I were ahead and the remaining men, including a Bihari and some South Indians, who are not used to the mountains and snow, fell behind," he narrated.

The Ladakhi Scouts, recruited from Ladakh and adjoining regions, are comparable to mountain goats when it comes to climbing the mountains. Other Indian troops, even though acclimatised and trained for mountain warfare, can rarely match their scorching pace.

It is even rarer to find officers who can keep pace with their soldiers, but Major Wangchuk was an exception to this rule (reason given below).

Wangchuk continued: "I was in the middle of the ravine, about to climb up to the OP when a burst of fire greeted us. The Pakistanis had two UMG (universal machine gun of Chinese make) and an HMG (heavy machine gun).

"The effect was devastating! We scattered for cover but in the bare mountain, this was difficult. We found one boulder behind which all of us huddled together, simply unable to move because bullets were flying all around us. Also, in the snow, movement is very difficult and slow.

"One NCO who came along with me had his arm shattered; he died later due to excessive bleeding. With all of us hiding behind the boulder, there was nothing we could do.

"To be honest, it was a scary situation and for the first 10 minutes, my heart was pounding, my head was throbbing and I just could not think. But then I calmed down and realised that we were in danger. Also, more of my men were following and since I had no radio, I could not even inform them. So I immediately sent one person back to the remaining unit, with the information that they should start climbing up the ridge and go to the height on the right of the Pakistanis.

"Then, my men and I ran to Adam base, located below our OP, and luckily there was no Pakistani firing. I don't know why but we all reached safe. This was around 1630 hours," he added.

In Ladakh, summers are long and extremely bright. Sunrise in May-June is at 5 am, sunset at 7.30 pm.

Continuing to recount his saga, Wangchuk said, "At Adam base, the OP unit (a JCO, an NCO and two men) too had come down and pitched a tent in a depression, out of firing range. The fact that we were all together again was very morale boosting. Since there was really nothing to do, we also cooked some sattu (made by grounding roasted wheat and mixing it with water -- a light but extremely high protein diet). The meal also boosted our spirits.

"But the situation was very grim. And though it became dark after 8 pm, the moon was shining bright, so much so that any of our movements in the snow covered mountain would have been visible to the enemy. We had to climb up to the ridge and I was getting desperate.

"I prayed to Yeshin Norbu (His Holiness the Dalai Lama, considered a reincarnation of the Buddha among Ladakhi and Tibetan Buddhists). And in what I can only consider God's blessing, a mist came out and covered the Pakistanis, so that they could not see us. This was our chance!"

Catching them by surprise, we killed 10 Paki soldiers

This report could be filed from the war front, courtesy Iridium Telecom. Iridium owns and operates a constellation of 66 satellites, which enable subscribers to receive and make calls from anywhere in the world using a hand-held telephone.



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