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Thursday, September 10, 1998
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Life in the shadow of death
From Rahul Das
Tribune News Service

KARGIL: It is a daily journey through the shadow of death for the soldiers and civilians who travel on the national highway from Srinagar to Kargil en route to Leh.

With a section of the highway in full view of Pakistani troops, stationed in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) the vehicles get shelled regularly.

This correspondent experienced the scary journey when he travelled on the route to cover the Ladakh festival organised by the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation. The following is an eyewitness account of the shelling :

After witnessing a polo match in the evening at the second coldest inhabited place on earth, Drass, we left for Kargil. We were travelling in two civilian buses — Canters with white body colour and visible from a distance.

As we started, news spread about incessant shelling by Pakistani troops. A few buses and cars carrying tourists turned back from the problem area and decided to spend the night at Drass.

The officials accompanying the media team decided to proceed during the night. We reached the Army post at Zero Point near Sher Ali Thang at 9 p.m. on September 1.

We were asked to wait since the section of the highway where the shelling took place had been turned into a one-way road so that there were no traffic jams resulting in easy targets for the Pakistani gunners.

The driver of our bus, Mr Jang Bahadur Singh, was instructed by the Army to turn off the head lights and cover the tail-lights with mud so that the vehicle could not be spotted. He was also clearly told not to stop at any cost on the way.

The Army allows convoys of five vehicles, each keeping a distance of approximately 100 metres between them to travel on the troubled 7 km stretch at a time. Only after each vehicle is accounted for on the other end is vehicular movement permitted in the opposite direction.

Although there is no fixed pattern in Pakistani shelling, the Army believes that the attack on the highway reduces considerably after 4 a.m. That is the period most of the drivers prefer to pass the way.

In our case, the decision was taken to allow us to travel on the stretch, the moment all the vehicles travelling from Kargil to Srinagar pass Zero Point.

As a marker of the zone where the vehicles are fully exposed, a burnt truck, victim of an earlier shelling, has not been removed from the road. The truck is the signal to brace oneself up.

We were allowed to travel at about 11.30 p.m. and we had no idea of what we were in for. The sky was inky black and the moon was playing hide and seek behind clouds. With headlights switched off, the light of the moon was important to see the road ahead.

Till we reached the burnt truck, there was no problem and we were confident that we would be able to drive through without any major hiccups.

The confidence was soon shattered, the first of nearly 15 shells began to rain on our bus. The first shell fell right in front of our bus, shaking the bus and passengers inside.

It was here that we realised that our driver, Mr Jang Bahadur Singh, was a cool man. He did not reduce the speed of the bus. A decision we were grateful for since the next shell landed just behind us.

One could clearly see the shells being fired from the mountain on the opposite side. It looked like a ball of fire blazing a trajectory through the night sky. And when it hit the road, the shell burst into millions of splinters with a loud bang and a flash of orange light.

There was little relief along the way except for the shadow zones where the Pakistani forces cannot make out the movement of the vehicle.

The highway is visible to the Pakistani troops from two of their heavily fortified posts — the Bunker Ridge and the Twin Bump. While the former can observe and fire at a 3 km stretch, the latter can shell a 5 km stretch.

According to Indian Army sources, the Pakistanis have recently started using the deadly Air Defence guns, which have a flatter trajectory than conventional artillery guns. These guns, however, were not used during our journey.

The tension in the bus was palpable. We could only help the driver by telling him that a shell has been fired and he must either speed up or slow down.

Two days before our journey, a truck had been hit killing two passengers. Since June 27 this year, the shelling had increased substantially and civilian supply trucks are the main targets. The trucks were used for transporting provisions to many regions in Ladakh before the snowfall cuts off those areas.

The shelling was periodic along the way with sometimes just one shell being fired and sometimes more being fired at the vehicle. The splinters hit our bus and at least in two places on the roof there were puncture marks.

We reached Kargil safely at about 12.45 a.m. and heaved a sigh of relief. But for the locals and the army personnel posted there, shelling has become a part of life.

Life in the shadow of death is taxing and there is little relief for them. A fact which is driven home by the singular experience of shelling on the highway.back

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